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MARGIN NOTES

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. Kevin Shi / March 7, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    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.

  2. Christian Riel / July 3, 2013 at 9:56 am

    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

  3. Hayley Rutherford / June 3, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    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.

  4. Penny Park / June 3, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    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.

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