Tag Archives: Canada

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.

Behind a Human-Powered Helicopter – Meeting Cameron Robertson

31 Jan

(This interview happened last fall. I finally had a chance to write this up for real…)

One of the perks of my job is to meet cool (and famous haha)  people. By now, through my job I have shaken hands with the 2013 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics David Wineland, met Canadian Space Agency Astronaut David Saint-Jacques, had brunch with former host of Daily Planet and Quirks and Quarks Jay Ingram, and chatted with Malcolm Longair, physicist and author of many cosmology books.

Today, I want to talk about the  winners of the $250,000 Igor I. Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Prize. This is the 3rd largest monetary prize in aviation history. The challenge: Build a human-powered helicopter that will “hover” in the air for at least 60 seconds, at the height of at least 3 meters above the ground, drifting only within an area of 10 metres by 10 metres.

You might think that the winners of this 33 year old challenge were seasoned engineers from aviation companies, or some professors in engineering.

In fact, the winners were a team led by Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert, who finished their graduate degrees out of the University of Toronto just a few years ago. Yay Canada!


Meeting Cameron Robertson

I had the opportunity to meet Cameron via my friend Daniel, who saw me bragging about having met an astronaut on Facebook the day before. When I arrived, Cameron was just wrapping up his conversation with an undergrad engineering student about his project. I thought to myself, “hey, it is kinda cool that he took some time to chat with the students.”

Cameron and Todd met at the University of Toronto, both graduate students for the Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies at the time. The idea of taking on the Sikorsky Challenge took shape during their time there; when Todd finished his PhD, Cameron quit his job, and both of them started chasing after the seemingly impossible dream of building a human-powered helicopter.

So how hard can this be? (hint: VERY)

While evolution has given us many advantages over other species, physically we cannot compete with the machinery that we build based on our knowledge of science and technology. In fact, the amount of human power we can output is about the same as the amount of power given by a cordless drill. So imagine using your cordless drill at home to power a helicopter…

As soon as they made their intention clear, they were told off by others – including many big names and those who have studied aerodynamics and engineering for their whole lives. After all, it was a 33-year prize that nobody had been able to claim. I asked Cameron, “so how did you keep going when everyone was telling you that it is impossible?”

“You definitely need to have passion for what you are doing. Then, you really must know that you are on the right track, and that in your heart you know it is feasible.”

The prize was for a subject that they love, and there was enough financial incentive to make it seem worthwhile (obviously, only if you win, but that was enough to drive them forward). “Challenge drives technical innovation,” said Cameron. He and Todd started the company AeroVelo , and managed to raise money from a Kickstarter campaign, from a few companies, and through the grants available from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Because most of the money went into their project, at one point the team of ~10 people were living in one house to save money and to make the project happen (!!).

“So, what do you think that would have made it easier for you if you were to start this all over again?” Cameron pointed out that there really is a need for better community support for small businesses started by students – like small seed grants – so that they could find better footing faster. Students could also use more training in entrepreneurship and business development.

Here is their flight to win the prize

Cameron pointed out it was a good thing that Todd is extremely fit – it took a whole lot of work to fly the helicopter!

Record flight -near maximum altitude of 3.3 metres. Images from http://www.aerovelo.com/ Photographer: Martin Turner - Visiblize.com. For higher resolution images, please contact Martin Turner.

Record flight -near maximum altitude of 3.3 metres. Images from http://www.aerovelo.com/ Photographer: Martin Turner – Visiblize.com. For higher resolution images, please contact Martin Turner.

When we see something like this covered by the media, it is easy to see only the glory of the prize. But behind every prize there is a story about the difficulties, failures, and dismissals encountered along the way. And that tale is the same for many other scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. I believe that is why Cameron spent the time to chat with students, to share his personal experience, and to support those just starting out.

The AeroVelo team is already onto their next project, building a human-powered high speed land vehicle.  They blogged about their trip to the Battle Mountain race just recently. It seems now that the sky is no longer a limit for AeroVelo.  Good luck!


PS 1 The team was also built the Snowbird, a human-powered ornithopter to fly using a flapping-wing design, much like a bird. We didn’t get a chance to chat too much about this though. Check out the video – it is pretty cool.

Also, Cameron and Todd talked about their journey during the TedxWesternU:

And their story was also covered by Wired, Popular Mechanics, and the National Post.

PS 2 Thanks my friend Daniel Zaide for introducing me to Cameron 😀

#CSPC2013 Science Blogging in Canada (Storify)

25 Nov

A few months ago, we started talking about the need for a science blogging session during the Canadian Science Policy Conference 2013 in our Google+ community – Science Communications Canada. It was exciting that the idea grew into a session for the conference, with the launch of the Canadian science blogging network Science Borealis. While I was unable to attend the session in person, I managed to follow the conversation on twitter. Here is my attempt to capture the conversation via Storify. If anything is out of context or doesn’t make sense, please do not hesitate to let me know.

#CSPC2013 Science Blogging in Canada – Storify

Science vs. Politics in Canada Update: Link Roundup

14 Nov

I was originally planning to include the links here in my next general link roundup, but considering that the Canadian Science Policy Conference will be coming up in a week in Toronto, these links sorta deserve a specific post. I previously wrote about Science vs. Politics in march – I therefore consider this a follow-up post.

1. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), “the largest union in Canada representing scientists and professionals employed at the federal and some provincial and territorial levels of government”,  recently commissioned a survey of 4,000 Canadian government scientists. They found that:

  • 90% of the federal scientists do not feel like they can speak freely about their work.
  • 37% reported that they were prevented from answering questions from the public and media in the last 5 years
  • 24% were directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons
  • 50% were aware of actual cases where the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work

Check out the full reports on their page: Most Federal Scientists Feel They Can’t Speak Out, Even If Public Health and Safety at Risk, Says New Survey.

This story was covered by CBC (Muzzling of federal scientists widespread, survey suggests), and Nature (7 days – Trend Watch).

2. Sarah Boon (a great science communication colleague) organized a series of blog posts on Canadian science policies. John Dupuis has organized all the posts (so far, 10 of them) on his blog Confessions of A Science Librarian. Topics in the blog series range from the muzzling of government scientists, the experimental lake area, science and politics, and open data.

3. A few UBC students put together a great podcast – Silencing the Scientists, via the Terry Project. Excellent work, by the way, especially since this came from students – hope to see more from them.

Has Harper politicized federal science? Since 2006, the Canadian government has laid off scientists while expanding its communication staff. On this episode of The Terry Project on CiTR, Gordon and Sam speak with scientists, journalists and activists about the state of science and spin in 2013.

Graphic Design by Talal Al Salem/Terry Project

Graphic Design by Talal Al Salem/Terry Project

4. This came out a while ago, but I thought that it is worth sharing here again. Tom Spears, a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen, was working on a story for which he was hoping to talk to scientists from the National Research Council Canada (NRC) and NASA of the United States. Here is an infographic on what he went through: Comparing Science Communication in Canada and the USA. It has been pointed out to me in the past that this might not be a fair comparison (NRC and NASA might have different priorities when it comes to outreach), but the difference is astounding.

5. Simon Fraser University graduate student David Peddie recently wrote to Georgia Straight (a local Vancouver Community newspaper with a large circulation). In Evidence-based dissent and Canada’s war on science, he talk about the response from former chief economic analyst for Statistics Canada, Philip Cross, regarding the “war on science.”

He argues that government scientists have no right to complain of muzzling… Cross looks at the situation like a good business manager—employees exist to serve their employer; should they feel the need to give an opinion (however knowledgeable) that the public relations department deems damaging to the employer’s mission, they’re welcome to post it anonymously in a blog or resign…Cross’s outlook is the root of the whole problem. Acceptable business practice is not acceptable government practice. Democracy is not the act of electing a representative corporate body to power to execute its agenda. A corporation is free to pursue its objectives as it pleases within the confines of the law but a government has a responsibility to be accountable and transparent to its electorate. The public is not a body to be manipulated and appeased by a public relations department; they are the raison d’être of the government. Open channels of honest communication should be made available to encourage an informed, engaged, and critical public.

6. CBC Radio Program The Current recently covered the story about the War on Science. Anna Maria Tremonti, the host of the program, also interviewed Tim Powers, Vice-Chair of Summa Strategies and Conservative commentator. Tim Powers’ stand that “there is no war on science” triggered a strong response from brain research scientists from the Dalhousie University: the Decreasing Funding of Scientific Research Funding in Canada.

Have you come across a few that I should have included? Let me know by commenting below.

Taking away basic science funding is not a long-term solution

19 Jun

I came across Scott Findlay’s article in the National Post a few weeks ago. While the Canadian government continues to boast its investment in science, those of us who work closely with basic science research know where the money is really going – into commercialization and application development.

In science, as elsewhere, where money is spent is as important as how much is spent. Most of the $8-billion allocated to R&D has been invested at the top of the scientific research pyramid, in technology development and commercialization. For example, virtually all of the new $454-million R&D expenditures in the 2013 budget target private-public partnerships, mostly in applied or commercialization research. Yet it is basic research that forms the base of the R&D pyramid, the wellspring of the pipeline to technology development and commercialization.

It is not to say that putting money into applications isn’t a great thing. It is – but you still want to have a strong foundation of basic science research, serving as the backbone. With the heavy emphasis on application development these days (because that’s where the money is – many new grants require a industrial collaboration component), what we will end up doing is to “guess” which basic science project will be more useful in the future, when the future isn’t here yet. This is like drafting major league players for 2033 when they are still playing t-ball, or finding the next Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby by looking at baby photos.

We might not see the immediate financial return of investing in basic science research, but we will benefit from it 10-20 years later. Without this investment, there will be a gap in the future of application development, and soon we will start falling behind other countries. Of course, the current government does not need to care about this much. It is the problem of the future elected government, isn’t it? But we should all care about it, because this future is ours.

What Scott Findlay said inspired me to draw the following.

Commercialization is not a long term solution sm
Can we strike a balance between investing in basic science research, and encouraging commercialization and development of applications? Hopefully. But cutting basic science funding is not the answer for our future.


Note: By the way, I really like this comment by ChadEnglish for the article. According to the comment, he’s an engineer so he is most likely to benefit from this shift to application development and commercialization.

Without a growing science base to build from the only thing we engineers can do is repackage the old technologies into new boxes. Engineering is also known as applied science. Without good science, and without good access to it, there is nothing to apply.

%d bloggers like this: