Periodically Political

Periodically Political - S1E7 - Amita Kuttner

April 23, 2021 Elect STEM Season 1 Episode 7
Periodically Political
Periodically Political - S1E7 - Amita Kuttner
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, our guest is Dr. Amita Kuttner, who first ran for Parliament in 2019 and has served as Critic for Science and Innovation for the Green Party of Canada from September 2018 to February 2020. 

Dr. Kuttner also ran for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada on a platform of justice, science, and resilience. They hold a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and currently is the co-founder of Moonlight Institute. 

Chris Caputo  00:11

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 today, Dr. Amita Kuttner, who first ran for parliament in 2019, and has served as the critic for science and innovation for the Green Party of Canada from September 2018 to February 2020, bringing forward policy on artificial intelligence and emerging technologies. amido ran for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada on a platform of justice, science and resilience. Amita holds a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of California Santa Cruz. They are also the co founder of the moon light Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create frameworks for an equitable and just future, taking into account the realities of the climate emergency, as well as technology and decolonization. So welcome to the show Amita.


So one of the goals we have at elect stem is really to demystify the process of running for political office for scientists and engineers, and really try to engage more of them. And our approach to this is, at least initially by hearing stories from those who have actually made that leap. And so our first question for you is what motivated you in the first place to get involved in politics?


Amita Kuttner  01:47

What motivated me? Well, I think it was really a few different things, some practical ones, and then some more, some deeper feelings about everything in the world in general. So on one side, I saw this massive lack of policy, around technology around science, and I was in the middle of my PhD trying to figure out what to do next, and how to have an impact. And that seemed like an important thing to do. But the other big part of it was the urgency of the huge number now of global crises that we have, we very immediately need policy and very, immediately needs to be based in science. So it felt like the absolute best thing to try to do to get some of these things changed and to get the impacts necessary.


Chris Caputo  02:35

Right, you hit the nail on the head there with the amount of important science policy that we desperately need going forward in the future, if I understand correctly, so you defended your PhD, actually, as you are running as a candidate in Burnaby, North Seymour back in the 2019 federal election. That's monumental, it's, it's incredible. I guess first, how did you manage? Second? Oh, let's start there first. 


Amita Kuttner  03:07

Yeah, so somehow I did manage. And I think after the election was over, I realized how completely I burned myself out through doing it. But I think it was I was just driven by the, the urgency. So once I decided that I wanted to run and kind of evaluated where I felt like I could do the most important work and I could be the most effective, so I decided on federal, etc. And I was like, Well, I'm going to run from my home writing, I was still living in California, it became obvious to me that I needed to start the process if I was going to be able to run in the next election. And given the urgency, I wasn't gonna wait like six years to start this, especially since that was that was the timeline that I was restricted to, I don't, I didn't really feel like there was another place to run or another way to get involved that was going to be as meaningful. So I moved back home to Canada while still in the middle of my PhD. And interestingly enough, like right when I was moving, and getting ready to move my, my research project got scooped. And I like it was in changing homes and all this other stuff. And I miraculously managed to start a new project. And, you know, the spring that I had moved all my stuff back and was trying to reintegrate into my home community. I passed my qualifying exams, and yeah, wrote my entire dissertation and finished my dissertation research, while starting to campaign and network. Um, it was ridiculous. And going back and forth was a lot and cramming. My thesis was also a lot but I think that in a way, having that deadline set of already being engaged in knowing that I had to be ready to go through the election, kind of also Made me complete tasks that were doable. The scary part was the fact that if anything happened wrong with the research, I would end up in a horrible situation, especially navigating residency issues at the same time. But I actually found it very, particularly if I had a organizing meeting where I was annoyed with the pressures of the political space that it encouraged me to go finish my dissertation, so I can go get the time.


Chris Caputo  05:28

Right. So you sought the nomination and began the campaign, all while being a PhD student. Wow. That's, that's amazing. What does the nomination campaign look like for the Green Party?


