U of T professor named Ontario’s first Chief Scientist

Molly Shoichet will aid the Ontario government in science policy

U of T professor named Ontario’s first Chief Scientist

Earlier this month, U of T’s Molly Shoichet was appointed to the Government of Ontario’s newly created position of Chief Scientist. Currently a University Professor in Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and a director at the Institute for Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering, Shoichet will begin her new role in January.

Shoichet will be responsible for advising Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne on science-based policies. “As we tackle some of today’s biggest challenges, science plays an increasingly vital role in helping governments make informed decisions,” said Wynne in a press release.

The recruitment of a Chief Scientist is part of Ontario’s five-year Business Growth Initiative, which aims to accelerate Ontario’s knowledge-based economy through innovation; $650 million has been committed to the initiative.

Part of Shoichet’s role as Chief Scientist will be to help create science-based jobs and economic strategies for the province. Linked to this is Ontario’s plan to increase the number of students graduating from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines by 25 per cent over the next five years.

The decision to create a Chief Scientist position for Ontario was first announced by Wynne in June 2016. Part of the recruitment process involved an online consultation with both the scientific community and the public to determine the skills and qualifications a Chief Scientist should possess.

Among many other attributes, the feedback from the online consultation suggested that the Chief Scientist should have a strong academic record, familiarity with government policy, and an understanding of the Ontario research system.

“The [Chief Scientist] should… have an unwavering desire to see Ontario become a preeminent location for scientific research and innovation,” said one online respondent in a sentiment echoed by many who participated in the consultation.

Described by Minister of Research, Innovation, and Science Reza Moridi as “one of the top biomedical scientists in the country,” Shoichet certainly fits this description. Shoichet has both academic and industry-based experience with past positions held at Brown University, the matREGEN Corporation, CytoTherapeutics Incorporated, and others.

Shoichet’s research on tissue regeneration and drug delivery has earned her the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and the Order of Ontario, the province’s highest honour. She is also the only person to be a Fellow of all three of Canada’s National Academies: the Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. At U of T, she holds the highest faculty distinction of University Professor, a title shared by less than two per cent of the university’s faculty.

“Scientists right here in Ontario are doing amazing research that is fundamental to our progress and prosperity,” said Wynne. “I look forward to her thought leadership and advice on how we can strengthen the research and innovation happening across our province.”

Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads

University currently in talks with province over way forward

Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads

The Ontario government has recently announced a new initiative to increase the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the province over the next five years. The project is part of a push to make the province an industry leader in the STEM fields. U of T is currently in talks with the province to see how it will be affected.

The plan is to increase the number of post-secondary STEM graduates “by 25 per cent over the next five years – boosting the number of STEM graduates from 40,000 to 50,000 per year,” according to Tanya Blazina, who works in the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.

“This major commitment will significantly expand the talent pool of well-trained and highly educated workers in Ontario,” Blazina said. “These workers will empower Ontario-based businesses to grow into global players, while also attracting successful and innovative businesses to the province.”

Blazina says that as of Fall 2017, all publicly funded Ontario universities and colleges will have signed an agreement on program plans and funded enrolment levels. Universities will also have signed an agreement concerning funded graduate spaces.

This initiative comes amidst a major expansion project by American tech giant Amazon. The company announced earlier this year that it was planning on building a second headquarters in North America, which Toronto has expressed major interest in.

U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr told The Varsity that the university is “looking for more information and to try and understand what exactly the money will go to.” Regehr says they expect that it will go to additional student spots, in particular a possible student spot in professional master’s programs.

“U of T is already incredibly strong. We are a world leader in many areas and STEM is one of the ones that we’re a world leader,” she said. “We expect that we’ll just continue to be a world leader and increase our research and educational initiatives in this area.”

In order to make the province more attractive to tech companies, the government is hoping specifically to increase graduates is in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). To achieve this, $30 million will be invested to increase the “number of professional applied masters’ graduates in artificial intelligence,” according to a press release.

“Ontario will also partner with the Vector Institute to accelerate growth in the number of professional applied masters’ graduates in artificial intelligence. The goal is to graduate 1,000 applied masters students in AI-related fields per year, within five years.”

Vector Institute is a Toronto-based AI research organization affiliated with U of T. It was founded earlier this year in order to be Canada’s AI hub and to attract top talent from around the world.

Crack down on harassment, not protest

The ban on abortion facility protests, though well-intentioned, violates fundamental rights

Crack down on harassment, not protest

Last week, Attorney General of Ontario Yasir Naqvi announced the Safe Access to Abortion Services Act — a bill that, if passed, would no longer permit anti-abortion protests within a certain distance of abortion clinics, the homes of abortion providers, or pharmacies that sell pregnancy-terminating medications. The bill — partly motivated by an incident earlier in the year outside an abortion clinic in Ottawa, wherein a woman was spit on — would prevent any anti-abortion demonstrations within 50 metres of these facilities. The buffer zone could be expanded to up to 150 metres by ministerial order.

This idea has undeniably noble motives. It is crucial that women can access abortion services without being subjected to intimidation or harassment. There’s no question that being subjected to protesters may make a difficult situation even more difficult. However, disallowing all protests, without discriminating between those that are intimidating and those that are peaceful, is not the way forward.

The problem with this type of legislation is that it does not distinguish between protest that becomes violent and protest that remains civil. Although the government has every right, and indeed a strong responsibility, to protect women from harassment, the right to free assembly prohibits it from protecting women from protest itself.

No matter how unpopular a view may be, there should always be room within the law to express that view in a peaceful, non-intimidating, and non-harassing demonstration. There must be a legal basis for a citizen to stand in the public square with a sign or a placard or a chant and demonstrate peacefully. The despicable acts of a handful of fanatics do not justify collapsing this foundational democratic principle.

It is true that pro-life demonstrations can still be held outside the prescribed distance from abortion clinics and pharmacies. However, it doesn’t follow from this that the right to protest has not been seriously infringed: the right to protest needs to entail the right to protest effectively.

The last few months have seen several high-profile protests, including the Women’s March in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration and the protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Disruption of the institutions being protested was a central objective of these popular movements. The Women’s March blocked major streets and public spaces in numerous cities and towns worldwide. At Standing Rock, some protesters literally tied themselves to construction equipment, making their physical bodies an obstacle to the project they opposed.

Protesters need the capacity to disrupt and disturb. It would not have been right to relegate these protests to other locations, constraining them to where they would do the least damage and robbing them of their capacity for impact. Disruptiveness, as long as there is no violence, is not justification for stifling protest. Without the capacity to meaningfully disrupt, a protest has almost no purpose at all.

That being said, even without outright harassment, the presence of the protesters, from the perspective of a woman seeking an abortion, can make an already difficult situation even harder. Many women who get abortions are likely already subjected to an unjust amount of shame and fear, and there are enough obstacles preventing them from getting the care they may need. This is an undoubtedly important point. According to Sandeep Prasad, Executive Director of the pro-choice advocacy group Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights, “Supporting reproductive rights requires governments to recognize the intersecting barriers individuals face when trying to access health care.” Prasad is right. We need to be sensitive to the challenges that women already face when trying to access reproductive care, and we need to be careful not to add another.

However, the possibility that a protest may prevent women from getting an abortion cannot be a reason to prevent a protest from taking place. We can’t prevent a protest because that protest is peacefully achieving its objective. As wrong as the ideology behind the protest may be, the fact that it might successfully do so cannot be a reason to make it illegal; the right to protest needs to apply equally to all points of view.

There is no ‘right to protest insofar as the government supports your position.’ There is no ‘right to protest as long as your protest doesn’t actually make a difference.’ The right to protest needs to be blind to content, ideology, and perspective. Fundamental rights don’t have normative qualifiers.

Women should not be harassed by protesters, and we should make sure that laws prohibiting harassment and intimidation effectively prevent that from happening. But the right to peaceful demonstration is sacred, and it cannot be forestalled because it might work, regardless of how destructive that result may be.

And that right cuts both ways. Pro-choice and women’s rights advocacy groups can provide women the support they need by lobbying for public information campaigns about reproductive health, pushing for more expansive sex education, and making contraception free and accessible. Just because people have the right to protest abortion doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, openly oppose their point of view.

Measures should be taken to protect women from harassment and intimidation by protesters. It seems only sensible that this issue should be addressed by tightening existent laws against harassment and intimidation by protesters, or creating new ones, rather than by infringing the right to protest.

Zach Rosen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying History and Philosophy. He is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.