Weird Science

When it comes to development, there is a world governed by science and there is a parallel world of political science.


A colleague and I were admiring a stuffed mountain lion outside a state Senator’s office when he greeted us with a joke about his aim. Earlier that week, the Senator had come out of nowhere to oppose a project we were working on and we were scrambling to figure out his stance. He was from a far-flung jurisdiction, normally a big supporter of our industry, and an ardent opponent of all things environment-related, unless they could be shot and stuffed. But there he was in the newspaper, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his political opponent, a liberal Democrat, condemning the environmental impact of our proposal. It just didn’t add up.

On top of that, not a single fact he quoted about our project was accurate.

We were there to set the record straight and, hopefully, get him to soften his stance, or at least assume a lower profile. As we were getting settled in his office, he motioned to a stack of newspapers on his desk. “I don’t know what you guys are going to tell me about your project,” he said, “but what I can tell you is I’m getting great headlines opposing it.” In that moment it became clear that there would be no setting the record straight. Newspaper headlines were all the proof he needed that his position was the right one.

In an era of fact-based decision-making, it was a striking admission, and one he would never have said on the record. But it served as a stark reminder that there is a world governed by science, and then there is the parallel universe of political science.

The world of science is the one developers naturally inhabit. It consists of all of the empirical data that demonstrate how your project will interact with the environment and the local population. It is the detailed traffic and hydrogeologic studies. It is the careful look at shadow impact and noise levels. It is the economic impact analysis and projected taxes. This is the information that makes the case to the planning department. And without it, it would never make its way to Council.

At council, and among politicians, this data is important too, to a degree. They need to know that it won’t affect the drinking water of neighbours, that it won’t cause traffic congestion, and that it won’t impact the local mountain lion population. But for a politician, the data-driven viability of a project is table stakes. For them, the real litmus test of a project rests in the murkier realm of political science, and it is here that all too often developers fall short in their preparation and analysis.

Before heading into a meeting with a politician, they should understand their stance on development. Have they voted against this type of development in the past? Or have they been criticized for being too close to developers? Who are they aligned with at council, and which way are their allies likely to vote? How far away the next election is, and how might this project affect their re-election chances among different demographics? What is their base likely to think? And how is the project, or their opposition to it, likely to play in the local media?

All of these should be “known-knowns” addressed before heading into any meeting. And then, of course, there are those unknown unknowns, which can force you to work around, rather than with, a politician. My colleague and I spent half an hour with the state Senator, walking him carefully through the 1.5 billion years of geology that would ensure our project, and his state, was safe. It was a presentation that had softened even our most hardened sceptic. But at the end of it he just winced.

“Well, this has been very interesting,” he said. “But, you see, your science doesn’t really hold water for people like me and many of the people I represent who believe God created the Earth in seven days about 5,000 years ago like the Bible says. Thank you, though,” he said standing us up and motioning us to the door, “and good luck with your project.”

Kevin Powers is managing principal of Project Advocacy Inc., a subsidiary of Campbell Strategies, and is focused on helping project developers facing public and government opposition.

Find him at or email him at [email protected]


Kevin Powers, good projects
Kevin Powers.
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