Amita Kuttner  05:44

Well, it depends. So it's not always the same. It depends where you are, it depends if there are other people that would like the nomination, it depends if you have an NDA set up in your writing. So that's an electoral district Association. And if it's the writing that everybody wants, you're gonna have to fight for the nomination. But if it's not, then it's different. So my process actually started by figuring out what party to run for. Because it was just not clear to me, I, as a scientist, but also just as a person, I find partisanship pretty awkward. And I still do after having done all of this, and I, you know, I believe our system would be stronger if we get past some of that. But I, I went through the process of process of elimination to pick a party and met with different people. And I met with Elizabeth May. And basically, that was how my nomination process was kicked off. Because after I decided that I wanted to run with the greens, because I felt like it aligned with the type of impact I was looking to have, which is included becoming science and innovation critic. So I knew that I could have a direct effect on the national policy conversation, which to me kind of felt like the point. Um, she put me in contact through her office with the people in my writing. And then I set up a meeting with them. And they went through the procedure of, I had to submit an application to be nominated. And then we waited the right period to see if anybody else was going to submit a nomination. There were a couple other people thinking about it. But then, you know, they decided to talk to me first. And they realized that they would prefer me to do it. So they didn't want to have the contest. And I got acclaimed. So that was kind of simple. In the end, yeah, to navigate the waters together.


Chris Caputo  07:31

I hadn't heard that before. This is the first time that we've heard you know, other interested parties actually talk to each other in advance of the nomination. I actually think that's really neat, and really helpful. Maybe there should be more of that.


Amita Kuttner  07:44

Yeah. And I don't know how typical that is, or how often that happens.


Monika Stolar  07:51

It sounds more democratic. Sounds like the right way to go.


Amita Kuttner  07:56

Yeah. And I would say like, my experience with the Green Party is that they're very committed to democracy, internal democracy, grassroots democracy, which is also a good reason that I think, you know, scientific thinking aligned with it for me, because it meant that I could go in and it felt like an organic process. But I don't know that that's true across the board for greens in general, because politics attracts people of a certain type, I think. And you have to you see that everywhere in the system.


Chris Caputo  08:26

So when you actually got to the campaigns were passed the nomination? One, one question that we've actually been asked from a couple of our interested listeners that I did want to ask you is, you know, how did you actually build your campaign team? So we've been asked, how do you find a good campaign manager? How do you get the right people in place? How did you do that?


Amita Kuttner  08:49

Yeah, I think that's a great question. I'm not sure that I did a great job of it. And it was different the second time around when I was running for leadership, because I'd met a lot more people and kind of found out who I would work well with the first time around, looking back on it and you know, doing things like defending at the same time, I'm like, okay, cool, that that does seem weirdly impressive, but whatever. But for finding the campaign manager, I was actually impressed with myself because I had to network extremely quickly, and kind of just go to different events and also get involved in other advocacy, like I was doing stuff with proportional representation just to get my feet on the ground and working in the political space as much as possible. So I met people through that. The other side of it is that the writing, may have people volunteers, they may have people working there already that are ready to step up. Interestingly enough, when I agreed to run one of the only requests I made, because I'd been away from home for so long was that they would help me find the campaign team. And that's something that the party didn't actually follow through with and it came down to a miscommunication between the people who first helped in Take me to the actual organization, and then kind of the changes of staff that just fell through, and I didn't get that support. So it actually made it kind of Rocky, I went through multiple campaign managers. Yeah. So I think it's kind of it's, it's meeting everybody that you can that's already been organizing, and then seeing if you can suss out who's been good, or alternatively, and what I, what I've known a lot of people to do that come to it from anywhere, is they find out if there's anyone in their network already, who would be willing to take on some of that work in at least organizing and understanding some of the basics. But stuff like also having a financial agent, the person who was with the writing for many, many years is really good at it took that role. So that was really easy.


Monika Stolar  10:51

I mean, that's one thing I found very interesting that you mentioned is that you find partisanship a little bit awkward. And you went from just being a regular candidate to running for the leadership of the Federal Green Party. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how you got there? What made you decide to take that leap? Yeah,


Amita Kuttner  11:08

it was an interesting decision. I actually started thinking about it really soon after I became a candidate in 2018. So year before the election, when I started working with it, I felt at home in a sense by seeing the people there, meeting them, seeing what they were dedicated to. And being welcomed on the Shadow Cabinet was definitely a big part of that. And I saw kind of right away that there was a need for certain things, at least I thought in the next generation of leadership. And science is a big part of it. And the Green Party has struggled with being a truly evidence based party, not getting into pseudoscience. And being really clear on scientific communication, which is so important, especially when you're talking about something like the climate crisis. And there's all obviously also a bit of a lack of diverse representation. And so I felt like I was in a good position to be able to help with both of those things. And when it came time, so after the election, like a month later, when Elizabeth stepped down, then I had to actually think about it. And it was a much harder decision than me being like, I'll probably run for leadership at some point, you know, like, just off the cuff beforehand. And then faced with that decision, it was like, oh, okay, this is a huge undertaking. It's a huge responsibility, I am completely burned out. What, and what was interesting is it what was interesting is that I ended up deciding to run, because of the number of people that that asked me to. And the whole thing, the whole process, political engagement, to me is about doing things for a collective doing things for all of us advocating for things that we need, as a society as a world, etc. And I didn't really feel like just as me, there was a strong reason to do it. But getting that sense that people said, No, we actually would like the things that you represent. And the way that you talk the way that you lead, we would like this. So I decided to do it. And because that was the way I got into it, I already had a team around me. And we, we decided to stick with our principles of engagement and, and do it as a collective effort where I again, pretty much immediately felt like I was a representative of this group and a group. And it was it was That was lovely.


Monika Stolar  13:42

That's really great and super inspirational. And sounds like you had the support of science, people or science, people who want to see the evidence based decisions. And I was one of your biggest pillars for your leadership campaign. How did you find other green members or even other Canadians take to that?


Amita Kuttner  14:03

So really well, and in a way that I don't actually find is a good thing. So so the the feedback I got is, well, yeah, we're all evidence based. And I found that incredibly frustrating. And it was great. I really appreciated that people were up for scientific decision making. And one of the only kind of critiques of that is, well, let's make sure we do this in a way that also respects traditional indigenous knowledge. Great. But the fact that so many people came back and we're basically saying, well, what's the point of this? How is this different from how we've operated before? And how is this different from everybody else? Anyway, and greens, I think, in particular, in that context, they can see how other parties are not evidence based when it comes to something like climate. We can look at climate models climate policy and say, I'm sorry, but None of you are gonna hit the targets. But when it comes to everything else that wasn't clear. And so I then had to make the argument, why is it important to have a scientist in a position of leadership instead of just following science? And kind of explain how just because we say we believe in science, and we follow science, that doesn't actually translate to scientific decision making scientific process, or, you know, even an approach to policy in general. And throughout, I kind of experienced people saying, other other leadership contestant saying, Yeah, we're evidence based, and I'm evidence based. And it was really hard to counteract that argument in any short way, especially in debates, and especially in a field where we're all supposed to be honest, legitimate, and mean, what we say and understand what we say. And I don't I don't feel like that was true. And what's further than that, I think, is that the people who said that they truly believe that they are. It's not like they're lying. It's not like they're being facetious or dishonest. They truly believe that they are scientific, as much as a politician in regular sense can be. And that was a wake up call.


Monika Stolar  16:26

Just to follow that thought up, do you have any sort of strategies or best practices that our listeners could take away of how we can engage these people and sort of show them that understanding science is not the same as making a science based decision?


