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?