Tag Archives: science

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, alone, cannot resolve the Ebola crisis

22 Sep

When I first set out to write this article, I was hoping to write about the science – the science behind potential treatments, research going from bench to bedside, the importance of clinical trials.

But, this is not what this post will be about.

At the time this article is written, Ebola is raging through West Africa. So far, 4872 cases have been reported, and 2445 have died because of Ebola.

Ebola epidemic is the largest, and most severe, and most complex we have ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease…No one, even outbreak responders, (has) ever seen anything like it.

– Margaret Chen, WHO Director General

Now, much of the early attention has been on the science. What is Ebola – and why isn’t there a cure? What kind of potential treatments are available? All great, because people should learn about Ebola. But little has been discussed about how it got to the point it is right now.

So if this is not about science, what is it about?

I could only imagine how I would feel in that situation, watching others get sick and die, wondering if I would be next. Then I considered the deplorable conditions — no visitors were allowed, and a bucket served as a bathroom — and how I, wearing my protective ‘spacesuit’, must have looked to the curled man. The idea of becoming sick with Ebola in Sierra Leone frightened me.

– Daniel Kelly, wrote about his experience interacting with Ebola patients

It is about the long-term distrust between the developing and developed worlds, the uneven distribution of wealth and resources, the unsettle political situations in parts of Africa, the lack of local research and healthcare infrastructure.

It is about not even receiving the basic supportive care, which could make a significant difference in the outcome of an infection.

It is about assuming that everyone in this world “should have known better” but forgetting that not everyone has the same access to resources, information, health care, and education that we in developed countries do.

It is about the developed world profit from the natural resources and cheap labours in Africa, and then say “hey, this crisis is not scary until it hits our homes.” Because, until then, it is their problems, not ours.

We clearly have the power to care. The #IceBucketChallenge raised hundreds of millions for ALS research. The iPhone launch had people lining up outside of the Apple Stores for days. Yet, the Ebola crisis seems to have taken a back seat in most news coverage since the very beginning.

I am hoping that the tide is changing. Starting from more people calling for international actions. Starting from developed countries realizing that everyone is affected by this. Starting from WHO and UN taking a real leadership role in this crisis because it needs to be done. Starting from more first-hand stories from those in the middle of this outbreak, like this, this, this, and this PBS documentary.

But more importantly, I hope we will start to change. That we will start to think about crises like this as crises for all; we are simply lucky enough to be born in the developed world, to have access to health care, to have years of education – privileges that not everyone in this world gets to enjoy. And that sooner or later, this crisis is going to affect us all – not just public health-wise, but also politically and economically – no matter where we are. I just hope that more people won’t have to die for it.

Science, alone, cannot resolve the Ebola crisis. But with humanity, we can.

***

Please take a moment to donate to Doctors without Borders: US link; Canada link (Note that the donations might not be earmarked specifically for the Ebola crisis. This is simply so that they can spend the money for effectively at where it is needed, including but not limited to the Ebola crisis. I am okay with that – they are probably drained by Ebola and could need funding for other important, life-saving initiatives. They also spend 80+% of their money in the field.)

Here are a few great articles I’ve come across:

This week WHO said it needs $1-billion for its Ebola work. That’s nothing more than punk change if the world cared. Canada, for example, found it could afford an average of $1-billion-plus each year of the 12-year war against the Taliban. Yet unconscionably, it’s taken until this week for the world to begin anything like a serious response to the epidemic. But in the words of Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Medecíns Sans Frontiérès – and where would we be without MSF? – these latest contributions are “absolutely not enough.”

As if proving her point, the Harper government just announced Canada’s latest contribution to this massive emergency: $2.5-million in personal protective equipment for medical staff working in the affected areas. Maybe this was a typo. Or maybe it just doesn’t fit with the Conservatives’ pre-election strategy.

As human beings, we all hope that if we were in need of superior health care, our country and its top doctors would help us get better. We can either let our actions be guided by misunderstandings, fear and self-interest, or we can lead by knowledge, science and compassion. We can fear, or we can care.

If you have more time, check out the following collections of articles on ebola

Field trip at the Chicago Field Museum!

2 Apr

I took a little break before attending two conferences to visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Personally, I am a huge fan of natural history museums in general. Job-wise, it is an opportunity to see what kind of demonstrations and interactive elements museums incorporated into their exhibits. I simply could not miss the opportunity to visit the Field Museum.

FieldMuseum

The Field Museum was originally born as the Columbia Museum of Chicago after the famous World’s Columbian Expo on September 16, 1893. It was later renamed as The Field Museum after Marshall Field, the owner of several department stores in Chicago at the time and the major benefactor of the museum when it was first founded. The Field Museum is one of the largest Natural History Museum in the US. It hosts over 24 million specimens and objects, and attracts more than 2 million visitors every year. I was told that at any given time, we see less than 10% of all the specimens available at the museum. Pretty impressive.

Specimen

The Field Museum has a large collection of specimens

Some students visiting the Field Museum. The kid in the photo totally photobombed this :)

Some students visiting the Field Museum. The kid in the photo totally photobombed this haha.

