Tag Archives: society

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.

How Accessible Is Our Science?

21 Oct

September 28 and 29 were two very busy days for me. One reason being that I managed to complete a 9K obstacle charity run called the Concrete Hero Challenge (trust me, falling into water from the monkey bars on a rainy Vancouver day was NOT FUN). The other being that my department’s outreach program participated in the 2nd Annual Community Science Celebration at the Vancouver Telus World of Science.

What’s so special about the community science celebration? The biggest draw – free admission. Over the weekend, more than 20,000 people visited the Science World, many were parents with their kids. I, together with my supervisors and volunteers, were all extremely impressed by the enthusiasm Vancouver has for science. I admit that every time I help organize a public science event, the biggest fear has been that nobody would show up, but  the fear has always been proven unnecessary – it feels like Vancouver is the place to be for science.

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.

Now, this is supposed to make be really happy, and it did for a few days – until I realized how much the admission rates for the Science World are.

Public Adult $22.50
Public Child $15.25
Public Senior/Student $18.50
Public Youth $18.50

This means that for a non-member family of four, it costs  $75.50 to visit the Science World once (1 year membership for a family is $185 – still pretty pricey). If we include the cost of of transportation (public transit or parking/gasoline) and eating out, it can cost more than $100 for a family to visit the Science World once. No wonder people were lining up around the block to get into the Science World on a free-admission day*.

I took the liberty to survey the admission rates of Science Museums/Centres in Canada (for adults):

Centre Admission rates Note
Vancouver Aquarium $25.00
Vancouver Macmillan Space Centre $18.00 evening rate $13.00
Edmonton Telus World of Science $16.95
Ontario Science Centre $22.00 low income community access available
Saskatchewan Science Centre $9.00
Telus Spark (Calgary)  $19.95

Now let’s look at the situation internationally. Quickly browsing the websites of several major US Science Education Centres, I found that the prices are in about the same range (e.g., the American Museum of Natural History at $22 USD, the Exploratorium at $25 USD). For Taiwan’s National Museum of Natural Science, which inspired me to be curious about science when I grew up, it costs less than $4.00 to access all the exhibition halls. This place is also massive – with 5 complexes, occupying 9 hectares of land. For the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London, UK (or for that matter, many major museums in London), it is free admission. When I tweeted about the cost of visiting science museums, my friends commented:

Perhaps simply my speculation, but I wonder what this says about how accessible science is to a population, and whether that affects people’s perception of science?

If we look at the bigger picture, beyond just the science centres, and shift our focus to other science outreach activities:

How accessible is our science? Are there things we can do to make science truly accessible regardless of background or income? Is science literacy really just about better science education and communication?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this…

* By no means am I considering this the fault of science centres. Truth is that running a science centre costs money – it is incredibly awesome that Vancouver Science World has this community celebration day for everyone to visit! My concern is more on the price tag of accessing science, and whether we (as a whole) can be doing more to support places such as the Science World.

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.

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