Monthly Archives: September 2009

ISEA 2009 and bioart (part 1); Nano-Society book

I’m mentioning a bioart panel discussion that I attended at the 2009 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) as a precursor to part 4  of my series on Science Communication in Canada.

The panel discussion, Is the (Art) World Ready for Bioart?, held on Saturday, August 29, 2009 was moderated by Andy Miah and featured  Tagny Duff with Kathy Rae Huffman, Laura Sillars, Kerstin Mey, and Anna Dumitriu.  The panel arose as a consequence of a controversy that erupted after Duff’s art work was accepted for exhibition. Duff had proposed a showing of her work with a modified (dead) HIV/AIDS virus injected into pig tissue and also into human breast tissue with resultant ‘bruising’ marks in the tissue.

First off, the only comment I’m going to make about the art aspect to this project is that it’s highly conceptual and not my kind of thing. There are many people who find these kinds of works (bioart) important and worthwhile.

Duff is a Canadian and an assistant professor in communication studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and has an extensive background in media and studio arts.  About her latest work (from the faculty page at Concordia),

The research-creation project “The Cryobook Archives investigates the strangeness of wet and cryo-suspended bodies in an era when art and science is increasingly turning to computer generated and digitized bodies to extend human knowledge (and life). In particular, the project considers how book form is evolving from the skin of trees (paper) and animals (leather), digital pages via the internet and computation screens, to biotechnological applications and cryogenic tissue banks. The creation of limited edition book/ sculptures series made from human and animal tissue, biological viruses and immunohistochemical staining is the means for thinking through the changing status of bodies in the postbiological era. This project is funded by The Canada Council for The Arts.

I wish Duff had mentioned this description when she spoke at the panel as this helps me to understand her work much better. At the panel, she was focused on the process that occurred after her work was accepted for exhibition. Because the exhibition was being held in Northern Ireland the laws of the United Kingdom came into effect when Duff applied to send her artwork to Belfast for the exhibition.

There is a law/regulation which is unique to the UK. I’m not sure if it had something to do with the dead virus or the tissues that form Duff’s art pieces but a government bureaucrat misapplied a set of rules which pertain to this law/regulation and refused Duff’s art work entry in the UK.

Duff did some detective work and determined that the law/regulation did not apply to her art work and the government official reversed the decision. However, the institution that was hosting the exhibition had some concerns and wanted to exhibit the work in a room that was removed from the other exhibits and (if I remember rightly) would require that a visitor open the door to the exhibit with a key. The artist agreed and then somehow the institution (or perhaps it was the ISEA 2009 organizers?) decided that this particular art work could not be exhibited.

All of this led to the panel discussion where Duff discussed the entire process and the chief ISEA 2009 organizer (Kerstin May) talked about some of the difficulties from her perspective.  ISEA 2009 is organized by various committees and it’s those committees which make the decisions about who will and won’t present and/or exhibit. There are many, many potential exhibitors and conference presenters from around the world making submissions so it’s already quite demanding. The symposium was further complicated by the fact that it took place in Belfast, Londonderry/Derry, Coleraine, Dundalk, and Dublin. I also had the impression that much of this transpired in the last few months (if not weeks) before the conference and anybody who’s organized anything will tell you, you can’t deal with this kind of a problem at what is effectively the last minute.

I found the whole discussion quite illuminating. First, Duff displayed a mindset that I associate with scientists. She presented a logical, well-reasoned case. She’d gotten permission from the patient who donated her breast tissue for the project and the virus she used is a dead virus commonly used by researchers around the world, including the UK. She mentioned that she’s a professor and she noted a couple of papers (along with a list of her co-authors) that will be published soon. All of it identical to behaviour I’d expect from the science mindset I mentioned earlier right down to the fact that Duff did not seem to grasp the nature of the concerns (panic) she had set off.

We (not just scientists) sometimes forget that other people are not us. They have different experiences, reference points, and opinions. I can’t be certain of my insights but I do think the ‘mad cow’ disease in the UK has had a profound effect on how the population there views any number of issues associated with science. As well, the GM food (aka frankenfood) controversies affected European populations in a way that I don’t think Canadians understand very well.

