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Sorry Rick Mercer, I’d love to agree but I think you’re wrong

By DAVID KENT | November 26, 2014

Last week, Rick Mercer went on a rant about science – about how impressive it is that scientists managed to land on a comet half a billion kilometres away, about how the current Canadian government fails to support “pure science,” and how the Canadian public is “as passionate and curious as anyone else.” While I would agree that the comet landing is neat and that there have been governments that were more supportive, I’m not so convinced by the (lovely!) idea that the Canadian public loves science.

I believe Rick Mercer thinks that science is cool, and I even believe that he would be pleased to see his tax dollars (and maybe even his charitable dollars) go to support blue-sky research. But I do not believe Mr. Mercer’s idea that Canadians as a whole are interested although I, like him, would wish it to be the case. I think Mr. Mercer’s claims about Canadians’ passions are anecdotal at best, and lack any evidence – indeed it is possible that Canadians don’t give a hoot about science for science’s sake.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years doing scientific research and outreach in Canada and the United Kingdom. To me it appears that, despite science influencing just about every aspect of their lives, the average Canadian adult does not particularly care about how or why something works. Canadians care about cures for their loved ones, faster mobile phone technologies, higher-resolution televisions, and fuel-efficient cars and homes.

In the U.K., things are not perfect but they are much much better when it comes to the public support of science. I’ve long wondered why this is the case (perhaps it’s Canada’s resource-based economy or its shorter history) but whatever the reason, these feelings are well-supported by comparing the volume of media and public policy related to science. In the U.K., there are incredible books and radio/television programs produced (many exported, e.g., Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, David Attenborough’s Planet Earth) that present science and nature as interesting components of our daily lives (I’ve previously compiled these thoughts on the Signals blog). By comparison, very very few people in the U.K. have heard of the Canadian science juggernaut David Suzuki. Despite his great stuff, it underscores just how parochial Canadian culture can be.

I am not trying to insult my country – I am a very proud Canadian – but I do worry that we get complacent when things are rolling along without crisis. I worry that we get lazy when it comes to supporting science in schools and do not demand better programming from our media. People watch Planet Earth because it’s really well made and doesn’t feel like you’re learning. Where is that calibre of programming in Canada?

Perhaps, Mr Mercer, the current government is simply reflecting the average Canadian adult’s priorities … could it be?

I would love to be proven wrong and I hope that this article might inspire some more efforts to create a better public understanding of, and support for, basic scientific research. There are amazing groups working in Canada to change these attitudes – Let’s Talk Science, the Canadian Science Writers Association, Actua – but really we need strong political leadership at universities, schools, Parliament and in the business community. Inspire Canadians to care about comets, wildlife, and geology … and maybe, just maybe, Canadians will change their country (and the world!) in all sorts of cool ways.

David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Kevin S Mogk / November 27, 2014 at 8:36 am

    As a graduate student in science communications and having worked for three years on the front lines at a science centre, I would agree with Rick Mercer that Canadians love science and that they do get excited about it! They may not always understand or get excited about the finer details of how things work, as you mentioned, but they sure do get excited about the cures, new technologies and discoveries and those are all part of science and the public understands that!

    To put it another way, there are lots of people who love to eat cake, but you would never say someone can’t love cake because they don’t know how to bake one. Don’t get me wrong, it would be great if everyone got as passionate about the finer details of the how in science, but let’s be honest even physicists don’t understand the finer workings of the cell or RNA. So, please, don’t accuse the public of not loving science because they only get excited about the science they know.

    You also point out that the United Kingdom has great programs that are being exported and we don’t see similar programs here in Canada. Could it be that we are having trouble getting these things off the ground not because of a lack of passion from the Canadian people or lack of desire on the part or our broadcasters (Quirks and Quarks, Ideas, The Nature of Things are but a few great Canadian programs that show that passion and desire), but, as Rick Mercer pointed out, from a Government that is not funding science, science communication or even public communication in general? Our public broadcaster keeps facing cuts to its funding, so when the CBC goes to propose something like Planet Earth, can they justify earmarking $25 million and five years of time (the cost and time required for Planet Earth) when they are uncertain if they will continue with the same level of funding?

