Tag Archives: community

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 to expand your science outreach program? My slides from #IPSEC2014 conference

5 Mar

I had the opportunity to lead a session with Melissa Beattie Moss from Penn state on expanding outreach programs during the International Public Science Events Conference. I figure that I might as well share my slides and notes here 😀 I do warn you that the presentation is a bit dry only because I tried to cover a lot of the logistics and management stuff that one needs to think about when expanding a science outreach program. If you see anything interesting and would like me to elaborate, feel free to let me know. You can find my personal notes below the slides (only for those that are not self-explanatory). Enjoy!

First few slides: bragging about Vancouver, UBC, and our outreach program.

Slide 10 : First thing I did was to start a e-mail newsletter list. I used MailChimp to manage subscribers, make pretty newsletters, and track what our subscribers are interested in. It will send 12,000 emails to 2,000 subscribers for free. Impact: now have 450+ subscribers, camps get fully registered really quickly, we stop buying ads for paid events, which usually cost us about $1200. There are a few other similar services out there – I just decided that MailChimp fits our needs. Another option I often hear is Emma Inc., although they do charge a fee to start.

Slide 11 : I use survey monkey to collect feedback from activity participants. It is a good way to get qualitative feedback for funding or promotion purposes. Also good to let them know you are listening and looking for ways to improve. If you run your own server or have IT people to help you, you can consider LimeSurvey, which is free and open source.

Slide 12: I actually put together a list of all public event listings in Vancouver. You only need to do it once – can use the list over and over again for different events.

Slide 13: Social media. Won’t elaborate much here because it is another talk perhaps. If you want to tap into social media power, only use the relevant ones that will allow you to connect to your audience. This is only general. There are of course exceptions – ask me if you have questions about this.

Slide 14:  Having an event that you can all work on together is a good way to start a collaborative relationship.

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.

#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

More than a Photographer: Inspirations for Science

20 Nov

I spent much of my last Friday evening reading the National Geographic’s 125 year special photo issue.


Photography has a special place in my heart for many reasons. My grandpa used to own a camera shop, and I grew up playing with manual SLR cameras with my mom. I am also a rather nostalgic person – just ask the random typewriter I bought because my dad used to own one and I grew to like the “ta-ta-ta” noise. Interestingly, I have often been in the position of archiving – even now, my job involves archiving some of my department’s documents and photos.

While my photography skill probably falls short, and I really don’t have the time or finance to support a photography hobby, photographs can connect me on a level that words or moving pictures sometimes can’t.

The photo issue has several great stories – from conservation, glacier, to mixed-race identities. The one that hit me the most was the story about Congo. The situation in Congo is not new. While the country is rich mostly because of metal mines – gold, tantalum, tin, tungsten, and more (check your cell phone – some of the metal components probably came from Congo), it has been in much tension and conflict. Many mines are owned by warlords; they enslave people to harvest the metals in poor conditions, and then use the money to finance weapons in order to maintain control over the slaves. Despite some major electronic companies putting pressures on the government to do something about it, and the recent defeat of M23 is definitely good news, but there is still a long way to go. I cannot include the National Geographic photos here, but I have embedded below the Flickr album from the Enough project.

The reality is that such situation did not arise in one day. Often times there are complicated historical and geographical reasons. Geographically, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the 11th largest country in the world. Culturally, it suffered from colonization, insurrections, invasion, and so on.  It is when it comes to international issues such as these that I feel extremely helpless – Me, a professional women with a job and a voice, yet there is not much I can do about it. Once in a while, a celebrity will come on TV to raise some awareness, and this is in the limelight for a few days, and then people forget about it…over and over again.

Something else I realized was how National Geographic photographers consider themselves as having dual responsibilities. On one hand, they take photos for commercial reasons. On the other hand, many of them strive to bring awareness to the issues that they care about.

Photographers use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change.  – National Geographic

I fall in love with almost every person I photograph. I want to hear each story. I want to get close. This is personal for me. – Stephanie Sinclair

That’s the idea behind the Photo Ark: getting the public to look these creatures in the eye, then care enough to save them while there’s still time. My goal is to photograph as many of the world’s captive species as I can before time runs out. – Joel Sartore

My pictures are about making people realize we’ve got to protect those who can’t speak for themselves. –Michael “Nick” Nichols

This reminds me that scientists often have duel responsibilities too. On one hand, we are hired – either by academic institutions, by the government, or by the industry – to conduct experiments and run activities that technically should advance the agenda of the organization. On the other hand, many of us feel that we have a responsibility to the society, especially those of us who really love our jobs.

Just like photography is more than simply capturing the moment, sometimes science is really more than just experiments and lab reports. Our science is our cameras and the results are our photographs. There is so much at stake here – our health, our environment, our future.

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