Career Central, Interviews

A Conversation with Minister Reza Moridi: Physicist to Policy Maker

Minister Moridi was an innovative policymaker and crucial to modernizing multiple educational programs in Ontario, including the Ontario Students Assistance Program (OSAP). He is also a 1st generation immigrant, and the first minister elected to a Canadian parliament of Iranian descent.
Prior to his work in politics, Minister Moridi was an eminent physicist and was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and the Institution of Engineering and Technology in the UK. The following will discuss his education, his transition to politics, his views on optimizing Post-Secondary Education and advice to current students.

 

Before your entry into politics, you were an eminent physicist. Could you describe your academic journey into physics, as well as how you applied this information in your work?

“After finishing my high school in Tehran, Iran – my country of birth, I went to Tehran University where I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. I then continued my education in Brunel University in London, England, where I did a Master of Technology and also a PhD in physics.
After the completion of my studies in England, I went back to Iran to serve my homeland. I worked there as an academic for a few years, until the revolution happened in 1979. I’m sure everyone knows, more or less, about the story of the Iranian Revolution of 1979; and after a few years, I was basically forced to leave the country.
I left Iran for the Fiji Islands, where I worked as a professor at the University of the South Pacific, and after working there for about two and half years, I came to Canada, to the city of Toronto. This was in 1990, exactly 30 years ago. Then in Toronto, I worked as a scientist in the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada; I started there as a staff scientist, and after a 17 years career when I left the Institute in 2007, I was vice-president as well as chief scientist of the institute.”

 

That, of course, brought you to a rather different stage of your career, which leads us to our second question: most politicians, as you know, hail from a legal background or a legal career of some sort. You are a very notable, and certainly welcomed exception to that pattern. Could you speak to how you went from a physicist to a career as a politician and minister?

“That’s a very good question. You are absolutely right, not very many physicists or scientists or engineers become politicians. Actually, at the Ontario Legislature, along with a colleague who also had a degree in physics, we were the only physicist there. You know, in some countries, there were many scientists involved in politics. For example, in the UK, Margret Thatcher – the former Prime Minister, was a chemist. In Germany, Angela Merkel – the current Chancellor, is a physicist. So, there have been some scientists who entered politics, but not very many.
It’s interesting to think about, because scientists bring their own perspective, and I think it’s essential for our political environment to having people from , various educational backgrounds, vocational backgrounds, community backgrounds at our legislatures. And the reason I’m saying this is that politics is not an exact science, it is not like two times two makes four. You need different ideas, different thoughts to get together and somehow allow them to clash with each other so that at the end, we produce something for the good of the community and for the good of the country as a result of this decision making process. I think it is helpful to have various people from various backgrounds, including scientists, engineers, physicists, mathematicians and so on.”

 

Minister, your training for many years and your subsequent work for several decades was giving you a certain expertise in physics, so it takes a certain amount of courage to say, ‘let me put this aside and go on to this new profession’. A lot of students are now similarly facing these choices, they’ve been trained in one subject, but they’re now having to seriously consider doing something else. How did you approach this decision, and do you have any advice for others facing a similar choice?

“Along with my formal education in physics and science, I also educated myself about history, politics, geography and a little bit economics; all of the subjects that you might put them under the umbrella of politics. So, I kept involved in the community, in society, wherever I lived, and that kept me educated about what is happening in our society and what should happen in our society. In reality, I was a part-time politician, in that sense, for many years before I formally entered politics. That was as a result of my passion for public service. When the time came eventually, and I was asked by the Liberal Party of Ontario to run for the office, the passion and background knowledge was there.
It’s important to recognize that having a degree in a subject does not make you an expert, having a political science degree doesn’t mean that you will be a politician. It is important to recognize that people from different backgrounds may have something to contribute to politics.”

 

One of your notable legislative successes has been your work to reduce the upfront cost of tuition for students. The Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) made is possible for qualifying students to go to University for little to no upfront cost. Can you explain why you undertook this effort, and why it is important to make University accessible to students from differing socioeconomic backgrounds?