Here are some highlights for me:

Sue the T. rex – Sue is a famous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton at the Field Museum because it is the most complete T. rex skeleton discovered to date. “It” (the gender of the T. rex is actually unknown) was named after its discoverer  Sue Hendrickson.

At the Field Museum with Sue

Photo in front of Sue!

SueSkull

Sue’s skull weighs 600 pounds, which is too heavy to put onto the full skeleton, so it is actually sitting in a glass cover on the second floor balcony.

The Evolving Planet Exhibit – The Field Museum very wisely incorporated all the dinosaur skeletons into the Evolving Planet Exhibit, so we get to see how dinosaurs and us all fit together in the grand scheme of evolution. Some natural history museums failed to do so, and for me it doesn’t quite make sense to just see all the skeletons in one room without knowing how they are part of the earth’s history. Well done, Field Museum!

I see that someone is having a fascinating time with exhibit...

I see that someone is having a fascinating time with exhibit…

Inside Ancient Egypt – This exhibit is in the basement of the Field Museum (how fitting haha!). It hosts a collection of mummies, as well as the interesting diorama of mummy making…

Egypt2

Egypt1

Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair – The Columbia World’s Fair hosted 65,000 exhibits in ~200 buildings to celebrate Columbia arriving in America 400 years prior. It was considered the event to see in a life time, and many spent all their savings just for a ticket to the fair. After the World’s Fair, some exhibits remained and became part of the Field Museum collection today. You can find highlights of the exhibit here on the exhibit website.

Using New Technology – Some cases have a QR code, which you can scan with your smart phone for more information. You can also download the museum app and design your own museum tour. Did I mention that there was free Wi-Fi in the museum?

QRCode  MuseumApp

Museum Discount Days – It turns out that Illinois residents can visit several museums and public attractions in Chicago for free on specific days. If you have read my post about museum admission fees, you would know how much I appreciate these discount days can do for science education and outreach.

IllinoisDiscountDay

The Brain Scoop – Okay, this is not really part of the physical “Museum”, but we (conference attendees) were invited to the Nerd Night Chicago before one of my conferences. I had the opportunity to meet Emily Graslie, the Chief Curiosity Correspondent of the Field Museum and the person behind the Museum’s Brain Scoop YouTube channel, in person!

WithEmily

She makes really cool “behind the scene” videos about the Field Museum. I highly recommend that you subscribe to the YouTube channel.

The Field Museum is definitely a must when you visit Chicago. I had an absolutely wonderful time there. Just make sure that you have plenty of time…especially if you are like me, who would attempt to read the descriptions for all the exhibit cases…

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

How is gender bias in science studied? IV. The future

10 Dec

This is part 4 and the final part of my series on how gender bias in science is studied. In the past few weeks, I summarized how gender bias in science has been studied: through surveys and interviews (Part 1), through existing data (Part 2), and through experimentation (Part 3). What we have learned is that there is evidence to support gender bias in science, most objectively through experimentation. Now the tough question – what do we do now? And I certainly hope that it doesn’t involve turning the physics department pink.

Here are a few things I could think of:

1. First, let’s start by changing the process of job and scholarship application review. Bias during reviews of job/scholarship applications and interviews is nothing new, and definitely not limited to gender and science. A study from 1997 showed that blind auditioning of musicians for symphony orchestras resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of women advancing into the next round, as well as being selected as a winner in the end. Additional research supports the use of anonymous job application procedures to ensure that the job application review process is less biased against women. These provide established cases for modifying the current process of hiring and award evaluation in research and academia. While it might be difficult to introduce an anonymous/blinded process at the faculty-hiring level (it is not difficult to guess who the researcher is given one’s work experience and publication record), it is very doable at the early career level. I think because the potential implication can be very significant, this should be implemented as soon as possible, with experimental conditions set up so that we can actually see if anonymous application processes can actually improve the hiring of women into positions in science, as suggested by my friend Artem.

On top of this, I agree with the suggestion by the Moss-Racusina et al paper reviewed previously, that the policy for hiring should be specific and the process should be transparent.

2. We have discussed the role of implicit bias in my previous postCan we actually reduce or eliminate implicit bias? Researchers in the US found that in the case of race, implicit bias is malleable. In an industrial setting, there are firms that provide strategies to address work place bias. Whether or not such a strategy is effective should be further evaluated, as noted by Bendick and Nune, but it is worth considering. It looks like the European Research Council will be introducing unconscious bias training for award selection panels; I am hoping that this will set itself as a good example for future academic hiring and award evaluation.

3. There needs to be some major structural changes with regards to how academic research and tenureship appointment works. For the past hundreds of years, it has been assumed that academic careers are taken up by men who do not need to make time for their families, and who are comfortable with leaving their families behind to advance their careers. This is unfair for both men and women, and creates a hostile environment toward women and pregnancy.  And believe me, students are already thinking about the bad rep of an academic career when they are in undergrad. Just check out this question by a student during UBC Science’s 50th Anniversary Lecture – Science: The Gender Dimension.

