Tag Archives: science communications

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.

Science Communication at the #SharingScienceUBC Conference

31 Mar

My schedule for the past month and a half has been stuffed with conferences – from IPSEC to AAAS, to BC Outreach Workshop and now Sharing Science at UBC – I must admit that I shouldn’t complain about all the great science outreach and communication work I have seen!

The Sharing Science Conference is a science communication conference. The conference was student-driven, organized by the UBC student club Carl Sagan Association for the Communication of Science. This conference was also a collaboration with UBC Faculty of Science, the Science and Technology Studies of UBC Faculty of Arts, and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.

If you missed the Sharing Science Conference, don’t worry – here is a summary to help you catch up. Click on the image below to access the story via Storify. Enjoy!

Storify - Sharing Science

The state of science events around the world in one huge blog post

26 Mar

Things have been relatively quiet on this blog – mostly because work became rather hectic in the past two months, with me running from conferences to workshops, from workshops to science competitions. I finally have some time now to sort out all the notes I took when I was at the International Public Science Events Conference (a pre-conference to AAAS) and the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in February. There w

Going to conferences is always very exciting – and this time it is particularly so. First of all, I had never been to Chicago!!! (and NOW I know why people were complaining about Chicago winter…) Secondly, I never thought that I could attend conferences for science outreach and communication. But most importantly, it is an opportunity to meet people from around the world to chat about what we are working on, the issues we encounter, and come up with potential solutions and collaborations in the future.

Here are my notes from the session, “The State of Science Events: Reports from Across the World and Across Sectors” during IPSEC. Through the session, I was hoping to learn what other countries are doing for science outreach and communications, how science communication “entities” (for the lack of better words?) are structured, and also how we in Canada do in comparison to other countries – and I was not disappointed.

Let’s start with Australia.

Australia – The “Inspiring Australia” program is part of the Department of Industry, Government of Australia. It’s main objective is science engagement and communication. The program provides science engagement awards, develop toolkits for science engagement, commission reports on science engagement within Australia, organize the Big Science Summit for Science Communication (I want to go to this! Time to buy lottery…), and coordinate the country’s National Science Week.

From the program came many cool ideas for the National Science Week – Simon France, the manager for the program, said that they were using small ideas with big impacts:

According to Simon, having a national lead is critical in getting university/organization buy-in. This is something to keep in mind.

UKThe British Science Association is a charity organization. Based on their 2012 financial report, most of the association’s income came from grant funding, sponsorship, and charging for events and activities. 

Master BRISCI_0

The British Science Association’s vision is a society in which people are able to access science, engage with it and feel a sense of ownership about its direction. We provide opportunities for people of all ages to discuss, investigate, explore and challenge science, through our annual programme of events and activities.

Their activities include running the British Science Festival (reaching 43,000 visitors in 2012), organizing the National Science and Engineering Week (with 1.6 million people participating), helping scientists develop communications and engagement skills, organizing science competitions, and supporting local branches. They also run an annual science communication conference. In my impression, UK has been in the forefront of science communication, and it was pointed out by Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association, during the session:

We don’t consider tennis or politics just as a thing that tennis players and politicians do, yet science and scientist seems to get that <impression>.  So there is still work to do cultural-wise.

China – Each year, CAST (the China Association for Science and Technology, the largest national non-governmental organization for scientific and technological workers in China) runs its National Science Festival. According to Yang Lijun, Director, Division of Public Science Events for the CAST, the annual participation is incredible. Unfortunately I don’t recall the exact number being either 20 million or 200 million (only that there was a huge gasp from the audience when she said the number), but a reference I found stated that in the past 10 years, more than 700 million people participated in the activities, a number that most of us could only dream of. The Festival is also a way to celebrate China’s National Law on popularization of science and technology, which again, is something that most of us could only dream of…

Europe The European Science Events Association (Eusea) has 90 members in 36 countries. This means that the association needs to cover 500 million people in Europe who speak different languages. Jan Riise, Director of the European Science Events Association, said that this makes it tricky to have a central conference and to coordinate different events. Because of the difference in language, culture, and geography, science centres, museums, and festival could be quite far apart from each other, leading to isolation and possible miscommnication.

eusea

However, the European Union is doing its job in keeping the Eusea together. EU recently announced (January 2014) “Horizon 2020” Programme

Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract. It promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market.

Within Horizon 2020, a specific program called “science with and for the society” with a budget of 500 million Euro (!!) will be included – and it seems that Eusea will be well supported via this channel.

US –  The Science Festival Alliance is a professional association of independent science and technology festivals, supposed by the US National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It is also the organization behind the IPSEC. The annual report for the SFA is now available online. According to the annual report, almost 1 million people attended SFA member events. The SFA also grew from 17 members in 2012, to 42 members by the end of 2013 – some of which are organizing their first festival event in the coming year. What’s in the future? Its manager Ben Wiehe from the MIT museum mentioned that live science events are finally being recognized these days; for SFA, how to come together to support [each other] but to also allow diversity, is still a puzzle and will be the goal for the coming year.

SFA Annual Report is now available for download. Image source:  www.sciencefestivals.org

SFA Annual Report is now available for download. Image source: http://www.sciencefestivals.org

Italy (Genoa Science Festival) – “In Italy, it is better not to be coordinated.” Arata Manuela, President of the Associazione Festival della Scienza, started with this jokingly. The Genoa Science Festival / Festival della Scienza is an annual cultural event (in fact, this is something that was discussed many timely throughout the conference – should science events be about just science, or about the culture of science? Many, including me, agree that is should be the later if we do want to reach the general public). The event was described by Arata as

a model at international level for science dissemination; a bench mark for science communication; a melting pot of researchers, artists, creative people, opinion makers with people keen on science, schools, and families; a think tank; an added value for the Country namely the City.