More on this tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Michael Berger of Nanowerk has written Nano-Society – Pushing the boundaries of technology. You can read more about it by clicking the link (Nano-Society). I imagine that the book is an expansion of the articles he’s written on the Nanowerk site. I’ve always found Berger’s writing to be very clear and informative, presumably the book will be the same.

Nanotechnology in Manitoba; petition for a National Day for Canadian Research; Word on the Street Festival

I wasn’t expecting to find that researchers in Manitoba were working with researchers from Johns Hopkins University, two biopharmaceutical companies, Dartmouth College, and researchers from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to study sugar-coated nanoparticles. In fact since I don’t cover nanomedicine very often, I almost missed the item which is about how these particles might be used in cancer therapy .

From the news item on Science Daily,

In cooperation with colleagues at The Johns Hopkins University, Dartmouth College, the University of Manitoba and two biopharmaceutical companies, the NIST team has demonstrated that the particles—essentially sugar-coated bits of iron oxide, about 100 nanometers wide—are potent cancer killers because they interact with one another in ways that smaller nanoparticles do not. The interactions, thought by many bioengineers to be undesirable, actually help the larger particles heat up better when subjected to an alternating magnetic field. Because this heat destroys cancer cells, the team’s findings may help engineers design better particles and treatment methods.

Sometimes it seems to me that there is a drive to work with smaller and smaller bits of matter so this realization that the larger particle could be prove to be more effective is interesting and mildly amusing to me since I get caught up in this ‘drive to smaller and smaller’.

I recently received notice of a petition for a National Day for Canadian Research being organized by graduate students (presumably across the country).  From the notice,

Myself and others are trying to establish a National Day for Canadian Research to help support and recognize the achievements of researchers in Canada. This is a non-partisan and cost-free approach that the government should have no difficulty accepting.

For this to occur, it must be enacted by Parliament and we must petition them formally. In this effort, we have set up a website where hard copies of a petition (in either French or English) can be downloaded and signed ( In addition, an online petition can also be found at or through the link found at The CSBMCB has also posted our links on their advocacy website.

Signing the online petition is good but if the effort is to be successful, hard copy petitions must be signed and sent. If you want to read the full notice, you can go here to the Don’t leave Canada behind forum.

The Vancouver (Canada) edition of the Word on the Street Festival is this Sunday, Sept.27, 2009. It goes from 11 am to 5 pm and is being held in the blocks surrounding the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library (at 350 West Georgia St.). There are maps on their website as well as other information. They do advise using public transit since they do close  a few blocks to car traffic for the festival.

Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation tidbits; TAPPI and the nanotechnology forestry conference in Alberta; a modern House of Wisdom

I caught only part of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) event, Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation, due to two factors. (1) I was busy posting here and so was late to the live webcast. (2) About an hour after I started watching, something (either my system choked or the Wilson Center facility was having difficulties or I lost broadband speed for some reason)  happened and the live webcast became unwatchable.

This was an international collaborative project titled, Regulating Nanotechnologies in the EU and US. Researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Chatham House, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), and PEN at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars worked together to produce a report, a briefing paper, and a slide presentation about their findings and recommendations that can be downloaded from here.

The Washington, DC presentation was yesterday (Sept. 23, 2009) at the Wilson Center facility. There were two panels and I missed the introduction for the first group but I did recognize the moderator, David Rejeski who’s PEN’s executive director. The discussion was about the report and the recommendations.

One of the more interesting bits was the mention of a discrepancy between the UK and EU food industries submissions to some sort of inquiry. The UK representative claimed there are 2 nano type food products on the market (in the UK,  i.e. Europe) while in an earlier meeting elsewhere an EU representative claimed there are 20 such products on the market in Europe. No one was able to explain the discrepancy, which is troubling.

