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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.

How space dust teaches us about scientific progresses

30 Sep

Sometimes I feel that it sucks to be a physicist.

(Just to clarify – I am not one, and this is my personal opinion, having worked years in a department full of physicists, and with a background in non-physics fields. This is not after any discussion with other physicists in my dept – they might agree, they might not)

There was a major announcement back in March that results from BICEP2, a telescope sitting in the South Pole, showed evidence of cosmic inflation. This was, at the time, considered a Nobel Prize worthy discovery – I rounded up a few links on this back then.

The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background). (Photo: Steffen Richter, Harvard University via BICEP2 image release gallery)

The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background). (Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

However, recently new results from Planck, a space telescope run by the European Space Agency, showed that the patterns in cosmic wave background detected by BICEP2 are likely just space dust.

The Planck telescope up close (Photo: ESA for public use)

The Planck telescope up close (Photo: ESA for public use)

Suddenly the internet space is filled with criticism – like Big Bang blunder bursts the multiverse bubble, or When Science Gets Ahead Of Itself .

Enough, people.

The reason you are seeing all these in the public is because physicists are known to be open about their research results. There is no (or very little) “I am hiding this so that I can get rich off it” or “I think someone else is going to scoop my research.” Data are often shared as soon as they are available via the open access arXiv. People make results open so that others can criticize it. So that the public can better understand science. So the field as a whole can progress as much and as fast as possible. In fact, there was already some talk about data sharing between the BICEP2 and the Planck team. Physicists are years, if not decades, ahead of other fields in the openness and rapidness in sharing information.

In my mind, this is what science is about.

I completely agree with Philip Ball, as he said in his article in the Guardian:

The team involved has been criticised for publishing results before they were peer reviewed. But this is what science is: debate, discussion, deliberation.

This is also what makes science interesting. It is constantly changing, not static; it is the collective knowledge, not lines of facts. As mentioned by Astrophysicist Mario Livio,

As disappointing as these new results may sound, they provide for a powerful demonstration of how science truly progresses. Advances in science are far from being a direct march to the truth. Rather, they consist of a zigzag path that often results in false starts or blind alleys. The important point, however, is that through continuous checks, testable predictions, and new observations, science is able to self-correct and find the right way.

After Higgs Boson was found, Stephen Hawking (who lost $100 in a bet about it) said,

Physics would be ‘more interesting’ if Higgs boson hadn’t been found.

Let’s not go back to the age of waiting for years before the results are published. I say that realizing BICEP2 might come from dusts keeps the discussion of cosmic inflation interesting. And, this definitely means that the bet between Stephen Hawking and Neil Turok is not over yet.


Links to the original publications:

Ade P.A.R., M. Amiri, D. Barkats, S. J. Benton, C. A. Bischoff, J. J. Bock, J. A. Brevik, I. Buder, E. Bullock & G. Davis & (2014). BICEP2. II. EXPERIMENT AND THREE-YEAR DATA SET, The Astrophysical Journal, 792 (1) 62. DOI:

Ade P.A.R., D. Barkats, S. J. Benton, C. A. Bischoff, J. J. Bock, J. A. Brevik, I. Buder, E. Bullock, C. D. Dowell & L. Duband & (2014). Detection of B-Mode Polarization at Degree Angular Scales by BICEP2, Physical Review Letters, 112 (24) DOI:

Planck Collaboration, R. Adam, P. A. R. Ade, N. Aghanim, M. Arnaud, J. Aumont, C. Baccigalupi, A. J. Banday, R. B. Barreiro, J. G. Bartlett & N. Bartolo (2014). Planck intermediate results. XXX. The angular power spectrum of
polarized dust emission at intermediate and high Galactic latitudes, arXiv:

Introducing “The Lab” – a YouTube comedy series about grad students working in a science lab

10 Sep

What can four busy graduates from the Banff Science Communications Program come up with during a random night of dinner and chats?

