Winnipeg cold water scientist takes heat for running as Conservative

The union that represents most of the scientists in Canada doubts a Winnipeg Conservative, who is also a cold water scientist, can warm relations between the party and the science community.

U of M's Gordon Giesbrecht says 'funding for research has never been higher'

Gordon Geisbrecht, AKA Professor Popsicle, is seen plunging into the Red River in the name of ice safety awareness in 2013. (CBC)

The union that represents most Canadian scientists doubts that a Winnipeg Conservative, who is also a cold water scientist, can warm relations between the party and the scientific community.

University of Manitoba scientist Gordon Giesbrecht is running for the Tories in Winnipeg South.

Giesbrecht, best known by the popular nickname "Professor Popsicle," studies human responses to exercise in extreme environments. His work is often featured on television, including multiple appearances on the CBC's Rick Mercer Report.

Peter Bleyer, a special advisor to the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), says under the Conservative government, budgets for federal science-based departments have been slashed and scientists have been muzzled.

"For us it's really about making sure that whatever the next government is that gets elected, [it] turns the page on this terrible and shameful record on science of this government," he said. "It's hard to imagine that adding one person is going to change the character of a government."

However, PIPSC does want to see more scientists in politics.

Winnipeg South Conservative candidate Gordon Geisbrecht plans canvass route with popular Calgary-based Conservative Rona Ambrose, in town to help his campaign. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)
Scientists at work in the Experimental Lake Area, one of the Conservative decisions that garnered outrage.
"Frankly, the Conservative Party could probably use a little more input from scientists, so that's good," Bleyer said referring to Giesbrecht.

The union says it's non-partisan and will not endorse any party, but it has distributed content to its members with a tough critique of the Conservatives' record on science. It says by 2016, it expects more than 5,000 jobs would be lost from science-based departments in the federal government.

Biologist Michael Rennie said he was barred from speaking to the media about his work. He was a researcher at the Experimental Lakes Area research station in Northern Ontario that was run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The Conservatives took the research station off the government books earlier this year and turned it over to a non-profit organization, the International Institute of Sustainable Development.

In May, hundreds of members from public service unions, including PIPSC, gathered in white lab coats on Parliament Hill to protest what they saw as Stephen Harper's "war on science," staging a mock funeral to mark the death of evidence.

Professor Popsicle defends Tories

Giesbrecht says the Conservatives have increased funding to scientific research year-over-year.

"Funding for research has never been higher," he said. "It's gone up every year in all of the regularly funded sources from the federal government in the last nine years."

He applauded several new science-based initiatives including the government's Canada First Research Excellence Fund announced in July. The fund invests $1.5 billion over seven years to encourage scientific research at Canadian universities.

Giesbrecht said he's met with the Conservative minister responsible for science several times and has a good working relationship with him.

"I also look forward to getting to Ottawa to talk with people like Minister [Ed] Holder, the Minster of [State] Science and Technology to push for even more funding and more exciting things in research," he said. Giesbrecht argued some of the cuts, including the ELA, amount to a shift in priorities.

"The ELA is a small budget item. It affected a lot of people in our riding. So it made a big splash here," he said. "That was a re-distribution, a re-prioritization of funding.... It does not in anyway signify that the prime minister and the Conservative government don't value research because, again, the total research funding has only gone up."

Liberal Winnipeg South candidate Terry Duguid, who is also a former city councillor, and has made three bids at winning a federal seat, said as he campaigns voters are surprised his opponent is a Conservative.  
Liberal Winnipeg South candidate Terry Duguid met with a supporter during a door-to-door canvass. Three previous times, Duguid lost his bid to win a federal seat. He finally triumphed Monday night. (Sara Calnek/CBC)

"People are very puzzled why a scientist would be running for the Conservatives," Duguid said. "You know the Conservatives have made savage cuts to science and scientists. Scientists are muzzled and people are just curious and puzzled why a scientist would run for the Conservative party."

Duguid said he would like to challenge Giesbrecht to a debate specifically about the government's record on science.


Chris Glover

CBC News Reporter

Chris Glover has been a reporter, anchor and producer with CBC News for a decade. He’s an award winning storyteller, who has travelled the country in search of fascinating characters with compelling stories to share on TV, radio and online. A series he helped spearhead at CBC Toronto, No Fixed Address, won a national RTDNA award in 2017 and the municipal election special he anchored in 2018 was just nominated for an RTDNA award for best live special.