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The so-so state of science communication in Canada

Posted on 27 May 2013 by
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield unpacks a Canadian experiment called Microflow aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: Canadian Space Agency.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield unpacks a Canadian experiment called Microflow aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: Canadian Space Agency.

The recent public outreach efforts of International Space Station Commander and Canadian Chris Hadfield – his explanatory videos, photos and remarkable cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” shot from outer space, not to mention his nearly one million Twitter followers – was a triumph for science communication, says science writer Kyle Hill, writing for Scientific American. Who could argue with that?

This was great to see since science communication in Canada – or, at least, the media coverage of science – has never been particularly strong. Yes, there are some obvious exceptions, such as CBC Radio’s long-running Quirks and Quarks with Bob McDonald and the even longer-running TV show the Nature of Things with David Suzuki, also on our public broadcaster (the two shows, respectively, are currently in their 35th and 53rd seasons – a triumph that should be celebrated).

But, in the daily media, things are not so rosy. The days when Canadian newspapers had full-time science writers on staff are mostly gone, and science stories seem to rarely make it into television newscasts. Canada doesn’t even have a national science magazine.

There are efforts made to improve the quality of science writing through the likes of the Science Media Centre of Canada and the Canadian Science Writers Association, but these are mainly shoestring operations.

As is often the case, the situation is somewhat different in Quebec. It has a general science magazine, Québec Science, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, as well as an excellent science magazine for kids, Les Débrouillards. The annual Acfas Congress, organized by the Association francophone pour le savoir, is also a big media event and attracted some 6,000 attendees in May. Acfas also publishes an online magazine, Découvrir.

I’m not sure what to attribute this paucity of science reporting to in English Canada. It certainly cannot be due to a weak culture of science in this country. Canada has always held its own in scientific research internationally, a fact underlined by the likes of the Council of Canadian Academies in its 2012 report and most recently by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (which noted, for example, that with a share of only 0.5 percent of global population, Canada accounted for 4.4 percent of the world’s natural sciences and engineering publications).

I do know, having covered science stories for much of my career, that I find it difficult to write about science in an engaging way. That’s because scientific discovery is rarely a single eureka event, a happening, but is rather a slow process of tiny advances that can appear arcane to the general public.

As well, when science is covered by the media, often the trivial triumphs over the important. Or, as one writer recently lamented in the Guardian, too much science journalism falls under the category of “infotainment.” The article garnered much reaction on Twitter, both pro and con.

As I’ve written before, I think what makes for a good science story – or any good story, for that matter – is human drama. Science, after all, is a human pursuit. I want to know about the personalities involved and what drives them in their quest (others may disagree, arguing that this limits the scope of science reporting).

A good example from our own pages of University Affairs was the story “A scientific whodunit” by Michael Smith, published in February 2005; it won the Sanofi Pasteur Medal for Excellence in Health Research Journalism that year. A more recent example is “The story of the origins of AIDS” by Mark Cardwell, which was recently nominated for best profile of a person for the Kenneth R. Wilson Awards in business publishing. (We’ll find out next week whether it won.)

On a related note, the Guardian recently assembled five top writers and asked them what makes for good science writing. It’s a bit difficult to sum up their views succinctly, but the article is nevertheless worth a read.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh concerning the state of science communication in Canada? And if not, what can be done to change that?


Comments

15 Responses to “The so-so state of science communication in Canada”

  1. Hey Leo: Great post. But I think you only get half the story here; or perhaps you only ask questions to half the audience that should be asking them. I think the PR and organizational communications should be put under scrutiny similar to your scrutiny of science media.

    Here’s a link to something I wrote after Hadfield that might be part of that discussion: http://bit.ly/17ns7P0

  2. Not sure if it is a Canadian-only problem: science is not a popular topic in most medias of the Western World. The advantage Quebec has: the language issue. Which means that while there is a small critical mass of readers in Quebec willing to buy a Quebec science magazine, this same critical mass of readers, in the rest of Canada, will frequently buy an American magazine.

    That said, there is indeed one thing that could help a lot, in Canada and elsewhere: if institutions that do support science (universities, funding agencies, etc.) were willing to support science journalism, rather than looking at it with suspicion. Science journalism will never be a strong fellow: he needs all the help he can get.

  3. Theresa Liao says:

    Hello Léo. Thanks for writing this piece. Because of a similar sentiment, a few colleagues and I recently started a Google+ group called Science Communications Canada – the idea is to have it as a landing place for science communication in Canada. We organize Google hangouts and have started working on some projects. I would like to invite those interested in science communication in Canada to join us. We now have almost 80 members and plan to grow it bigger, hopefully creating some momentum for science communication in this country.

  4. Mike Spear says:

    We are working at changing it in some pretty significant ways. Our organization Genome Alberta has provided some direct funding to the Science Media Centre and to a separate project through Canadian Science Publishing to set up a Canadian science blogging site. (definitely follow Theresa’s links above to learn more).
    We maintain GenOmicsNews.ca , an open source Canadian platform (that needed U.S funding to get off the ground ! ) which promotes a lot of science stories and we make sure Canada gets highlighted where we can. We also set up cancomm.org as an online forum to get the conversation going.
    I spend a lot time speaking at conferences on how to use online tools for communication in general but focus on our use of it for promoting the life sciences.
    Finally we’re looking at a major funding effort that will help support all of the above.
    So while you are not wrong, the seeds of a Canadian science communication movement are definitely growing up around you.

  5. It’s true that Canada’s scicomm ‘ecosystem’ is currently limited. I wrote a post about this in relation to the general decline of govt interest in science in Canada (http://bit.ly/VEkSeZ – note link therein to earlier post about scicomm in Canada).