Amita Kuttner  16:41

Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts about this. And I also think that there's, there's a certain amount of basics that need to be taught one way or another. And directly going into politics, that way is not always going to be the best way to approach it. Because getting people to understand what it means to follow evidence is a much larger conversation that we need to have scientific and mathematical literacy, even in the way that we've seen people react to the pandemic, is a huge deal. And so getting people to understand, as we tried to, through our policy process, to say that when we're creating policy, you can't just use evidence, that's not a thing, you have to have some intention about the world you're going to create. And then when you look at evidence, you're not just looking at studies, and you're definitely not looking just a couple things. But you're also looking and listening to lived experience, because that is also reality. That is also evidence when it comes to how policy functions. And so we tried to do that. And we came up with an amazing platform that I'm overwhelmingly proud of, and also isn't what I expected, because I just trusted the process was surprised by some of the results. But in terms of actually communicating it, I think that I look at it right now from kind of the barriers and the methods of communication that we need to kind of get through and get past and go over or under or something. And one of them has really has to do with this idea of cherry picking information. And the very definition of science and evidence. And so what I've found is the best way to kind of introduce it, instead of talking about it on the surface, work on the literacy part work on kind of introducing scientific thinking to people, but when actually talking about particular policy ideas, presented exceptionally logical, well backed up argument, where you show the evidence where you talk about opposing views, where you talk about, you know, the details of how you actually interpret data, and how you weigh different pieces of information. And also make sure that you state things like assumptions that are not usually present. And I've noticed that that difference that contrast from the way people usually think or even usually think of science, within policy starts to change the way people approach it, because they see the benefit of having a truly say, logical and well presented argument.


Chris Caputo  19:07

When you were the critic in the Shadow Cabinet for the science, it was science and innovation, correct? Yeah. Did you have the opportunity to kind of make those arguments take those approaches that you were just describing? or What did that role actually entail?


Amita Kuttner  19:23

So that role within the Green Party, as it was, I don't know how it's evolving now. But it was that my job was to help write the part of the platform that applied to those areas. So I worked on the science part of the platform and the innovation artificial intelligence side of the platform. I found it a bit of a frustrating process because of the kind of lack of background and institutional support. So the policies that I put forward, were not particularly what ended up in the platform. And you may or may not remember But there was this huge thing about a robot tax. I didn't say that in the policies that I submitted. And it's come back to me so many times, like, what do you mean by this? I'm like, I didn't mean that. What I was trying to say is we need to research what to do when you have overwhelming automation, and like outlining some of the big struggles that are going to be showing up and kind of what to focus on in our approach to it. But in no way was I suggesting that as an answer, directly, because it's fraught with issues. And I remember submitting, basically final edits. And they didn't get used. And so when I presented this, this logical argument at that point, which was basically like, you can't say this, because of all these reasons, here's the assumptions. You're saying under here, here's the issues. Here's my critical analysis, the person who received it was like, Great, thank you so much, but somehow lost in the pressure of getting everything done. And having somebody who isn't related to the writing, edit the platform, it all got lost. But in general, it was actually a really receptive environment to present arguments to so working on the Shadow Cabinet itself, when we discussed policy, it was very reasoned, and easy. But it, it definitely was going to need more effort than I could put in at the time, because I was finishing my PhD. And when arguments came up about certain things, I didn't have the time. And I would say, Well, this is a really important topic. And I would like to research it and get back to, but I can't do it right now. But I was also really impressed by the by the other people who were on Shadow Cabinet with me, and the reasoning that they brought forward. So especially when it came to certain contentious issues that the Green Party has had trouble with before, I was very happy to see that that kind of the issues were not actually as present within the membership in conversation there. And it was just about taking a reasonable approach. And you know, being respectful of as many people as possible.


Monika Stolar  22:14

Throughout our conversation, you've actually touched a lot about the importance of having some stem trained elected officials in our political system. But what approaches Do you think we can or we should be taking to ensure that science has a seat at the discussion table?