(Oh man, I want to go to this too)

The impact of the Genoa Science Festival has been significant, both culturally and economically, as the event brings in a large number of visitors that hotels in the city are typically fully booked. And, this is quite an interesting take on the event – the event charges admission. In some ways, this actually makes sense; the rationale goes that if we pay tickets to see a theatre performance or a concert (cultural events), then perhaps we should pay to attend a science festival. The festival also involves ~700 scientific explainer (university students, graduates, young researchers) during the festival. These explainers go through a training called EASE (European Academy for Science Explainers) and are given the tools necessary for communicating with the general public. In fact, through a collaboration, there is now also a EASE program in Shanghai, China.

The festival will be from October 24th to November 2nd this year. In 2015, the festival will be in France in 2015. An exciting time to come – with international exchange, collaborations and contributions!

Canada? It is very interesting to see how science event/outreach/communication leaderships take different shapes in different countries – via government agencies, non-profit organizations, and professional associations. All these reports from groups around the world actually make me a little sad and well, envious.  At the moment there is no government or non-profit organizations to take on that important leadership role to encourage more collaboration and interaction between different science engagement groups within Canada. Even worse, with how things go in Canada, I personally expect negative news about budget cut, muzzling, or elimination of science programs by the Canadian Government almost regularly. The good news is that there are now many more local efforts for science events and festivals (for example, there are now several major science festivals across Canada – Science Rendezvous, Eureka!, Around the Dome in 30 days, Beakerhead, and likely a few more that I missed. The BC Charter of Science was kicked started a few months ago. The future is looking slightly brighter…but we are now years (if not decades) behind and there is much more catching up to do.

Missed opportunity? On AAAS President’s Address

14 Feb

Note (Feb 15, 2014): The AAAS President’s Address is now available online via the AAAS website! Please do take a little bit of time to watch it. Opinions are mine but would love to know what you think. Also thanking AAAS for letting me know that the video is available.

In case you don’t know yet, I am currently in Chicago attending both the International Public Science Events Conference (just wrapped up today) and the AAAS annual meeting (American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, also the largest general science meeting in the world with more than 10,000 participants).

Maybe it is because I have been going to sessions on how to better communicate science and to reach a broader audience for the past 2 days, maybe it is because I am always pretty sensitive about the level of a talk when students and young scientists are part of the audience. But for me, the speech by Nobel Prize Laureate and AAAS President Phillip Sharp on the first night of the AAAS annual meeting, did not to inspire me.

IMG_20140213_185000698 (1)

Philip Sharp is a molecular biologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993 with Richard Roberts, “for their discoveries of split genes.” If you studied biochemistry in the past (oh, wait, I did!), you would know that it is a pretty big deal (well, it is a huge deal). Back in the days, we didn’t know that the DNA code for a gene is not really just one continuous chain of information. What Sharp and Roberts found was that after the DNA code is translated into mRNA, parts of it called “introns”are removed. And it is based on this processed (spliced) mRNA that proteins, the building blocks of an organism, are actually made. The cool thing is that sometimes different ways to splice the DNA code could result in different proteins being produced. You can learn more about it from the slide show provided by the Nobel Prize website.

Like I said, I studied biochemistry for my undergrad degree, so this is really exciting for me.  I was truly looking forward to a talk in which he incorporate his experience and vision (or that of AAAS) for science, for future scientists, and for this AAAS meeting.

Instead, we were treated with “Discovery, Invention & Entrepreneurship need to be better linked for science to meet global challenges.” In my plain language, I think it means that 1. basic science research can significantly inform applied science, while applied science can mobilize basic science, and 2. scientists across disciplines, applied scientists, and the industry should collaborate better to solve the global challenges we will be facing in the next few decades, if not years: health care, food shortage, and I think the last one is poverty. The overall theme was actually quite good, especially considering the debate on funding rationale for basic science research nowadays. He concluded with the following question:

summary question

(If you are wondering, although you really shouldn’t, the expected answer was NO…)

Yet, the delivery just did not match up to the message. As technically the first talk for the day, it was rather stiff, scripted, and factual. Why should I feel motivated to do this? What’s the vision? What would be the significance? (see postscript) The more interesting part of the presentation though, was this quote from Susan Hockfield, the President of MIT from 2004-2012:

quote Susan Hockfield

(Ironically, none of the 5 opening talks this evening was by a female speaker – they are all white males above the age of 50. Nothing against them…but just want to point that out, and I was not the only one to notice that.)

Perhaps. AAAS is not an event for the general public. Yet with so many budding scientists in the audience, and the brightest high school students attending the conference via the American Junior Academy of Sciences, with attendees from all over the world, I feel frustrated and sad that this was a missed opportunity- that this speech did not make me feel like I should go home and think about how I could contribute to moving science and innovation forward. I just wanted to go back to my room and write this post.

It doesn’t mean that all scientists should be perfect science communicators. Not all of us can be Brian Cox or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and not all talks should be like their talks to the general public. Yet I believe that we can all find ways to improve ourselves, or talk to others (scientists, non-scientists, your parents, cousins, pretty much anyone you can find) to make sure the message is delivered to and understood by the audience.

Am I too critical? If you were at the talk, I would love to know what you think. Although this dampened my enthusiasm a little, I am still super excited about all the talks that I will get to attend at AAAS – now the question is, how to I pick which talk to go to…there are so many and all of them are so interesting…

PS. I hope that AAAS will post the video so that there is more context to this blog post. In the mean time, here is a photo I took of the transcription of the talk (via voice recognition I think, so might not be exact). I personally don’t like terms such as framework, model, convergence (which was used a lot), etc etc. I felt quite disconnected…

transcribed speech

#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

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