This. Introducing “The Lab” – a YouTube comedy series about grad students working in a science lab.

We first came up with this concept about a year ago. After the Banff program, we have all gotten really busy with our lives, jobs, or school work, but the desire to do a project together never left us. That’s when this idea came up. “How about a show like, ‘the office,’ except it is about a lab and the grad students working in the lab?”

All four of us – Suraaj, Agatha, Pam, and I – have experience working in research labs. And if you have met any of us, you would know that the idea of doing a YouTube series totally makes sense. So it started. Script writing meetings, google hangouts, edits, rewrites, …

Those who spend much of their time doing science communication know this – outside of science communication, most of us have other things going on. May it be that PhD thesis, the Post-doc fellowship, a (real?) full-time job, and maybe others. After we finished working on the script of the first few episodes, people got busy, and we all moved on.

But at some point, Suraaj continued – huge kudos to her. By the time that we got another email about this from her, it was a year later, and the scripts for a few more episodes had been written. In fact, she had started looking for actors and actresses for the show.

Unfortunately, Agatha is now all the way in Washington DC for a fellowship program. Pam and I managed to drop by and help out a little, with Suraaj (“the director”) driving the show. And this, is what we got.

So you see, this is not simply a comedy series. This show is about our passion for science communication. This show is about moving on to better things. This show is about sticking to your guns to make something happen. This show is about, on a random night when the 4 of us got together, catching up and talking about science communication. This is what it is about.

Okay, I think I am romanticizing this too much. You can watch the first episode below. Make sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel, to “like” it on Facebook, or to follow it on Twitter. New episodes come out on Wednesdays until Halloween.

(By the way, I will have a little cameo in the show. Make sure to watch all the episodes to find me! Feel free to let us know what you think of the show. And, *screams* man does it feel good to see my name on the screen! :D)

From IFLScience to Vaccination

9 Sep

Recently, an article in the Columbia Journalism Review about “I F*cking Love Science” (IFLS) founder Elise Andrew (@Elise_Andrew) stirred up some controversies (see postscript). In the article by Alexis Sobel Fitts (@fittsofalexis), Andrew was praised for being one of “journalism’s self-made digital-era brands.”

If she isn’t already, Andrew is poised to be a new type of media superstar.

I will admit that I am not a fan of IFLS. I started out as one though – I enjoyed the quick wits by Elise Andrew and by the page’s followers, the interesting bite-size science, and some incredible photos as well as funny comics portraying the lives of scientists. I was also very impressed by how fast the number of followers increased. Despite some criticism about people loving pretty pictures and not actually science, I do think that science could start out from an inspiration – a photo, a quote, a story. And, for once, science get to ride to social media wave to reach a larger crowd.

The love faded very quickly though. More than once when I thought about sharing the images, I noticed that some of the images don’t have their sources listed. As a blogger, this is not the standard that I would have allowed on my own blog. I thought that perhaps I was just being too cautious myself, but later on this was rightly pointed out by a few fellow science artists; Alex Wild in particular wrote on his blog, “Facebook’s “I F*cking Love Science” does not f*cking love artists.” The attention caught on, some images were then credited (although this is far from the end of the story – see here and here).

With the strong number of followers, IFLS started a website; writers were recruited, and they began curating articles for the site and for sharing on the Facebook page. Although, occasionally, the titles of some articles would hit a (bad) nerve for me, like:

But, what frustrates me more about IFLS is probably the following – its handling of the vaccination topic.

(Full disclaimer: I get my flu vaccine every year, I was vaccinated per schedule thanks to my parents, and when I travel to a foreign country I make sure to get the appropriate vaccines. If I have kids in the future, they WILL be vaccinated. So you know my stance. And this is what I think of Jenny McCarthy)

There is no denial that vaccination is a tricky topic – one of those that can backfire very easily if thoughts are not put into its communication. In 2012, a study by Cornelia Betsch and Katharina Sachse showed that telling parents “there is no risk” instead of “there are some risks” actually works against parents’ intent to vaccinate their children. Another study published earlier this year (original scientific article here is paywalled, but you can find the pre-print here) by political scientist Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College with colleagues showed that the common tactics used by US CDC (and also in many discussions about the importance of vaccination) – including providing information about the lack of evidence connecting MMR and autism, explaining the risks involved in not vaccinating one’s children, showing an image of a very sick child, or supplying a dramatic narrative – actually are rather useless in convincing parents to vaccinate their children. What’s more, some of these interventions backfired.

Likewise, while Disease images did not have a significant effect on MMR side effects, it did increase beliefs that vaccines cause autism (AOR=1.47, 95% CI: 1.02 to 2.13), though the effect was not distinct from the other risk interventions (F(2, 1734) = 0.96, n.s.).

In addition, our results demonstrate the importance of measuring beliefs and behavioral intent when assessing health interventions. Corrective information about the disproven vaccine-autism link significantly reduced misperceptions, but also reduced intention to vaccinate among parents with the least favorable vaccine attitudes. If we had not measured intent, we might have missed a potentially dangerous backfire effect.

(By the way, this article in Journalist’s Resources covers the study very well, with additional readings as to why this is happening)

Most news coverage painted a rather gloomy and negative picture (here, here, and here), although I would really like to think that it simply means we need to find other ways to communicate the issue – such as the one suggested by Alyssa Rosenberg at Washington Post, “How can we convince parents to vaccinate? Acknowledge their fears” (which is supported by this small qualitative study). Or maybe we should enforce the message with positive imagery as suggested by Glendon Mellow (@FlyingTrilobite). And, there are some preliminary results suggesting that a different way of framing the issue might actually be helpful. Anyways, there are many interesting questions here, and I hope to see a major study in the future.

Now, back to IFLS.

Everytime it comes to the topic of vaccination, it comes out as a sarcastic talk down to the so-called anti-vaxxers (btw a term that I don’t like – you can ask me why in the comments). While I agree that it is frustrating to have heard from some of those who are against vaccinating their children, in the end some are actually parents who are concerned about their children’s health – and genuine concerns are not something I feel we should make fun of.


Images of sick kids


Articles with sarcastic titles, such as this one (by the way, the same CDC press release mentioned in this article was covered in May already by IFLS except its title did not have “Thanks to Anti-Vaxxers”).


And posting articles telling parents that they are lied to (back to what we talked about regarding “corrective information…”)

My point is, if doing all these will make those who decide not to vaccinate their children change their minds, then fine. But this is obviously not working – as Elise herself (or the poster) commented on the Facebook page,

Every time I post about vaccines, I receive hundreds of comments and emails accusing me of being paid by pharmaceutical companies.

Worse yet, based on the available research, it might be turning parents away from vaccinating their children.

I will admit that IFLS is not the only site/person communicating the issues around vaccination in such a negative, condemning way. But, its ability to reach a large crowd is something that is more concerning than two people fighting about this in a bar. The fact that IFLS has a reach to a large following of general science enthusiasts (who might hold diverse thoughts about vaccination), and the fact that it positions itself as a page about “science”, means that it has a responsibility to treat the communication of issues around vaccination with care. IFLS or Elise Andrew could have a very strong stance regarding vaccination, or think ill of the anti-vaxxers, but ultimately yelling, sarcasm, talking down, or scaring the hell out of parents will not achieve the goal of getting more children vaccinated. It simply pushes those parents who do have genuine concerns about vaccines away, and removes the opportunity for a conversation (I quite like what Ben Anderson says in his post, “A tale of two Facebooks” – excellent quick read).

Perhaps, some suggestions from Brian Martin in his post, “Why do some controversies persist despite the evidence?” (originally posted in the Conversation, and interestingly, re-posted by IFLS themselves), could shine some lights:

If new evidence seldom makes a difference in a controversy, what does?

Rather than trying to convince die-hard opponents, it is usually better to take the argument to those whose views are less set. Some people are open-minded and willing to listen. It is also important to speak to people’s values rather than assume that facts speak for themselves.

Behaving in an honourable way can be important. Making derogatory comments about opponents may seem justified and effective, but it can create an image of nastiness and intolerance.

Observers may respond to behaviours, such as debating style, as much as to the arguments. Challengers to orthodoxy need to appear sensible and credible and defenders of orthodoxy need to appear tolerant and fair.

Sometimes, when debates are interminable, it is worth thinking about alternative options. If fluoridation of public water supplies is perpetually debated, then it might be better to sidestep the debate and advocate voluntary measures such as fluoride toothpaste and mouthwashes.

Not every debate has such alternatives, however.

It is wise then to better understand what is driving those on the other side, and to treat them as thinking, caring individuals with a different set of values and a different way of looking at the world.

Indeed, if you are not already involved as a partisan, it might be worthwhile trying to arrange a friendly discussion. Rather than castigating opponents, it is possible to learn about them and from them.


Postscript: This is not exactly on topic for this post so I didn’t elaborate on this earlier, but here are some great reads regarding the controversy about Elise being the cover story of Columbia Journalism Review.

Columbia Journalism Review posted Alexis’ response to the criticism, which in my opinion made things worse. Read the comment by Jenny Morber (@JRMorber), which really resonates with me.

Within and Beyond Academia – Science Communications Intro for Graduate Students

22 Aug

Natasha and I had often chatted about me running a science communication workshop/presentation for graduate students in the department. A few months ago this became a reality – and it worked quite well since there had been some interests among the students to learn about career paths alternative to an academic one.

I put together a fairly short presentation for this purpose. The idea is to talk about the changing landscape of science communication, and to bring a little bit of social sciences into the picture, as the study of science communication often falls into social sciences – and not easily within the reach for science students.

You can go through the slides below via SlideShare. Alternatively, you can also download the high quality pdf through UBC cIRcle (thanks for UBC cIRcle for hosting the presentation!).


I was quite relieved to see many graduate students in the room (Apparently I was competing against an Astronomy talk that offered free pizzas!!). The presentation itself was only about 30 minutes, and we spent another 30 minutes having an open discussion about science communication. A few interesting questions were brought up. For example, some wonder if it was a smooth switch for me to go from graduate studies/research to science communication. The answer to that was no – you can read all about this in my earlier post. Another student asked if she needs to use Twitter, considering all the recent focus on social media and online communications. I personally don’t think everyone needs to use all channels, but it is important to try a few out and see what works for you. There are also a lot of in-person outreach opportunities that have been overlooked now because everyone is going online. In any case, it is useful to have a landing page/online profile where you can showcase what you have done.

Last but not the least, we chatted about whether it is easier to find a job in science communication. Just because it is an alternative to an academic career doesn’t mean that it will be easy. Some institutions don’t even have such positions, so it is up to you to pitch this to institutions and to convey why science communicators are needed. In the end though, it really comes down to whether you are passionate about it, and whether you are good at it – a lot of soft skills are involved here. Natasha also brought up another point – a good science communicator in physics and/or astronomy is likely higher in demand compared to one is other fields of science; I think it is mostly because some of the concepts in physics and astronomy are more abstract and more difficult to explain, so having that background is definitely a plus.

After the presentation, I was approached by a graduate student about the possibility of me starting a department blog. He was very interested in writing, but found the idea of maintaining a personal blog is just a bit too much for someone who is trying to wrap up PhD. I think a department or an institutional blog is a great idea, not just because it will showcase the work done by the department, but also provide an opportunity for students in the department to put together a “writing sample” for the future. Right now, I do have 3-4 graduate students interested in this, but I think it will take more people in the dept interested before I jump into this. I am also going through all the points mentioned by Matt Shipman in his article, Institutional Blogging: Do You Really Want to Do This?  I shall continue to contemplate what he discussed…to start an institutional blog or not…

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