In this episode, our guest is Dr. Kyle Demes, who was the Federal Liberal candidate for Vancouver East in the 2019 Federal Election. Kyle has a PhD in Marine Biology from the University of British Columbia.
Chris Caputo 0:11
This is periodically political brought to you by elect stem, we bring you stories of where science intersects politics. My name is Chris Caputo, and I'll be your co-host today along with MoniKa Stolar. We'd like to welcome our guest Dr. Kyle Demes, who was the federal liberal candidate for Vancouver East in the 2019 federal election, losing to the NDP incumbent Jenny Kwan. Kyle has a PhD in marine biology from the University of British Columbia studying the interaction between marine species and their environment. We are really excited to have him as a guest on this podcast to discuss his experience from stem into politics.
Kyle Demes 0:57
Great, thank you both very much, Monika. And Chris. It's lovely to be here. And it's such an important conversation. So I appreciate you, you making space for it.
Monika Stolar 1:05
Yeah, so I don't like stem we seek stories of scientists who are actively involved either in policy or politics. So our first question would be what's your origin story? How did you decide to get involved in politics?
Kyle Demes 1:17
Yeah, that's such an interesting question to ask always. I never imagined getting into politics until probably July of 2019. And if you're doing the timing in your head, yes, the federal election was just a couple months later. I was at a wedding in Ottawa, and I visited the House of Commons for the first time. And at this point, I was very excited with all the work that government had done for science. And I was just at this wedding being very loose lipped about, you know how much I really looked up to Kirsty Duncan, who was the Minister of Science as being a scientist who got elected and did great work on the ground, without really realizing that everyone in Ottawa was in government. And so, by the end of this wedding, someone turned to me, they'd looked on their phone and said, You know, there's no candidate in your riding, you should consider running. And so that was the first time that I've even clued in that this was something I could be doing.
Monika Stolar 2:14
Yeah, that's actually a really awesome origin story. Could you sort of walk us through what it was like to be a first time candidate? I guess he sort of gave us a nomination process there. We previously involved in the party, what was the campaigning and fundraising like just to have our viewers learn about that?
Kyle Demes 2:30
Yeah, so that was just the beginning. Right? So that was the first time someone said, Why don't you consider it and I had no idea what to expect. So it was a lot of trying to figure out the lay of the land. And someone who happened to be somewhat involved in the party said you should consider it, but I still have to learn the nomination process. And what that looked like at a really high level is anyone was allowed to, to come forward and say, I'd like to be a candidate in this writing. And then they can request an application package, I was very surprised at how in depth these applications really are. And as a scientist, I hadn't realized I was gonna have to sign up 150 new liberal members to be able to apply and start fundraising. So yes, I had to clear that nomination process. And then had there been multiple people in my writing, who all cleared that process, there would have been an internal race, where registered liberals in in our area would have voted on who they wanted the candidate to be. But this was coming close to the election, and I was the only one who cleared all those hurdles. So I was acclaimed as the candidate after that.
Chris Caputo 3:34
So given the results of the election outcome, where unfortunately, you were unsuccessful in becoming the elected MP, could you tell us about how you felt about the constituency? How you know, your experience on the campaign trail. And you know, what it was like, when you got the results? You know, as scientists, we often get rejections for other grants or papers, like, is it similar to that? Or worse or better? And like, were you able to learn from that experience to better position yourself for the future?
Kyle Demes 4:07
Yes. So I would say it's not like any rejection I ever received in science, because it is so public. Your reviews that you receive back in a journal aren't usually as public as election night watching to see the candidates and by how much they lose, right. So there was nothing really comparable for me from science to a loss on election night. You know, you asked about the constituency and how I felt about it. I learned through the campaign that not everyone lives in the constituency that they're running to represent. And that was a shocker to me. I was very proud to represent the community I lived in. But actually many don't. And the person who wanted my writing doesn't, so that was something that I learned through the process as well. In terms of losing, I'd say, the hard part, you spend, you know, two months I spent two months in total through this whole process, and you get committed to solving all these problems, you hear people's issues and you feel like you're, you have to solve them. And if you get elected, there's a clear path to start doing some of that. But if you don't, that path is less clear. But you still feel that commitment. And that was the first time I'd ever had something like this. I mean, as a scientist, I was working on specific topics, but I never personally felt like I had to solve these people, my neighbors issues. So I guess the way that I got around that is, I hosted a dinner with a lot of the local liberal losers, we call that lost in the election to say, How can we still work together to advance some of the commitments we made on the campaign. And I think that was a really productive way of taking that momentum and still feeling committed to solving those issues?
Chris Caputo 5:51
You know, based on that, you know, it kind of sounds like you're still very much involved in the political community. And so, you know, perhaps I'm making an assumption, but it sounds like, we may be seeing you on another ballot in the future. Are there specific strategies you think that you may take if you were to run again, that we're different than the first time. And I guess, as you kind of alluded to the fact that I would guess you would stick in the same constituency, because it is your home?
Kyle Demes 6:23
Yeah. So you will definitely see me running again, or at least trying to run again, seeking the nomination. I, like I mentioned, I had never really seen myself in that role. And so when I jumped in, right before the election, as a candidate, I was learning everything firsthand, you know, just in the deep end, sink or swim kind of thing. And I learned very well that way. But so I didn't go into that with many strategies. I had ideas of how things would work. And I was wrong about most of them. But I did learn a lot that I'll be taking forward. And yes, I will be running again, but not in the same constituency, because my partner and I got engaged right after the election.
Chris Caputo 7:00
Kyle Demes 7:02
Thank you, you know I am if you survive an election feeling better and stronger in your relationship, I think that was a clear sign that this is a winner. So we got engaged and moved back to his home community. So I'll be seeking the nomination there. And that's Port Moody, Coquitlam.
Monika Stolar 7:20
It sounds like you were very new to this. And you had a really good firsthand view of what it's like as someone with a stem background to be running for office. Is there some strategy that you use to engage the public for some of your evidence based political view? Or encouraging them to support more scientific views?
Kyle Demes 7:38
Yeah, good question. So I found early on. First of all, I was terrified of door knocking. The first couple times I knocked on someone's door, I was just terrified. But you know, as a scientist, you never have to do that. You talk to other scientists about what you think the view of the problem is. And then you publish a paper on it, you spend a lot of time thinking about it, but you don't have to defend it to the public, usually. So as soon as I started doing that, I realized it was a completely different game. After about two days of door knocking, I realized this is the data collection. This is what is empowering me to be able to bring things forward. So it wasn't me going to talk to people and to tell them about how important evidence informed decision making was it was to listen to what their problems were. And then you know if it if the conversation allowed to talk about why and evidence informed approach could help. But I ended up finding that so empowering. When I would go into debates. I was drawing on the data I was collecting from people's firsthand accounts of their problems. And it was almost more like a scientific presentation then. So I would say that strategy was me shifting and thinking of data collection as public engagement.
Monika Stolar 8:51
It almost sounds like you need to be a scientist to run to be able to understand that data collection.
Kyle Demes 8:55
Yeah, that's right.
Monika Stolar 8:57
So as someone who has been in science for over 15 years. Have you seen government policy influence science or vice versa? Seen science influence government policy?
Kyle Demes 9:08
Yeah, absolutely. Even when you're in your department, and you're not really working with the external environment, you still see impacts of government on your work. When I was a postdoc at Simon Fraser University, I was working on resource management and some pretty critical projects, fisheries in British Columbia, oil spills and scenario planning. But during that time, it was under the Harper government and we weren't able to collaborate with the government scientists or policymakers and many of the scientists on listening might remember that scientists were muzzled under that administration. I hate using that word, but that was the reality that we were all living in. And so when Justin Trudeau Liberals came to power they on muzzled scientists reinstated the science minister position created the Chief Science Advisor position, commissioned the Naylor report, they did all these things to really focus on creating bridges between science and government and society. And that's the work that we need to be doing that I'm committed to.
Monika Stolar 10:04
Another thing we know that the representation of STEM elected officials isn't consistent with the general population of STEM backgrounds. Could you discuss some of the challenges you faced as a stem candidate, in addition to not immediately being able to use your evidence based views, some barriers to get into politics, how to overcome those barriers, and how we, as a general public could support more STEM based officials.
Kyle Demes 10:29
Yeah, so that's a really important topic to discuss. When candidates run, they often tap their closest network to be able to support them, because you have a rich body of people who know you really well, who can talk about your character who can talk about the quality of your work. And they end up being very central in a candidates campaign. As a scientist, I realized very soon, most of my close scientific network wanted nothing to do with it. They didn't want to donate, they didn't want their names associated with a political party. I had a few. For instance, my former supervisor, I asked for an endorsement, because she's someone that knew that I work on evidence informed decision making, and I thought she should give an endorsement. But she didn't want to do that. Because what she wanted instead to see was for me to write a policy for her to evaluate, and then to give an endorsement based on that evaluation, which is very scientific, right? But it just doesn't help you when the public wants to know, you know, is this person going to be a good politician? So you know, I found myself struggling trying to find people close to me to support that. But on the flip side, I was very shocked to find that people as soon as I went into the political realm, there's plenty of people who are science advocates that immediately were drawn to me because I was a scientist. So I did have people who are supporting Yeah. Yeah, there, there are people who want to see more scientists in politics, and they want to support them. And, you know, it's funny, I was also an openly queer candidate, I was the only one for the Liberal Party, and BC and I ended up finding these two pieces of my identity being critical to my campaign. And I didn't think they were going to be at the beginning. But the people who were drawn to me were people who would say, there's almost no scientists, and there's almost no queer people. So people in other ridings, who wanted to see a queer candidate would support me and people in other ridings who wanted to see a scientist would support me. One of the biggest ones was a science policy advisor in Ottawa, who when the election not called in the government disbanded, he moved out here and volunteered on my campaign because he wanted to help a scientists get elected and things like that became really important. But it's only the people who know that balance between science and politics that really jump in for you. So I guess I would say, to all the scientists listening, don't hesitate to get involved find a science candidate, whatever your party affiliation might be, or if you don't have one, you know, consider whether or not you would support the candidate, because they're a scientist.
Chris Caputo 13:08
That's awesome to hear like that. That last line, you just said there. It's like, that's what we want to do. We want to advocate to try to engage more scientists in, you know, politics in the public debate. And so thank you for that answer. So how did the federal Liberal Party support you in your campaign?
Kyle Demes 13:29
Yeah, great question. I think I was recognized as someone who was a political novice, I had to sign up for the party to be able to run. So there was a lot of support in terms of advice on how to be a candidate who you can talk to about financial concerns, training with media, access to information about policy, there's a lot of that centrally. But then there were people like Hedy Fry and Kirsty Duncan who were members of parliament who had an affiliation with me somehow. So Hedy Fry has been an LGBTQ advocate and Kirsty Duncan, a science advocate. And both of them. Once they found out I was the candidate reached out, gave me their cell phone numbers were incredibly supportive. And I'll never forget this call from Kirsty Duncan because she, she knew firsthand what the challenges I was going to face were because she's gone through all of that. And she said to me, she said, promise me, at the end of every day, no matter how exhausted you are, and you're going to be exhausted, you write down a reminder to yourself about why you're doing this, because it's going to be very easy for you to get lost in the specifics of trying to solve each issue. And you have to ground yourself in that. And that was, you know, you can't say no to Kirsty Duncan, so I'm very happy to do that. But then the last piece is there. You know, in BC, we were lucky to have such a great team of liberal candidates and they were all supportive. People like Tamara Taggart, Sarah Badiei, Terry Beech, they were all there and giving every type of support. Tamara knew that she was really good with public engagement and being at rallies and giving presentations and interviews, and I wasn't. And she gave me lots of tips that I'll always take with me. So that was extremely supportive as well.
Chris Caputo 15:11
Wonderful. And it's great to hear the support from you know, your idols in in elected office, right hearing from Kirsty Duncan as a as a scientist, that that's, that's fantastic. What do you think having more elected scientists and engineers would have on our political system in general on government decision making? Obviously, as a scientist, we want to bring evidence based decision making into government. But do you have any thoughts on this?
Kyle Demes 15:42
Yeah, I do think it's important to have scientists get involved as politicians and not just policy. I think that, you know, anytime you get someone who's working on policy, together with a scientist, they magic happens, they just feed off each other and do really great things. But you have to have someone as a politician who's championing those bridges for them to happen. So my job if I, when I get elected, will not be to bring my science to government, it will be instead to build bridges between all aspects of government and the science that wants to collaborate with it.
Chris Caputo 16:18
Awesome. You know, we've been asking other questions so far, I want to kind of flip it over to you and given your experience and your background, and in the current state of, you know, science and politics. Is there something that you're excited about today that you'd like to tell us about?
Kyle Demes 16:36
I'd say that the thing I'm most excited about right now is Canada's COVID-19 response. I think it's just been a really excellent example of the power of evidence informed decision making, and what can happen when we have strong ties between government and science, science and the public and government and public sort of all triangulating on these things. So I've been very happy to see that. I think the evidence is clear that when you do have that approach, lives are saved. And I think that people are starting to see that more than they have for a while. I think in the age of disinformation, there was some hesitancy for people to really just support scientists, involvement in government. And I think this is really strengthen that. And I think what I'm hoping and I'm most excited about is that this won't be just the gold standard approach that we do when there's a pandemic, this will be our approach to all policy issues across the board in a routine way.
Monika Stolar 17:37
Yeah, I think you make a great point there. It's been really nice to see all of the scientists actually take a leading role and most of the media engagements right now, regarding COVID. I think that's really important. So thanks for your insights. So far, Kyle, what we'd like to do now is a little quick first segment, I'm going to ask you three related questions. And we'd like you to give us a quick response in a sentence or two. So first question is, what do you see as the most significant intersection between science and politics over the next 10 years?
Kyle Demes 18:09
Yeah, so for science and politics, not science and policy, I think the important piece to remember is that policy and science go hand in hand, and that, that bridges there, but what we really need is, is advocating for science and politics so that those bridges can be built so that we can enable policy wonks to work with scientists more directly across the board. But then you have to remember that it's not just that bridge between science and policy that allows that to happen. If you don't have good politics, you'll never have the opportunity to do that great policy to design it or implement it. So more, more, breaking down the ivory tower, and really just strengthening these collaborations between government and science and public and science.
Monika Stolar 18:55
Great. How about what do you see as the most important intersection between science and politics over the next 25 years?
Kyle Demes 19:05
Yeah, so I mean, we're getting so far ahead already. So climate change and sustainability have to be the biggest thing that we're tackling together. And that's going to involve scientists and politics working together, because the science has been there for a long time for both of these things. And it's only through science and innovation, that we'll find more solutions for sustainability. So really, those are the two hot topic points.
Monika Stolar 19:31
And let's go a little bit further than that. What do you think is the most important intersection between science and politics over the next 50 years?
Kyle Demes 19:38
50 years or 2070? You know, with the rate the Technology and Society are changing? I think it's really hard to predict what that will be. But I if I had to, you know, my gut says social science taking the leadership. I think very often we're leading with science and then social science is lagging. I think that as technology starts advancing faster and faster and faster, we start having these existential questions around what humanity is and what we should do and what are our ethical situations or ethical priorities in a situation. And I think, really what we'll need is leadership from social science.
Monika Stolar 20:17
Awesome, thanks for the insights. Thanks, Kyle, so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It was a really great pleasure to have you and we really appreciate the insights you've given us for our politics, curious listeners. If you liked this podcast, we encourage you to rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps our new listeners discover the show.
Kyle Demes 20:39
Great, thank you both for having me and all the scientists listening. Go out there and support scientists candidates.