    As both Theresa and Mike allude to above, there are several initiatives underway to rectify this problem. Theresa and Lisa Willemse have set up the G+ community for Canadian scicomms (which is putting together a proposal for the Cdn SciPolicy Conference on using science blogs in policy), Mike has been heavily involved in promoting scicomm through a range of venues, and Canadian Science Publishing is working with a group of volunteers (of which I am part) to put together a Cdn science blog aggregator (see more details here: http://bit.ly/ZQZBA8).

    So while things may look thin now, many opportunities are percolating!

  6. Lisa Willemse says:

    There’s nothing like commenting on the lack of science communications infrastructure in Canada to get a bunch of Canadian scicommers buzzing. But this is exactly what we need in order to strengthen the community and begin to leverage the resources to make change. To a certain extent, I think many of us (myself included) have for been working in geographical and/or subject-driven silos and I’m very glad to see that new initiatives are emerging. I’m hopeful that they will one day be strong enough to overcome the funding vacuum (as Mike alludes to in his comment), lack of infrastructure (in English Canada) and yes, even some of the disregard that this community faces.
    Thanks for helping to stir things up!

  7. Hey Leo,

    I agree with your assertion that human drama plays a large role in science writing. The problem appears to be, as you stated, that very few major media outlets employ science writers and relevant science stories don’t get the airtime they necessarily deserve.

    As the general public begin to rely heavily on internet sources to consume their news, it’s my belief that the voices of scientists – irrespective of nationality – are becoming louder and more prominent as the value of social media is understood. The goal now should be to ensure that our Canadian scientists and writers don’t lag behind in this process.

  8. Glen Jones says:

    Leo,

    Some readers might be interested in a conference that will be taking place in June (19-21st) in Toronto that will be focusing on many of these issues. The Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education conference focuses on the interface between higher education and the media. More information on the conference can be found here:
    http://worldviewsconference.com/

  9. Just thought that I would let you know that CBC is not the only science content broadcaster. I have been hosting the Science Files (one hour weekly) on Rogers Radio (Hal/Monc/StJ) in the Maritimes for eight years and in K-W (570News) for 2 years and have a book on the the science Q&A listeners have called in this late summer.

  10. Penny Park says:

    Hi Leo
    Interesting article and important issue! As you say the Science Media Centre of Canada is here to help journalists – all journalists – cover the natural and physical sciences, engineering, medicine, technology and even some of the social sciences. And yes we do it all on a shoestring with our dedicated staff and the support of our volunteer board, research advisory panel and editorial advisory committee. Over the past 2.5 years we have sent out over 5000 stories to reporters with an emphasis on Canadian research. We send out weekly story tips on Canadian research and upcoming journal articles likely to hit the news, and provide suggested experts to comment on the news of the day. We hold in-depth webinars on topics from extreme weather to the state of Canada’s birds. We also provide “Journalism 101 bootcamps” for scientists interested in learning about the media and why they ask the questions they do. If you’re a journalist who would like to register for our free services please go to our website http://www.sciencemedia.ca or call us at 613-249-8209.

  11. Hi Leo and commenters,

    This article and the responses posted here have given me a great deal to think about. I’m a graduate of the post-graduate diploma in Science Communication (a partnership program between Laurentian University and Science North) and I just wanted to highlight the science communication in Canada that isn’t science journalism. Most of the graduates of the program that I have come into contact with have not gone on to become science writers.

    While science journalism and media coverage are essential pieces of connecting and engaging the public with science, there are a great many science-communicating Canadians working in science centres/museums/zoos/aquaria, in research institutions and for not-for-profits like the WWF and OceanWise. In a world where citizens need to be increasingly scientifically literate to navigate the polling station and the grocery store, we need to consider the effectiveness of science communication on more than just the front page.

  12. Hi Léo,

    At the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), we’re committed to creating new scientific knowledge and then effectively communicating its benefits to the general public. This knowledge translation is done in a variety of ways.

    Two times a year, we host a workshop for journalists that explains research regarding complex scientific topics in accessible terms. This helps the media stay informed and effectively write good stories about the topic in a timely and accurate fashion. Our outreach efforts don’t stop there though.

    Through our Synapse-Youth Outreach program, we promote the value of health research through science outreach provided by researchers to Canadian youth. That way, today’s elementary and high school students will not only appreciate how science can benefit their overall well-being, but also potentially consider a career in a related field in the future. The program is proving to be a success. Between June 2011 and June 2012 alone, mentors provided 21,000 voluntary scientific outreach to 121,000 young Canadians.

    Through our Café Scientifique program, we also host events with CIHR-funded researchers regarding a scientific topic of interest to the general public. The events aren’t lectures – but accessible conversations about the subject at-hand in informal venues (such as a bar, restaurant or a coffee shop). These Café Scientifiques have been held in metropolitan and remote areas across Canada. In November 2012, we reached a milestone by hosting the 500th Café Scientifique in the Montreal area.

    Beyond public outreach efforts, CIHR also believes that translating scientific information can’t be limited to mainstream media and websites. For the past three years, CIHR has used social media platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and blog) to generate further interest in its programs, publications, events and groundbreaking discoveries by funded researchers. Having generated over 1 million fans, it’s safe to say that these platforms demonstrate how effective communication of information in the 21st Century allows for commentary by those who receive it.

    For further information, please visit http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/37796.html

  13. Kevin Shi says:

    If engaging the audience is the major issue here, I think science communication should shift towards more videos and less text in presenting topics. I like what MinuteEarth does on their Youtube channel; they present environmental science topics in ~2-3 min short clips that cover the basics with engaging visual support. Although short videos may fail for more complex topics, they seem to be the most effective for introductory science topics and certainly hold my attention better than text articles.

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