As for the participants in the project, there was general agreement that some sort of regulatory system needs to be developed quickly. Amongst other recommendations:

  1. Voluntary reporting of the use and manufacture of nano materials should be made mandatory.
  2. There should be a ‘technology label’ for food and cosmetic products that contain nanomaterials.
  3. A global approach to nanotechnology regulation that draws together major players such as China and India, as well as many others, needs to be adopted.

There was some mention of Canada at one point. I believe the speaker was referring to an Environment Canada initiative, i.e. a one-time inventory of nanomaterials used in manufacturing products which is mandatory. (I commented on this matter in my Feb. 3, 4, and 6, 2009 postings.) I haven’t heard anything about their progress lately but it is used as an example of a mandatory nanotechnology inventory. Interestingly, they never mention that it is supposed to be one time only.

As for the second panel (moderated by Dr. Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor for PEN), this was oriented to some of the practicalities of introducing nano regulation into current regulatory environments. At least, I think that’s what it was about as things began to malfunction shortly after the introductions.

TAPPI (Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry) held a nanotechnology forestry conference in Alberta this last June. I should have mentioned it at the time but, trite as it is,  better late than never.  From today’s news item about the conference on Nanowerk,

More than 180 nanoscience experts from 12 countries met in June to discuss the potential of nano-enabled biomaterials. Held in Edmonton, AB, Canada, and co-sponsored by TAPPI and the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, the conference revealed developments for revolutionizing paper and wood products, as well as capturing sustainability-focused markets with bionanocomposites and capitalizing on wood-derived nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) and nanofibrillar cellulose (NFC).

The 2010 conference will be held in Helsinki, Finland.

The House of Wisdom existed from the 9th to 13th centuries CE (common era) in Baghdad. Originally intended as a library whose main purpose was for the translation of books from Persian into Arabic, the House of Wisdom became a centre for the study of the humanities and sciences that was unrivaled in its time. One of its great scholars (Al-Khawarizmi) is known as the ‘father of algebra’. They invented the library catalogue where books were organized according to subjects. Note: I was recently at the oldest library at Trinity College in Dublin and the guide mentioned that those books are organized on the shelves by size, weight, and the colour of their bindings. (I got my information about the House of Wisdom here in Wikipedia and from a Nanowerk Spotlight article by Michael Berger.)

I mention the House of Wisdom because of Berger’s article which uses it as a metaphor to discuss a modern attempt to recreate the ‘house’,  this time, in Saudi Arabia. A new, 36 square kilometer,  science/technology campus/city called the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) opened yesterday on Sept. 23, 2009.

From the article,

Much more than a future elite university, the vision behind KAUST is to create the nucleus of a modern society, free from the strict religious dictates of a conservative Islamic culture, and laying the foundation for a science and technology based society of future generations.

This sounds quite ambitious for a conservative Islamic country that doesn’t have public entertainment facilities such as cinemas or theaters – they are regarded as incompatible with Islam; where most schools have focused on religion much more than on science and other modern knowledge; and where a strict interpretation of Islam imposes many restrictions on women’s daily lives.

This all is supposed to change with mega projects like the $8bn Knowledge Economic City (KEC), the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) a $26.6 billion project that will generate more than 500,000 jobs upon completion in 2016; and nearby KAUST, intended to catapult Saudi Arabia’s education system into the 21st century and prepare its society for the time after oil. This move to a knowledge-based society is a top priority for the country – in 2009 alone, 25.7% of Saudi Arabia’s budget has been allocated to educational development.

As an oil-producing country, Saudi Arabia is getting ready for a time when there won’t be any left to pump out of the ground. Do read the article as there’s much more about the facilities which, according to Berger, “… will enable top-notch nanotechnology research.”

It reminds me a little of the situation in Alberta where they are currently trying to extract oil from sand only because the oil that was easy to access is almost gone while heavily investing in emerging advanced technologies such as nanotechnology.

Textiles that can detect counterfeiting devices, bacteria, and dangerous chemicals; a 22 nm chip; copyrighting food?

I’m going to watch at least part of the live stream for the PEN event (Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation) that’s taking place this morning (9:30 PST), so this is going to be a quick posting.

