“please, call me kirsty,” says the affable federal Minister of Science
Kirsty Duncan as we sit down in her Ottawa office. Dr. Duncan, who holds
a PhD in geography from the University of Edinburgh and a bachelor of
geography and anthropology from the University of Toronto, was first
elected the Member of Parliament for Etobicoke North in 2008 and was
named to cabinet following last fall’s election. She taught meteorology,
climatology and climate change at the University of Windsor, and medical
geography at U of T. Dr. Duncan gained international attention for leading
an expedition aimed at discovering the causal agent of the 1918 Spanish
influenza virus. Her book, Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist’s Search for a
Killer Virus, published in 2003, details the 10-year history of that search.
Dr. Duncan also contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, which won a Nobel Prize for its work in 2007.
University Affairs: Dr. Duncan, I have seen it
remarked in various international media how
unusual, or refreshing, it is that Canada’s science minister is an actual PhD graduate. What
got you interested in science?
Kirsty Duncan: It started right from that first
undergraduate lecture at U of T, literally. The
professor took us around the world in a two-hour lecture. He must have mentioned 30 things I had never heard of.
And I was reflecting, from that minute, that my goodness this is what I
want to do with my life. The goal from that day was to do research and
teach in university. It was the world I loved. I loved my research. I miss my
students very much but I’m always glad to hear from them, and I do hear
from them a lot, right back from 20 years ago.
UA: But then you left that world of academe for politics…
Dr. Duncan: It’s a hard decision to leave the world you love, but I always
taught my students you have to make a difference. With my work on climate change, there was this sort of the realization that I can’t stay on
the sidelines anymore. I saw science being eroded. I saw science-based
decision-making being eroded and decided I was running.
UA: How does your experience as a researcher inform what you do as
minister of science?
Dr. Duncan: I come from that world. I understand what it takes [to suc-ceed] as a young researcher. I was 24 when I began as a researcher. I
understand what it takes to get a research program going. It’s hard work.
You work seven days a week.
UA: I know that you have been keen to see more women and other underrepresented groups pursue the STEM disciplines. How might we go about
Dr. Duncan: All members of cabinet have mandate letters and they’re open
for everyone to see, and that’s a good thing. The research community
and government scientists can see and will be able to say, is she making
progress on what she has been tasked to do? Increasing the representation of women in STEM is a longstanding issue. And there are other
underrepresented groups, for example indigenous people and people
with disabilities. We need to change that.
I’ve made it a goal, whenever I travel, to meet not only with researchers
but also with young women. In Cape Breton, I met an incredible young
student, an athlete, who loves science and she wants to become a coast
guard engineer. She said everybody told her women can’t do that. It’s impossible. I told her it’s not impossible. That’s just an opinion. And it’s a dare.
We have been listening and we’re trying to work out how we can do this.
UA: I think it’s fair to say that many in the science community were unhappy with the previous federal government for various reasons that we
don’t need to get into here. There was real elation in that community with
the election of the new government. Expectations are high. How do you
manage those expectations?
Dr. Duncan: I can’t say it enough: the war on science is over! Yes, there are
high expectations. But this is the community I love. I’ve spent the past six
months just listening. I’ve gone from one coast to the other and will soon
be visiting the third coast.
I hope that people see what they asked for reflected in the budget, for
example. We did very well in the budget: $2 billion for infrastructure
Q&A with Kirsty Duncan
Minister of Science