“Investing in Education, whatever the expenditure governments make, for our children, our youth and our people is the best investment a country can make. The actual wealth of a country is not in their natural resources, it is their people; it is the people who make a country wealthy. If you invest in people, you will have a better and wealthier society, and that was always my thinking. Even as I entered into politics, I was thinking how we can make education accessible to everybody. Fortunately, in Ontario, we have free education for our people from kindergarten to high school, but University education is not completely free, though it’s much cheaper than some other countries, but having said that, it’s not free.
When I was minister for Training, Colleges and Universities, I was thinking how we can make the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) more accessible for everyone. I was of course consulting university and college presidents, and my own staff at the Ministry and we concluded that there were many areas where we could make OSAP more accessible for students so that our people can attend university and college.
One of the things we did was that we removed mature students criteria. At the time, a mature student, one who graduated from high school 4 years ago; were not eligible for OSAP. What we did was we removed that criteria so that someone as old as 70, for example, could apply for OSAP and continue his/her education in a college or university.
What we saw was that in university and college, enrollment went up. There are many people in our country and province who are coming from all over the world, and most of them would be classified as mature students, meaning that they would not be eligible for OSAP. Many of these people, coming from other countries, may need to upgrade their education and skills in Canada, so they will have to attend some college. Generally, they may not have the means to pay for university or college tuition. So removing the mature student criteria, we paved the way for many other people to easily access higher education.
Also, there are many students graduating from high school who may not have the means to go to university immediately after graduation. . I used to say to my colleagues, “how many Albert Einstein’s are we missing each year”, simply because we didn’t give those students the opportunity to go to university or college.
We also made higher education basically free for low income families, or families earning less than $60,000/year. The first year we did this, I was told that 50,000 more people applied to OSAP (more than the year before). That was I think one of the major achievements I had in my 11 years a politician. It was on February 26 that this legislation passed the Ontario Parliament, and I called this day the highlight of my career in politics.”

 

I think certainly that congratulations are in order for that Minister; but taking a little bit of a turn, in politics (as in life) there is the good and the bad, victories and defeats. So how do you deal with outcomes that are not necessarily to your satisfaction, and how would you suggest that students approach similar circumstances?

“Well you’re absolutely right, because you don’t get elected every time. In my own case, in June 2018, during our last Ontario General Election, I and many of my colleagues in the Ontario Liberal Party, lost ours seats. For me, it was easy to digest that. First of all, I never called myself a career politician. I came to politics late in my life, after having a career in my own profession. I came to politics because I wanted to serve my community and serve this country. I wasn’t there to make myself a career out of that, though some people do. They enter politics in their twenties, and they were they for thirty or forty years. I wasn’t like that, and I always thought that people elect me as long as they need me, and things change in politics. We live in a democratic society.
I was telling some people who were upset on the election day that we were not supposed to be there forever, and I really believe in that. So that belief made it a little easier for me to accept the reality. Sometimes, it’s not easy to accept defeat, we’re all human after all. We’re really lucky that we’re living in a democratic society, and it makes it much easier to accept these elections outcome. When people say no to you, don’t take it personally.
I remember a saying: ‘there’s a life after politics. There is a life after any challenges you face, and this is especially true for students. The first application may not be successful, even the second or third. Beyond that, you may have to apply for a hundred jobs. Never be discouraged, There’s always hope, the world belongs to young people, you just have to try and try.”

 

Wonderful advice, and that takes us to our last question: what would you say to a student looking forward to a life in politics and public service? Is there anything they should be looking towards, in terms of training or education?

“My advice is first of all, build your own career. To me, politics wasn’t a career. Have your own professional career and become an expert in whatever area you like. Then, at one point, if you want to serve the community and your country, you can always do that. If people want you to represent them, why not? Again, politics isn’t a career; though as I said, there are people who do that, it’s exception. So, think about establishing your career first.
Along with your career, get involved; don’t work in isolation. Follow what’s happening in your society, your country, your province, your city. Get involved and increase your knowledge about politics: your local politics, then your provincial politics, then notational and even international politics. Today, the world is becoming a smaller and smaller village, so you need to know what is happening around you. So keep abreast of what is happening in other countries and communities.
Eventually, if you find that people need you and that there is a callupon you to serve, then you are ready. Remember, you can always leave your career, enter politics for a few years, and either by your choice or the voters, you can return to your profession. So this is my advice for young people.”

 

Excellent advice; that brings us to the end of our questions, is there anything that you would like to add?

“Thank you very much for organizing this interview. I just want to remind our young people to work very hard, and learn more, build your career. Remember that the future is yours, and that Canada and the world – in fact the humanity needs you. If you become a professional lawyer, doctor, dentist, electrician, plumber, carpenter – whatever profession you choose, you are going to serve the community. It’s not just about making a good life for yourself and your family, but about serving your community, so work very hard!”

 

Those are certainly some worthy words of wisdom. On behalf of Education Press, and our Editorial Board, thank you very much for your time Minister. We certainly appreciate everything you had to say to us, the students and educators who will read this article will gain a lot from your words. So thank you again and we greatly appreciate your time.

“My Pleasure.”