In my master’s project (The Nanotech Mysteries wiki), I featured a 2007 news item about a student designer at Cornell University who used textile fibres coated with nanomaterials in her clothing designs. (You can see the wiki page here.) Today, I caught a news item on Azonano about some textile scientists at Cornell University who launched a start-up that markets these kinds of fabrics.

Fabrics with embedded nanoparticles to detect counterfeiting devices, explosives and dangerous chemicals or to serve as antibacterials for hospitals, law enforcement or the hospitality industry are just a few of the products that a new company, [iFyber LLC] launched by two Cornell researchers, will produce.

This is exciting as I’ve gotten to follow the story a little further than usual. Generally, I find out about a product and then learn that it had its origins in an academic laboratory.

Intel has announced a new 22 nanometre (nm) chip. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini today displayed a silicon wafer containing the world’s first working chips built on 22nm process technology. The 22nm test circuits include both SRAM memory as well as logic circuits to be used in future Intel microprocessors. “At Intel, Moore’s Law is alive and thriving,” said Otellini. “We’ve begun production of the world’s first 32nm microprocessor, which is also the first high-performance processor to integrate graphics with the CPU.

I posted about the 32 nm chip and Intel’s investment in retooling three of their manufacturing facilities to produce the chip here. As I recall, IBM has a 28 nm chip.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I find these innovations exciting but I always wonder about the practicalities. Since these chips aren’t visible to the naked eye, how does your computer get fixed (e.g. chip replacement) by your average computer repair shop? How reliable are these chips?

Finally, here’s a posting I found on Techdirt about copyrighting hummus, etc. There is a group in Lebanon who are planning to sue  Israel for using words like hummus, tabbouleh, etc. to describe their food products. It seemed a little odd to me when I scanned the headline but as Techdirt sardonically points out, the word champagne is for the exclusive use of wine producers in  France and there have been other successful attempts at this type of copyright claim. (As I recall,  not even French wine producers from  regions other than Champagne can call their product champagne.) I followed one of the Techdirt links here for more information. My understanding after viewing a tv clip and reading the article (both Israeli-produced) is that the Lebanese group is motivated by the fact that Israel has been more successful at marketing and selling these products internationally.  I also wonder how the other countries that market and sell these products will react to Lebanon’s proposed copyright claim.

Alberta and Texas collaborate on nanotechnology and greenish energy; a meta analysis of public perceptions of nanotechnology risks; how scientists think

The Premier of Alberta (Canada), Ed Stelmach, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Rice University (Texas, US) President, David Leebron, to collaborate through nanoAlberta (Alberta Advanced Education and Technology) and the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (Rice University). The two institutions will collaborate in the energy, environmental, medical,  agriculture, and forestry sectors. From the news item on Azonano,

Wade Adams, director of the Smalley Institute, said the interests of nanoAlberta and those of his team at Rice are perfectly aligned. “We want to help them figure out how to extract oil from their resources in a more environmentally friendly way, a more efficient way and one that will cause less damage to their own territory as well as provide oil for the needs of the human race, as they become a more important source of it.”

When I read the title for the item I thought they were referring to green or bio fuels but, as you can see from the quote, the intention is altogether different. From a pragmatic perspective, since we have to depend on fossil fuels for a while longer, it’s best if we can find more environmentally friendly ways to extract it while developing other renewable sources.

This reminds me of the recent invite I received from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) for the Perverse Incentives: The Untold Story of Federal Subsidies for Fossil Fuels event held on Sept. 18, 2009. Unfortunately, the webcast isn’t available quite yet but I think that in light of this memorandum it could be interesting viewing and might provide a critical perspective on the initiative.

PEN is holding another somewhat related event on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm EST, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology, and Biofuels: What does the public think? If you’re in Washington, DC, you can attend the event live but you should RSVP here, otherwise there’s a live webcast which is posted a few days later on their website.  (There’s a PEN event tomorrow, Sept. 23, 2009 at 12 pm to 2:30 pm EST, titled Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation: Securing the Promise of Nanotechnologies. If you wish to attend the live event, you can RSVP using the link I’ve posted previously. If you’re interested in this event, in June I posted a more complete description of it here.)