Amita Kuttner  22:30

Yeah, I think that it is unique and important to have actual scientists in office. Because actually, it's one of the reasons that I decided to run instead of go into policy at the very beginning. Because I realized that, you know, politicians are bombarded by so much information, and so many things that are really important. How are you supposed to figure out exactly whose argument is right, and you have people who are lobbying for some really weird and interesting things that perhaps are not for the public good. So yeah, it's, it's a struggle and to go into that you're, you have your own kind of boundaries to deal with. But in running, you can actually kind of get a seat at the table very directly, and bring in a new way of thinking so that it can even just shift perspective by having more people at the table. But I think that there are very, very many other ways to go about it. And you know, that that has to do with scientific literacy training, for sure. And it also has to do with breaking down communication barriers, so making sure that we can link up scientific methods of communication and speech and language with the political mindset. And make sure that when we are communicating with politicians, and working with political parties or government, that it's framed in a way that actually makes sense to them. And that will be turned into reasonable policy, and also find ways of expressing those things in a reasonable way. And I think also, without losing our heart and soul, of evidence of data, actually crafting solid arguments as to why science will help policy and politics instead of being a detriment. Because I think right now there is a an underlying fear in the political world, because of how much they generally tend to slant information. That truly being scientific in an uncontrolled way. They won't get what they want. And that in itself is a barrier. And so showing that using scientific reasoning is not going to particularly make you have to change your mind about things but allow you to accomplish your goals more easily, is a good thing and then also finding other ways to work on on evidence based policy. See and kind of get it sent into the system. It has started the non partisan way and get it in so that people people see that and just continuous Lee advocate for the inclusion of science advising in every aspect of government.


Chris Caputo  25:17

Yeah, that is a lot of things to unpack there and a lot of important items to really reflect on the point that you made about how if political decisions are made in a scientific way, and it kind of takes the slant and the, the potential angles out of it, like you once you begin to wonder, and I, you know, I'd like to get your opinion, if the scientific rigor is there in Parliament, for example. And no one can debate the data, no one can debate whether climate change is anthropogenic or not, like it's fact, then you can get beyond that and beyond that slant and actually start to debate solutions, right?


Amita Kuttner  26:03

Yes, absolutely. Yes, debating solutions and actual opinions about how we should be building our countries what we should be doing, and getting to like a completely fact based completely scientific based place where we can actually be looking at evidence together and having a reasoned conversation is a better place no matter what. And I one of the examples that I've used for this is, is the approach to housing to show that everybody can use the same evidence and want different things and different outcomes, it doesn't mean that we don't have political, different political ideologies, just because of evidence, because evidence itself, of course, doesn't have an opinion, the what you want the world to look like, is your is your usually your political opinion. And what you value is, is different. So you have people who, you know, what they prioritize, and policy is going to vary, and they will look at the same stuff and come with come up with a different solution. And then you talk about the pros and cons of those and why. And I think it's a scarier space, because you have to admit, all those actual things that you believe that you think, and, and face up to the consequences of the things that you think and believe and are asking for. And, you know, this is this is related to everything, including things to do with human rights. And, you know, hiding behind the inability of government to do particular things, etc. But for instance, housing, it's such a different conversation, no matter how you look at it, if you are approaching it from a, from the concept that you can, providing enough market based units is going to solve the problem. Or approaching it by being interested in solving homelessness and providing everyone with shelter and a home. And you're going to come up with different solutions from the same data based on what your priorities are.


Chris Caputo  28:01

Right? I want to kind of turn it around to you now. And ask if you'd like to share something that you're currently working on, that you're excited about and would like to share with our audience?


Amita Kuttner  28:14

Yes, thank you. And thank you so much for the conversation. It's so important. And I'm really happy that you're doing this doing this work. I'm really excited about that my current project, which is when light Institute, and we are trying to cover some of the gaps out there. And we're kind of working on multiple different things, one pieces policy. One piece is community type projects, and other is communication. And the whole idea is that we don't really have clear frameworks for how to set up the society, we should be going for in this day and age, questioning the structure itself, etc. But some of the direct stuff that I'm working on right now has to do with policy development around ethical technology, but also, actually that scientific versus political communication boundary, and making sure that some of the work in between is done. And that's something that came from my academic background for sure. There's so much amazing research out there. And yet, so little of it goes into practice, especially in policy because no one's doing the annoying job of translating. So I'm trying to dig into that work a bit and see where I can get and, and also doing it from a very, very strictly non partisan way, because I just want to see this stuff implemented.


Chris Caputo  29:31

I can't wait to see what comes out of that. That's really exciting. Thank you, again, Amita for your insights and taking the time to speak with us today. I think you've given our politics curious listeners a lot of food for thought and if you've liked this episode, we encourage you to rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps new listeners. Discover the show