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.