One more Canadian development on the nanotechnology front, a meta analysis of 22 surveys on public perceptions of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology has been published at Nature Online as of Sept. 20, 2009. The article (lead author from the University of British Columbia, Canada)  is behind a paywall but you can read more about it in the news item on Nanowerk (from the news item),

Previous studies have found that new and unknown technologies such as biotechnology tend to be regarded as risky, but that’s not the case for nanotechnology, according to this research. People who thought nanotechnology had more benefits than risks outnumbered those who perceived greater risks by 3 to 1 in this study. The 44 percent of people who didn’t have an opinion either way surprised the researchers. “You don’t normally get that reluctance,” says Terre Satterfield of the University of British Columbia in Canada, lead author of the study and a collaborator with CNS-UCSB [Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara].

In almost three years of scanning, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two announcements that both feature a Canadian nanotechnology development of sorts. This is a banner day!

Topping today off, I’m going to segue into How Scientists Think.  It’s a paper about how scientists creatively problem solve.  From the news item on,

Her [Dr. Nancy J. Nersessian] study of the working methods of scientists helps in understanding how class and instructional laboratory settings can be improved to foster creativity, and how new teaching methods can be developed based on this understanding. These methods will allow science students to master model-based reasoning approaches to problem solving and open the field to many more who do not think of themselves as traditional “scientists.”

I’ve been interested in how scientists think because I’ve been trying to understand why the communication with ‘non scientists’ can be so poor. To some extent I think it is cultural. After years of training in special skills and a special language, scientists are members of a unique occupational culture, which has given birth to many, many subcultures. People who are immersed in their own cultures don’t always realize that the rest of us may not understand what they’re saying very well. (Try reading art criticism if you don’t have an understanding of art history and critical theory.) That’s my short answer and, one of these days, I’m going to write a paper with my long answer.

I had every intention of writing another part of my science communication series today but I have a couple of projects to start or finish and these series postings take more time than I have to spare.

Science communication in Canada (part 3)

We have  a lot of science communication programmes and activities in Canada but a huge percentage of them are aimed at children. Once you leave high school you don’t learn much about science any more. Yes, you can read an article in a newspaper or catch a science programme on tv but as I noted in my Friday (Sept. 18, 2009) posting, the media don’t cover  the sciences very often. (I’ll see if I can dig up some data on science coverage in the media.)

There is another issue with science coverage which has an impact on  the media’s willingness to run science stories, legal suits for defamation.  There’s an article on Techdirt, UK Libel Laws, Scientific Criticism, Chilling Effects, Bloggers and The Streisand Effect, which presents the interesting case of Simon Singh (physicist and author of books such as Fermat’s Last Theorem, aka Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the Word’s Greatest Mathematical Problem, Big Bang and others) who’s being sued for criticising the evidence for claims by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) about diseases that chiropractors can cure. The BCA filed a defamation suit against Singh, which is having a chilling effect on science journalism not only in the UK but also in the US (I haven’t found any Canadian commentary). You can find links to other articles on the topic including one from the New York Times in the Techdirt article. Meanwhile, I think this comment from the British Humanist Association (BHA) summarises the issues best,

BHA Chief Executive Hanne Stinson said today, “We’re proud to re-publish Simon’s article here on our website. This is not just an issue about freedom of speech, although that is important in itself. But if legitimate scientific criticism ever leads to a successful libel action, that will not only prevent people speaking out about false claims, it actually threatens scientific progress. Scientific advances almost always involve disagreement and criticism, and scientists have to able to express their views robustly without fear of prosecution. If our courts interpret one ambiguous phrase in a piece labelled ‘Comment’ as defamation, with the result that the writer loses a huge sum of money, then there is something very wrong in the balance between libel and freedom of speech.”

