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Tipping Point of Science Communication in Canada – A Response

1 Dec

I had the opportunity to represent my department at the Vancouver Telus World of Science during Telus World of Science Community Celebration Free Admission Weekend last year. 20,500 people showed up. Not just families, which we normally would expect with a visit to the Science World, but also teenagers, young adults, retirees, and more.

People lining up around the block in the rain, waiting to enter the Science World.

People lining up around the block in the rain, waiting to enter the Science World.

Having done science outreach and communications for the better part of my life, our general public’s enthusiasm toward science is hardly “just anecdotal” for me. As the person coordinating many public events for my department, time and time again I was worried that nobody will show up to a talk about the beginning of the universe, about the discovery of a new particle, about the physics behind climate change, about what “time” is, about the latest research on LED and Lasers…

And time and time again I was proven wrong.

So when David Kent, a friend from my Let’s Talk Science days, said the following in his recent article, “Sorry Rick Mercer, I’d love to agree but I think you’re wrong,” I had to disagree.

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 fact, the latest report “Science Culture, Where Canada Stands” by the Council of Canadian Academies seems to support what I have seen. The issue is not in our public’s interest in science. There is plenty of that here in Canada.

coca national percentages infographic-cmyk

David went on to say,

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.

The real issue here is, with Canada’s short history, the spread of our population across a massive landscape, the lack of a champion organization or political momentum, and our current government’s unflattering attitude, what we can do creatively to foster public support for basic research. And, we as scientists or science communicators should stop expecting public enthusiasm alone is sufficient. What David is asking for takes more than just that.

In fact, for UK, which is the country that David is stacking Canada against, the two champion organizations I am aware of both have very long histories. The British Science Association was established in 1831. The Royal Institute of Great Britain was founded 1799. (And remember Canada only came about in 1867). These champion organizations have been a big part in driving the dialogues about science and science education in UK. Together, the environment fostered by such organizations significantly contributed to UK’s scientific atmosphere now.

So, how are we going to catch up?

It takes years of building human capacity by science communication training – through science communication programs from the Banff Centre, Laurentian University, Mount Saint Vincent University, and several science journalism programs.

It take organizations such as Evidence for Democracy and Get Science Right to encourage people to start writing emails to their MPs, to bring attention to science-related policies, to be a political voice from this side of the bench.

It takes making science geographically more accessible to everyone in Canada. For example, you can now watch public lectures from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics live online, without taking a trip to Waterloo, Ontario – and if you want more, check out their archive.

It takes our scientists talking to others, not only about the science they do, but also about why the science is important to others – why, when someone is worried about the money for rent tomorrow, about looking for a job, about whether his or her child can get a childcare spot, this someone should care about basic science research. That is what many of the Science Borealis bloggers have been able to do through their blogs.

And, can we encourage more collaborations beyond science for simply science’s sake – how about being part of literature, art work, technology, movies, entertainment, and beyond? How about more events like the Beakerhead in Calgary, A smash up of art, science and engineering?

But in the end, it takes time to build up momentum. While the Banff Science Communications Program is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, most of these other science communication activities only happened in the past 2-3 years. This further speaks to the need for building capacity, and when we have reached the tipping point, things happen. More and more people will finally go, “it is time to do something about this in Canada,” as most of groups mentioned here have done.

So, let’s stop thinking that our public are not interested in science. They are. But science does not exist in its own silo. The bigger question is, why should the public care about funding for basic science research, about science-related policies, about the freedom to access research done by our own government scientists. And that, takes more than Canadians’ enthusiasm toward science. That takes capacity, momentum, and the tipping point.

PS. Here is Rick Mercer’s Rant that David was referring to.

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It’s been too long!

8 Aug

It has been way too long since my last blog post! In the next few weeks you will see more posts because of my current staycation. I have the following planned for the blog:

Earlier this year, I mentioned that I would like to write something about clinical trials. With the latest Ebola outbreak, there are a few things I want to write about. Is it difficult to develop treatments for Ebola? Who is working on this, and why haven’t we made progress? You probably heard that an experimental drug is being used in the US to treat aid workers who are infected Ebola, and my impression is that the drug itself hasn’t gone through a proper clinical trial. What is the typical process for a clinical trial, why is it necessary, and why does it take so long? And then, let’s look at the ethics of drug development: Why is it difficult for drugs for illnesses common in less privileged countries to be developed?

Working in science outreach and communication, one trend I am noticing is the move from rigid teaching curriculum and standards to something focusing more on big ideas, including one that science is a process, not just facts. I am glad to see this move, but at the same time uneasy about it. I plan to work on a series on science education. Why is early science education important? What does this shift in curriculum and standards mean to students, teachers (in my opinion, a component often overlooked in this re-development of teaching standards), and informal science education (science outreach)?

I have always been quite a hands-on, “DIY” person. This probably comes with working in the Physics department and have access to all the cool electronics stuff. With that said, my health sciences background doesn’t lend help here. In the next few months, I will be playing with some basic electronics stuff based on the book Make: Electronics. This means that I will share my success and failures on the blog…

And of course, other than these “themes,” I will continue to share other random inspirations related to science communications and outreach. I am also hoping to update the resources page when I get a chance.

