Expert panel to assess the state of Canada’s science culture—not exactly whelming

I was very excited when the forthcoming assessment The State of Canada’s Science Culture was announced in early 2012 (or was it late 2011?). At any rate, much has happened since then including what appears to be some political shenanigans. The assessment was originally requested by the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation. After many, many months the chair of the panel was announced, Arthur Carty, and mentioned here in my Dec. 19, 2012 posting.

I was somewhat surprised to note (although I didn’t say much about it in December) that the science culture in Canada assessment webpage now included two new government agencies as requestors, Industry Canada and Natural Resources Canada. Where are Environment Canada, Transport Canada, Heritage Canada (we have an exciting science history which is part of our Canadian heritage), Health Canada, and Statistics Canada? For that matter, why not the entire civil service structure, as arguably every single government department has a vested interest in and commitment to science culture in Canada?

It took an extraordinarily long period of time before the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) announced its chair and expert panel and presumably the addition of two random government departments in the request was a factor. One would hope that the CCA’s desire to find the most exciting and diverse group of ‘experts’ would be another factor in the delay.  To be clear my greatest concern is not about the individuals. It is the totality of the panel that concerns me most deeply. Here’s the list from The Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture webpage,

The Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture is comprised of the following members:

Arthur Carty,  O.C., FRSC, FCAE  (Chair) Executive Director, Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (Waterloo, ON)

Adam Bly, Founder and Chairman, Seed (New York, NY)

Karen A. Burke, Director, Regulatory Affairs, Drug Safety and Quality Assurance,  Amgen Canada Inc. (Mississauga, ON)

Edna F. Einsiedel, Professor, Department of Communication and Culture,  University of Calgary (Calgary, AB)

Tamara A. Franz-Odendaal, NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Atlantic Canada) and Associate Professor of  Biology, Mount Saint Vincent University (Halifax, NS)

Ian Hacking, C.C., FRSC University Professor Emeritus, Philosophy, University of Toronto (Toronto, ON)

Jay Ingram, C.M. Chair, Science Communications Program, Banff Centre; Former Co-Host, Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet” (Calgary, AB)

Sidney Katz, C.M. Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology,  Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of British Columbia (Vancouver, BC)

Marc LePage, President and CEO, Génome Québec (Montréal, QC)

James Marchbank, Former CEO, Science North (Sudbury, ON)

Timothy I. Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning and Communications, TRIUMF (Vancouver, BC)

Jon Miller, Research Scientist, Center for Political Studies, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)

Bernard Schiele, Professor of Communications, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Researcher, Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie (CIRST) (Montréal, QC)

Dawn Sutherland, Canada Research Chair in Science Education in Cultural Contexts, University of Winnipeg (Winnipeg, MB)

James Wilsdon, Professor of Science and Democracy, University of Sussex (Brighton, United Kingdom)

Given the CCA’s most recent assessment, Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension, it’s striking that the number of women on this panel of 15 individuals is four. This suggests that while the CCA is happy to analyze information and advise about gender and science, it is not able to incorporate its own advice when assembling an expert panel, especially one concerning science culture.

There is only one person in the group who has built a business and that’s Adam Bly. Ordinarily I’d be happy to see this inclusion but Bly and/or his company (Seed Media Group) are making an attempt to trademark the term ‘scientific thinking’. (I’ve objected to attempts to trademark parts of commonly used language many, many times in the past.) In addition to that, there’s another activity I questioned in my Feb. 11, 2013 posting about visualizing nanotechnology data.

(For those who are interested in some of the discussion around attempts to trademark phrases that are in common usage, there’s a Feb. 18, 2013 posting by Mike Masnick on Techdirt about a bank which is attempting to trademark the term ‘virtual wallet’.)

It’s a shame the members of the panel did not (or were not encouraged) to write a biography that showed their interest in science culture, however the member imagines it to be. Following the links from the ‘expert panel’ page leads only to information that has been reused countless times and has absolutely no hint of personality or passion. Even a single sentence would have been welcome. Whatever makes these individuals ‘experts on science culture in Canada’ has to be inferred. As it is, this looks like a list of policy and academic wonks with a few media types (Bly and Ingram) and business types (Bly, again, and Burke) thrown in for good measure.

I half jokingly applied to be on the panel in my Dec. 19, 2012 posting so (excluding me) here’s a list of people I’d suggest would make for a more interesting panel,

  • Margaret Atwood (writes speculative/science fiction)
  • Baba Brinkman (rapper, MFA from the University of Victoria, BC, known internationally for his Rap Guide to Evolution, the world’s peer-reviewed science rap)
  • Claire Eamer, founder of the Sci/Why blog about Canadian science writing for kids, science writer located in Yukon
  • Mary Filer (internationally known artist in glass who worked in the Montreal Neuro Centre and was a member of one of the most storied surgical teams in Canadian history)
  • Pascal Lapointe, founder of Agence Science Presse agency and Je vote pour la science project
  • Robert Lepage (theatre director known internationally for his groundbreaking use of technology)
  • Robert J. Sawyer (internationally know Canadian science fiction writer)

Could they not have found one visual or performing artist or writer or culture maker to add to this expert panel? One of them might have added a hint of creativity or imagination to this assessment.  Ironically, the visual and performing arts were included in the CCA’s asssesment The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 released in Sept. 2012.