I found Singh’s edited (of allegedly libellous comments, apparently Singh used the word ‘bogus’ to describe some of the claims) article on the BHA site and even though I’m late to the party (there was a July 29, 2009 worldwide posting of the article, organized by Sense about Science, I’m going to post it now.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.
If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Personally, I have gone to chiropractors for spinal manipulations and like any other profession (including writing), there’s the good, the bad, the competent, and the mediocre. I also know people who get good results and others for whom chiropractic adjustments do nothing. I think, in common with many others, that the BHA (correction: this should be BCA for British Chiropractic Association) should have responded with evidence and not with a legal suit complaining that they were being criticised.

As for whether or not this legal suit has had any impact on science journalism in Canada, I have no evidence, other than the absence of any discussion in the Canadian media, to back the assertion that follows. Taking into account the federal government’s relatively recent dictum (gag order) that scientists in Environment Canada are not allowed to speak to journalists unless they had received permission from the ministry’s communication department (National Post, Jan. 31, 2008, article by Margaret Munro, other articles can be found via search engines) and our close ties to UK jurisprudence, there is a big chill taking place here that affects both scientists and journalists.

Tomorrow I expect to be looking at public relations/marketing and science.

Science communication in Canada (part 2)

Today I’m going to discuss science journalism. There’s not a lot of science journalism as the Science Day report notes,

In communicating science issues, the media fall far short. Science-focused stories rarely make the news in Canada, and when they do, often fail to adequately explain either the science or its significance. It seems that Canadian news editors and producers assume that the public considers science uninteresting or complicated. The European media, in contrast, appreciating that science can hold readers’ and viewers’ attention, routinely cover science news. Scientists, for their part, too often do not engage the world beyond their labs and institutes. When they do venture out, they sometimes fail to succinctly convey the gist or broader relevance of their research to the public, industry and government.

Contrary to the media’s assumptions, a surprisingly large number of Canadians share a keen interest in science. When conveyed properly, science news can capture the public’s imagination. And scientists are perfectly capable of conveying science to a wide audience.

I also found out recently that science journalism is not science communication; that field was described to me (by a member of the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia) as public relations and marketing. Interesting, non? I view science communication more broadly but I can understand why it’s viewed that way. First, communication departments are often charged with public relations, media relations, and/or marketing communication initiatives. (Note: I don’t know if it’s still true but 15 years ago people in communication departments viewed their roles as distinct from public relations and/or marketing communication. Personally, I always found the lines to be blurry.) Second, there is a longstanding snobbery about public relations, communication, etc. in the journalism community.

Getting back to science journalism, I think pretty anyone will agree that there’s not much coverage of the science scene in Canada. You’re not going find many science stories in your local papers or on the radio and tv unless you make a special effort. In terms of general science magazines that are not being issued by a government agency, only two spring to mind. SEED and Yes Mag for Children and unfortunately I’ve never seen either magazine on the news stands. As for broadcast programmes,  there’s SPARK and Quirks and Quarks on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio and Daily Planet on the Discovery Channel (a Canadian offshoot station of a US television channel). SPACE: the imagination station (another offshoot of a US television channel [Syfy] which focuses on science fiction and fantasy) does cover the odd science story but they insert the news bits between programming and I’ve never been able to discern a schedule. Please let me know if  I’ve missed anything.

I’d like to note is that the term science story also includes medical stories, health stories, and environment stories which members of the news media believe are of much interest to the general public (and even they don’t get great coverage). The consequence is that other sciences tend to get short shrift in the competition for news coverage when there are so few outlets.

I will have more next week on this. In the meantime, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has a new event coming up on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm EST in Washington, DC. The event is titled, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology, and Biofuels: What does the public think? If you’re in Washington, DC and want to attend, you can RSVP here or there will be both a live webcast and a posted webcast after the event, no RSVP required.

Finally, Rob Annan (Don’t leave Canada behind) is digging deeper into the issue of entrepreneurship in Canada and how we can nurture it here. He also provides some resources that you may want to check out or you may want to let him know of your network.