Now, as noted by Eileen Pollack in her New York Times article Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? during her conversation with Meg Urry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale, she said:

No one is claiming that juggling a career in physics while raising children is easy. But having a family while establishing a career as a doctor or a lawyer isn’t exactly easy either, and that doesn’t prevent women from pursuing those callings.

The chance is that, it is more than providing child care services or parental leave, but also about whether people in academia welcome such practice. We have had a bad rep for long enough – changes in the system could provide a positive view of academic careers as a whole for female students who are just starting their academic career.

4. We should continue to encourage female students to consider STEM careers in their future. The reality is that if a girl does not take high school level science courses (physics, chemistry, biology), she will not fulfill the requirement for taking upper-level first year university science courses – this becomes a barrier for the girl to enter a physical science degree program. According to the US Department of Education, by grade 8 you can see the level of interest in science diverging between boys and girls – this means that we need to start early in order to sustain girls’ interest in science. There were many ideas about how this should happen, but trying to figure out which one works is a delicate matter – many suggestions are based on surveys or personal experiences, which suffer from recall bias. I again hope to see more longitudinal data on which strategies influence girls positively (without negatively discouraging boys). I also want to point out that I don’t yet see evidence for the following two strategies. One is to turn everything pink – you probably already know how I feel about that. If someone can do a study to show how pink wires and capacitors actually get girls to be interested in building with electronics more, I am all for it. The other is to introduce over-feminine role models. The “Science, It’s a Girl Thing” video from the European Commission is a prime example of this:

(Because, right, if girls want to study chemistry then they should all be interested in cosmetics, wear heels, and blow kisses)

While I understand the motive for these two strategies, my fear is that we are simply reinforcing existing gender stereotypes. Last year, research by Betz and Sekaquaptewa actually suggested how feminine models could turn young girls away from science. I hope to see more studies such as this to to tease one which strategy works, and which one doesn’t.

5. Last but not the least, we all need to change our attitudes toward success. Being a woman in science can be a double-edge sword: If you are not aggressive and successful, people think that it is your fault and your decision to not stay in science. But if you are ambitious and aggressive, people think that you are not approachable and intimidating and event not good for the job (see Competent Yet Out in The Cold: Shifting Criteria for Hiring Reflect Backlash toward Agentic Women by Phelan et al.). It also looks like we women hesitate to promote either ourselves, or promote other women. Furthermore, some women become “non-feminine” in order to feel they belong in a male dominant field, as suggested by Pronin, Steele, and Ross in their article, Identity bifurcation in response to stereotype threat: Women and mathematics.  This recent ad from Pantene, albeit a commercial ad, pretty much sums up the problem.

The consequence is that many of us ended up settling into the stereotype set out for us. Günthera, Ekincib, Schwierenc, and Strobeld found that women tend to hold back when we feel like we won’t win anyways. As suggested by Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender,

One possibility is that…when stereotypes of women become salient, women tend to incorporate those stereotypical traits into their current self-perception. They may then find it harder to imagine themselves as, say, a mechanical engineer.

As women, we need to realize that some of this responsibility does fall on our shoulders, that we should be more supportive of our successful colleagues (and sometimes the difficult decisions they made), and push ourselves further even though there is a risk and we might not win. If we all just sit back and do what is expected of us, the future of women in science will not change for the better.

***

Here are a few other posts/resources to check out. I am also including a list of research references I used in the post at the very end. There is a podcast based on this series in the plan, so look out for that in the future! 

Research articles referred to in this post

Download the list in pdf format

Bendick M. & Nunes A.P. (2012). Developing the Research Basis for Controlling Bias in Hiring, Journal of Social Issues, 68 (2) 238-262. DOI:

Goldin C. & Rouse C. (2000). Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians, American Economic Review, 90 (4) 715-741. DOI:

Aslund O. & Skans O.N. (2012). Do Anonymous Job Application Procedures Level the Playing Field, Industrial and Labour Relations Review, 65 (1) 82-107. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/ilrreview/vol65/iss1/5/

Rudman L.A., Ashmore R.D. & Gary M.L. (2001). “Unlearning” automatic biases: The malleability of implicit prejudice and stereotypes., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (5) 856-868. DOI:

Betz D.E. & Sekaquaptewa D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (6) 738-746. DOI:

Phelan J.E., Moss-Racusin C.A. & Rudman L.A. (2008). COMPETENT YET OUT IN THE COLD: SHIFTING CRITERIA FOR HIRING REFLECT BACKLASH TOWARD AGENTIC WOMEN, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32 (4) 406-413. DOI:

Pronin E., Steele C.M. & Ross L. (2004). Identity bifurcation in response to stereotype threat: Women and mathematics, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40 (2) 152-168. DOI:

Günther C., Ekinci N.A., Schwieren C. & Strobel M. (2010). Women can’t jump?—An experiment on competitive attitudes and stereotype threat, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 75 (3) 395-401. DOI:

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