By Richard Reinert –
On Tuesday, June 17th when the keynote speaker at an international conference said: “When the President of the United States changes, the world can have some hope again,” and is roundly applauded for his remark by an audience of several hundred science centre administrators and trustees, one suspects that antipathy for the Bush administration and U. S. policies of the last eight years has grown faster and greater than any sagebrush in Texas.
The speaker was Stephen Lewis, former United Nations ambassador, special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and now a faculty member at McMaster University. The occasion is the 5th Science Centre World Congress, all happening this week at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and hosted by the Ontario Science Centre. This is the first time in 12 years that the congress is being held in North America.
The topic of Mr. Lewis’s address was “social responsibility and science centres – citizen engagement” and if Mr. Lewis is correct about the future of the world, the need for such involvement is of paramount importance. He told the audience that, according to some experts, the world is approaching what he called “an apocalyptic moment in the mid-century,” particularly because of the melting of polar ice caps. He spoke of a pacific island that is expected to “soon disappear beneath the ocean waves” unless we reverse the rise in sea level that is expected. Similar conditions are expected in parts of Southeast Asia, which, he said, will produce “millions of environmental refugees.”
As a reference, he mentioned a book called “Heat” by George Monbiot, who says: “We are the most fortunate generation that has ever lived. And we are the most fortunate generation that ever will.” George Monbiot claims that in order to survive we must reduce carbon production by 90% by the year 2030. Otherwise, after the world’s average temperature rises by more than 2 degrees celsius, Monbiot claims in Heat that there will be nothing that man can do to prevent it from rising uncontrollably.
So Mr. Lewis called upon science centres to bring these problems to the attention of the public who then can influence politicians, who, he said are “more responsive than you would think” especially in an election season. Although he was speaking to an international audience, his emphasis was obviously about the American electoral season.
Mr. Lewis also focused on several issues in Africa that should be eliminated: specifically, rape, female genital mutilation and passing on HIV/AIDS to offspring that, he said, could be greatly reduced if pregnant women who are infected with the virus would receive proper treatment before and during birthing. Presently, he said that 80% of African children borne by infected mothers die before reaching the age of 5 years. He called it “carnage.” Were it not for grandmothers, he said the surviving children would know no family at all. It was obvious that Mr. Lewis’ heart and soul is with the people and societies of Africa who are suffering.
The Conference continues this week on Wednesday morning at 9:00 a.m. with keynote addresses by Dr. Mohamed H. A. Hassan, executive director of the academy of sciences for the developing world and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. The topic of their speeches will be Living On, Changing and Sustaining Planet Earth: The Role of Science Centers.
On Thursday, June 19 attendees will hear remarks by Bob Delaney, parliamentary assistant, ministry of research and innovation and Dr. Suzanne Fortier, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. If any of these speakers are half as inspiring as Mr. Lewis was on Tuesday, the conference is well worth attending.
Immediately after the morning speeches there are many interesting parallel sessions held with panels composed of professionals who actually administer science centres. These are people who deal with the day-to-day problems and the joys of keeping such important services alive.
For those who are interested in attending, you are encouraged to consult the Conference web site, http://www.5scwc.org/ for details. It is not necessary to register in advance. Registrations can be made on Wednesday and Thursday on Level 100 of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Front St. between Spadina and University Ave.