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The so-so state of science communication in Canada

Chris Hadfield aside, we're not particularly strong in communicating science in this country.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | May 27, 2013

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?

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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  1. Bob LeDrew (@bobledrew) / May 27, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    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

    • Mike Spear / May 29, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Nice comparisons in your http://bit.ly/17ns7P0 post Bob.
      If only more science organizations and their Comm staff, not to mention scientists and researchers, would get past the notion that having a common touch somehow dumbs down the science.

  2. Pascal Lapointe / May 28, 2013 at 12:26 am

    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 / May 29, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    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 / May 29, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    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. Sarah Boon (@SnowHydro) / May 29, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    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!

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