    The most telling sign I have that Canadians love science is when I talk to them. Not at work, not as part of my studies as a science communicator, but just as part of day to day idle chitchat. Whenever the question of what I do for a living comes up and I tell them I work in a science centre, their first words are “That’s so cool,” and they always follow that with some very excited comment about some topic about science, be it simple and small like their bug collection, or big and complex like a recent discovery in astronomy or medicine. They are passionate, they are excited. Maybe all we have to do is take the time to listen.

  2. Léo Charbonneau / November 27, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Hi Dave,
    I generally agree with your sentiments that most Canadians don’t seem very engaged with science. I voiced much the same thoughts in a Margin Notes post last year (“The so-so state of science communication in Canada”), which focussed mainly on science reporting.

    However, for the sake of balance, I did want to respond to one of your statements: that the “claims about Canadians’ passions [for science] are anecdotal at best, and lack any evidence.” In fact, recently, the Council of Canadian Academies did conduct a study of Canadian science culture. They devised a series of criteria and then set out to measure them relative to other countries. The report, released at the end of August, concluded that Canadian science culture was thriving. Chaired by former National Research Council president Art Carty, the expert panel found that Canadians have positive attitudes towards science and technology, had fewer reservations about science than citizens of many other countries, exhibited a high level of engagement with science and technology, and so on.

    The report made a good case, but I must admit I was (and remain) skeptical of their findings. It just doesn’t seem to mesh with my own observations/feelings, but who am I to put my anecdotal impressions against their data?

    One shadow hanging over the report (perhaps one of many) was the government’s restrictions on federal scientists’ communications. Dr. Carty did address that in an interview with me, saying, “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.”

  3. Stephanie Deschenes / November 27, 2014 at 10:09 am

    I would also like to weigh in on the conversation. I’m the Executive Director for the Canadian Association of Science Centres, working with informal science communications professionals (like Kevin) across the country. I’ve noticed in my experience working in a science centre and visits to other science centres in Canada, that people are generally very excited by science and how things work – and not just children. Canada’s science centres see approximately 8 million people a year and 75% of them are adults.

    I do think there is often a disconnect between the excitement of what they see in informal science activities (like science centre visits) and up to date information about the real research happening in the field. I would love to see informal science communications professionals, like those in science centres, and scientists working together to find more ways of connecting directly with Canadians. I

    How could this work? I’m sure there are thousands of ways we can do it. We just have to talk to each other. I’m willing to be part of that solution if there are others out there willing to work with me!

  4. Claire Eamer / November 27, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    My experience is skewed, to a degree, by the fact that I write science books for kids – and kids generally love science. However, the parents, teachers, and librarians I encounter are also enthusiastic. Science centres are full of enthusiastic kids and adults, as are science-based museums.

    Granted science centres cater to children first, but I think we should be offering adults the same level of access and enthusiasm. I have lived in Whitehorse, Yukon, for most of the last 30 years – the home of the Yukon Science Institute lecture series. It’s an annual series of free talks by scientists (both local and visiting) that’s been going on for the last 20 years at least. Audiences range from a handful to several hundred, depending the topic, and they are always well-informed and enthusiastic – all in a city of roughly 23,000. If it can happen in Whitehorse, it can happen elsewhere in Canada (and probably does).

    Television programs are another matter. Measuring Canadian science television programs against those from the UK or the US is a false measure. The Neil deGrasse Tyson shows and David Attenborough’s many series are vastly better funded than anything done in Canada, partly because of the reputations of the presenters. A succession of governments have crippled the CBC’s ability to do in-house programming and forced the Corp to focus on anything that will make quick advertising revenue without annoying the government of the day. Science annoys the current government, so it gets a lower profile. And the private broadcasters have failed to contribute significantly to science journalism.

    Like Stephanie, I think there are ways to link scientists and enthusiastic non-scientists in order to improve everyone’s understanding – and that we need to talk to each other. I, too, would love to part of the solution.

  5. Sonja B / November 27, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    OK, I’m gonna tackle the low-hanging fruit here — you don’t think Britain’s legacy of colonial rule explains the wide reach of British popular culture (including scientists) in Canada, and the lack of reciprocal influence? I’m just having a hard time placing the blame on Canadian culture for being ‘parochial’ when dismissing the intellectual contributions of the colonized is, like, one of the central tenets of imperialism. And the problem is not unique to Canada, either; who in the West can name one modern non-US/UK scientist??

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