Scientist Turned Politician: An Interview with Dr. Amita Kuttner about Science and Policy

By Sonya Langman (SCWIST Digital Content Creator)

Dr. Amita Kuttner, a North Vancouver native, has a PhD in astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. I had a chance to talk with them about their campaign for the Leadership of the Green Party, and how their academic background prepared them for political life.

Amita first decided that they wanted to step into politics when they were a grad student. Although they had (and still have) an unchanging love for research, they realized there are many aspects of the world that needed urgent attention. This realization came around the time that the US had their last election, which was a massive wake-up call.

When deciding what to run for, Amita found that they were adept to analyzing federal issues. “As a scientist, I think fundamentally partisanship is awkward because you don’t want to pick a set of ideals, I should just be able to talk about my assumptions, the outcomes I’m interested in, and develop something,” says Amita. “The Green Party was the place that was going to best allow me to do that and also bring some of the policy forward that I thought was not being addressed.”

In initial meetings with Elizabeth May, the former Green Party leader, Amita emphasized the importance of discussions regarding artificial intelligence and automation, as they viewed it as an area where the government must be proactive rather than reactive. May suggested that Amita take on the position of a science and innovation policy critic for the Green Party.

The job is multifaceted: one piece is being the spokesperson for the party which necessitates understanding where the party stands on issues and being able to explain it. Another is keeping track of ministers and understanding or critiquing other parties’ views. The role also requires suggesting amendments to legislation to members of parliament, given the work of other ministries. The final part is developing the Green Party’s election platform on the basis of policies that come from the membership and core values.

When asked how this position compares to what they’ve previously done, Amita says, “After spending so many years in academia and dealing with underfunding and wanting support for research in so many different areas, it was so satisfying to be able to critique the way that current government funding is being put towards all research in general, telling them that it’s inadequate, and actually looking into how to do it better. So that’s kind of what I did: I structured policies, I put them forward, and then it went through to somebody with experience in writing out policy.”

Amita strongly believes their academic training helped them launch their political career; however, they weren’t just doing research and training. “The things that helped me were teaching and scientific communication. For example, understanding when you want to throw facts at people and when you don’t, when you want to tell stories or figure out a way to speak in a metaphor. You also gain networking in academia and learn to talk to people, to bring up conversations, and to open pathways of communication,” Amita explains. “The entire scientific process and research process are also completely applicable and useful. That’s something that I think nobody else comes to politics with and we need to get more people that are capable of that.”

Dr. Amita Kuttner represented the Green Party of Canada at the SCWIST Federal Elections Debate 2019 in Vancouver, BC, which was non-partisan event to learn about party policies for science, science-based policy, gender equity. To learn more about their work, visit https://amitakuttner.ca/ or follow them on Twitter @AmitaKuttner.

Sonya Langman is a Digital Content Creator for SCWIST. Outside of SCWIST, she is a PhD Candidate in the Interdisciplinary Oncology department at UBC. Have questions for Sonya? Email director-communications[at]scwist.ca to get in touch.