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Canadians’ science culture thriving, new report finds

But expert panel chair Art Carty says restrictions on federal scientists’ communications “casts a shadow” over an otherwise positive report.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | AUG 28 2014

Canadians must “strive for a society that looks to science to help inform our decisions and broaden our world view,” said Art Carty, executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo. That requires a strong science culture, and on that score Canada is doing well, he said.

According to the findings of a new report by the Council of Canadian Academies, Canadians rank highly or on par with the rest of the world in terms of their science knowledge, their attitudes towards science and their engagement with it. Dr. Carty, former head of the National Research Council of Canada and the country’s one-time national science adviser, chaired the expert panel that prepared the report.

Despite the good news, “that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent,” warned Dr. Carty. The CCA report noted a number of concerns, such as the federal government’s current policies restricting government scientists’ communication with the media. Nearly 20,000 science and technology professionals work for the federal government and “the ability of these researchers to communicate with the media and the Canadian public has a clear bearing on Canada’s science culture,” the report said. “Properly supported, government scientists can serve as a useful conduit for informing the public about their scientific work, and engaging the public in discussions about the social relevance of their research.”

Dr. Carty, in an interview, added: “the failure of government to allow federal scientists to communicate their results to other scientists around the world and to the media … casts a shadow over the otherwise very positive impression of science culture in Canada conveyed by this expert panel study. One can’t just say, let’s ignore that. … It is not good for the scientists, it is not good for the world of science and it is not good for Canada. It undermines our science culture.”

The report, Science Culture: Where Canada Stands, was released on August 28. The CCA was asked to prepare it by the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, Industry Canada and Natural Resources Canada.

The report reviews data on Canadians’ science skills and the current peer-reviewed literature on science culture. It also features an inventory of the organizations and programs in Canada that support and promote science culture. Most notably, it contains the results of a new public survey of 2,000 Canadians on their science attitudes, engagement and knowledge. “There hadn’t been a survey of science culture in Canada since 1989,” noted Dr. Carty, “whereas countries such as the United States and some European counties do it regularly.”

Among the survey’s findings are that Canadians have positive attitudes towards science and technology and have fewer reservations about science than citizens of many other countries. For example, 77 percent of Canadians agree that, all things considered, the world is better off because of science and technology. Canadians also express above-average levels of support for public funding of scientific research, and a strong majority of Canadians view science and technology as important in pursuing a range of social objectives such as environmental protection and improving Canada’s economic prospects.

The survey also found that Canadians exhibit a high level of engagement with science and technology relative to citizens of other countries. Ninety-three percent of Canadians report being interested in new scientific discoveries, placing Canada first out of 33 countries on this measure. As well, nearly one-third of Canadians said they had visited a science and technology museum at least once in the past year – a higher percentage than the citizens of any other country save Sweden. Canadians’ level of science knowledge, meanwhile, is on a par with or above that of other countries. Canadians also were tops in an index of civic science literacy.

One area where Canada appears to be underperforming is in science and technology skills development, the report found. For instance, only 20 percent of first university degrees earned in Canada are in the sciences and engineering – putting Canada 19th out of 29 countries on this measure.

As well, Dr. Carty said that Canadian governments could do more “in terms of setting a national vision for science culture.” Articulating such a vision “can provide a framework for action and a foundation for coordination” across organizations, he said. “We’re a bit behind in Canada in that regard.”

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