Thanks again for your patience and it’s good to be back! 😀

Let 2014 begin

20 Jan

I didn’t imagine blogging becoming part of my life.

I never thought so many people would read my posts in the past year. Never anticipated the number of my twitter followers would grow from the 24 people I actually knew, to the 350 people whom I became friends with. I never imagined finding a place I belong and becoming a part of the online community for science communication.

I didn’t realize blogging would make my voice a little louder, my imagination grander, and my stance for what I think is right much stronger.

I didn’t think that with all the random thoughts I have, thoughts connecting my life to science, to research, to the society, this blog becomes me, and I become the blog.

I once told a friend that I wrote my blog posts like my diary. This is about half right – the other half, I wrote them like my research thesis. With every comment posted by others, my heart beats somewhat faster. Whenever a friend says “hey I read that post!” A smile floats to the surface – it’s a rush.

I want to thank the friend who practically pushed and shoved me into blogging and twitter. The friends who watched me”grew up” online. The friends who contributed ideas, many of which became actual posts on this blog. And the friends who read my blog. All of you whom I have met, or I haven’t met and hopefully will meet and chat in person one day. Thank you, you are awesome.

Last but not the least, I would like to give myself a little pat on the back. Theresa, thanks for being the stubborn idiot who thinks that you have more than 24 hours a day and isn’t afraid of making some mistakes here and there. Thanks for wanting a little more. Thanks for saying no when you should, and saying yes when you really shouldn’t.

Now, let 2014 begin.

An (in)efficient vacation

20 Aug

I am so sorry, readers…I have been trying to write part 3 for my series on how to study gender bias in science for the past 3 weeks. In fact, my vacation from work started 2 weeks ago, so I had plenty of time to do it! At least that was what I thought to myself.

But I made the same mistake that many people made, thinking that they will continue to be productive work-wise on their vacation, only to realize that this is not the case afterward.

For my readers who don’t know me personally, I have been a bit of a workaholic in the past few months. I absolutely love my job, and love all things associated with it – science talks, outreach events, articles about science. And even though I am not working toward another degree, I take pleasure in reading scientific articles “for fun” :D. But all these are a bit of a trade off. For the last few months I have been missing out on going to indie concerts, cooking, organizing beer hangouts, playing some more sports, and more, so that I could kick start my blog and get a few other online science communication projects going. I think I forgot that while these were not work, it is still “working,”

I had a conversation with my boss a few weeks ago, where he worried that I might eventually burn out. I was like, of course not! I have so many things going, science talks, writing, reading, etc. And he went, “I meant, something that is not related to science?” And I was like, “ehhhhhh…..”

And to top it off, now that I am not “at work”, I miss the environment of constantly being part of the science communication conversations at work. These conversations push me to write about issues, to think about the next article, and to voice concerns. Now that I am not in that environment, it is very hard to move past my writer’s block.

Anyways, I am been carrying the guilt of not writing up part 3 and 4 of my series, but at the same time I would much rather take a proper break and make sure that when I come back to complete my series, the articles will be the best they can be. So, sorry readers. But don’t worry. My vacation ends in 2 weeks so you should find the series on my blog fairly soon 😀 Thank you again for your support and please do continue following this blog in the future!

Pokemon + Biodiversity = the Phylo Card Game

25 Jul

For someone whose blog name was inspired by a Pokemon catchphrase, I am attracted to all things science & Pokemon. It therefore feels like my duty to talk about the Phylo card game. Even more importantly, there is a little back story here.

When I was still a graduate student, I spent a lot of time doing science outreach. One time, I attended an outreach workshop organized by the UBC Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program. This particularly workshop was led by David Ng, Director and Senior Instructor of the UBC  Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much from that workshop (sorry Dave!). But, one thing he talked about did stick with me. He mentioned a letter by Andrew Balmford and colleagues (you can read the excerpt here), who found that kids in UK could identify Pokemons (which are really just artificial “species”) better than identifying common wild life organisms. So – can we learn from this and come up with something that would help them discover real species and learn their names?

Little did I know back then, that this would soon be a new initiative led by David, and became a real game: Phylo, the trading card game. The game is much like the typical Pokemon trading card game you see kids play. The main difference? All the organisms on the cards are real. This is also an interesting artistic collaboration – there are some amazing art works done for the cards by many artists. Each card comes with the organism’s common name and Latin name, evolutionary tree info, key words, and more. If you browse the cards online, you can also read a bit more about each species.

speciescardimage

What a Phylo card looks like. For more info visit: http://phylogame.org/game-play/

The Phylo game is an open access project – you can download the card deck online for free (!!) and print the cards on card stock. There are also special decks put together by the London’s Natural History Museum and the 2012 World Science Festival. If you are in Vancouver, the UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum now produces  professionally printed starter deck with organisms featured at the museum, for sale at the Museum Gift Shop for $12.99. Proceeds from the sale will go to outreach and education activities at the museum. Online sale is currently not available, but you can sign up online to receive an email when online sale begins. Or, you can just download this starter deck here.

This touches on something else about science communication – how many other mainstream, unconventional ideas haven’t we tapped into for science communication and education? Something to think about…

Salal

Sockeye Salmon

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