As for incorporating other marginalized, be it by race, ethnicity, social class, ability, etc., groups the panel members’ biography pages do not give any hint of whether or not any attempt was made. I hope attempts will be made during the information gathering process and that those attempts will be documented, however briefly, in the forthcoming assessment.

In any event, I’ve been hearing a few whispers about the panel and its doings. Apparently, the first meeting was held recently and predictably (from my Dec. 19, 2012 posting),

Hopefully, the expert panel will have a definition of some kind for “science culture.”

the expert panel discussed a definition for science culture. I hear from another source the panel may even consider science blogging in their assessment. It seems amusing that this possibility was mentioned in hushed tones suggesting there was no certainty science blogging would be included in the assessment since Bly and his company established the Science Blogs network. Of course, there was the ‘Pepsigate’ situation a few years ago. (This Wikipedia essay offers the least heated description I’ve seen of the Science Blogs/Pepsi contretemps.)

I have a prediction about this forthcoming assessment, it will be hugely focused on getting more children to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. I have no formal objection to the notion but it does seem like a huge opportunity lost to focus primarily on children when it’s the parents who so often influence their children’s eventual choices.  Here’s an excerpt from my Jan. 31, 2012 post illustrating my point about children, their parents, and attitudes towards science,

One of the research efforts in the UK is the ASPIRES research project at King’s College London (KCL), which is examining children’s attitudes to science and future careers. Their latest report, Ten Science Facts and Fictions: the case for early education about STEM careers (PDF), is profiled in a Jan. 11, 2012 news item on (from the news item),

Professor Archer [Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s] said: “Children and their parents hold quite complex views of science and scientists and at age 10 or 11 these views are largely positive. The vast majority of children at this age enjoy science at school, have parents who are supportive of them studying science and even undertake science-related activities in their spare time. They associate scientists with important work, such as finding medical cures, and with work that is well paid.

“Nevertheless, less than 17 per cent aspire to a career in science. These positive impressions seem to lead to the perception that science offers only a very limited range of careers, for example doctor, scientist or science teacher. It appears that this positive stereotype is also problematic in that it can lead people to view science as out of reach for many, only for exceptional or clever people, and ‘not for me’.

Professor Archer says the findings indicate that engaging young people in science is not therefore simply a case of making it more interesting or more fun. She said: “There is a disconnect between interest and aspirations. Our research shows that young people’s ambitions are strongly influenced by their social backgrounds – ethnicity, social class and gender – and by family contexts. [emphases mine]

I purposefully used the term STEM as I suspect this expert panel will not have knowledge of the HSE (humanities, social sciences, and education), LS (life sciences), and PCEM (physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics) categories as defined by the recent assessment “(Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension; The Expert Panel on Women in University Research.” Those categories were defined as an attempt to reflect the disposition of the major science funding organizations in Canada ((SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council], CIHR [Canadian Institutes of Health Research], and NSERC [Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council]) and, arguably, they are a big—if not the biggest—influence on Canadian science culture.

I do have a question I hope will be answered in the assessment. If we motivate more children to study science type topics, where will the jobs be? David Kent on University Affairs’ The Black Hole blog has written about science trainees and their future for years. In fact, his Feb. 19, 2013 posting is titled, Planning Ahead: How many of you are there and who will pay you?

Interestingly, there was an announcement this morning of another assessment which could be described as related to science culture, from the Feb. 22, 2013 CCA news release,

Doug Owram to Serve as Expert Panel Chair on Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution

The Council is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Doug Owram, FRSC, as Chair of the Expert Panel on Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution. Library and Archives Canada has asked the Council to assess how memory institutions, including archives, libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions, can embrace the opportunities and challenges in which Canadians are communicating and working in the digital age.

While the expert panel has yet to be announced, it is comforting to note that Owram is an historian and the link between memory and history seems unimpeachable. Oddly, the page listing ‘in progress assessments’ has the Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution assessment listed as being On Hold (more political shenanigans?). Regardless, you can find out more about the assessment and its questions on the Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution assessment page.

I wonder what impact, if any, these assessments will have on each other. In the meantime, I have one more prediction, the word innovation will be used with gay abandon throughout the science culture assessment.

3 thoughts on “Expert panel to assess the state of Canada’s science culture—not exactly whelming

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