Tag Archives: Canadian Science Writers Association

Sci comm, Canada, and the Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! network of Canadian science blog(ger)s

If a hashtag (ou mot-dièse en français) is a way to judge these things, there’s an upswing of interest in Canadian science communication. The hashtag in question is #cancomm (on Twitter) and seems to have developed a life beyond its original designation as a Twitter stream devoted to one of the sessions at the ScienceOnline2013 conference held Jan. 30 – Feb. 2, 2013 in North Carolina, USA.

Before mentioning anything about the latest developments (I sent some interview questions to both of the presenters), here’s more about the ScienceOnline 2013 session titled Communicating science where there is no science communication presented by Marie-Claire Shanahan and Colin Schultz who focused on the situation in Canada,

Scientists, journalists, and communicators working outside of the United States and the UK face fundamentally different problems from those living within well-served media landscapes. For example: Canada has few science magazines, a couple television shows, and a handful of radio programmes aimed at a general science audience (with the exception of the French-speaking Quebec, which has a dynamic science writing community). Government funded research grants do not require outreach or education. [emphasis mine] And, government scientists have been all but barred from talking to journalists. In Canada and other countries with sparse science communication infrastructures, the dominant issues revolve not around journalists vs bloggers, or scientists vs press releases vs the media, but instead focus on what can be done to make science communication exist at all, in any form. This session will explore how scientists, educators, and media people can promote scientific discussions and scientific interest in regions that lack established venues.

A number of salient (and I believe them to be indisputable) points are made. I did highlight one statement which is arguable. There is one funding agency (granted, only one) which includes a requirement for outreach/communication and that is the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). From Section 8 of the CFI’s Policy and Program document (PDF) dated March 2012,

As an independent corporation created by the Government of Canada, the CFI places paramount importance on demonstrating to Canadians the impacts and outcomes of its investments. And as recipients of CFI funding, institutions have an essential role to play in highlighting the impacts, outcomes and benefits of research, through communications activities such as:

• news releases, news conferences and other media relations initiatives;

• print and online publications;

• social media;

• special events (groundbreakings, openings, milestone celebrations, conferences and other public outreach activities);

• presentations;

• correspondence;

• advertising.

In the context of these activities, the CFI also requests that institutions acknowledge the financial support of the CFI. (p. 81)

At any rate, I did send off some questions in hopes of an interview with both presenters but, as sometimes happens, Marie-Claire Shanahan has not replied and, more uniquely,  Colin Schultz has decided to publish my questions and his answers on his own blog.  My policy with the interviews I conduct is to publish the replies along with the questions in their entirety changing only the typos. I don’t offer any observations of my own after the fact. Since Colin Schultz has published the interview himself, I will treat it as I do anything else I find on web. I do not copy an entire piece but will excerpt the bits I find interesting and comment at will.

According to the ‘secret source’ who attended your presentation, you and Marie-Claire were very harsh in your assessments of the science communication efforts and environment in Canada. Given that most of my readers won’t have attended the presentation, could you summarize the presentation in a few bullet points and note where you agree and disagree with your co-presenter?

… Science Online pulls together brilliant, creative, hard-working and entrepreneurial problem solvers, communicators with a passion for science and a vigilante spirit. Many of these people, however, also have basically no idea what is going on in Canada in terms of the political atmosphere, the size of the mainstream press, or the scope of the science communication community. [emphasis mine] One of the goals I had in mind when putting together my short introduction for the session was that I wanted to tap into these clever minds so that we could all put our heads together and come up with projects that will work within the Canadian cultural context. [emphasis mine]

The Shanahan/Schultz presentation was 60 minutes long.  So, these people got to know Canada and the Canadian science communication scene well enough in 60 minutes to suggest projects that work within the Canadian cultural context. Interesting.

Here’s more from question 1 (Note: I have removed links),

I opened the session with numbers: We have one mainstream science magazine, two TV shows, and one radio show. A 1998 study found that we had 18 full time science journalists at daily newspapers, and I mused that this number probably went down as the media industry crashed and companies cut their staff.

With no official science blogger database that I know of, I pulled from your (Maryse’s) own annual counts (2010, 2011, 2012) and the self-selected bloggers pulled together by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association to estimate that there are likely a few dozen science bloggers in the country. [emphasis mine] Discussions in the room pointed out that there are probably more than listed in those two places, but the order of magnitude on the guess is probably close enough.

I believe my last annual count (2012 roundup) listed approximately 40 – 50 more or less active, including English and French language, Canadian Science blogs/bloggers. (A colleague recently [Feb. 15, 2013] produced a spreadsheet list of approximately 70 active blogs/bloggers.) More from Schultz on the first question,

From the numbers I moved into my second main point, asking: “Why does any of this matter?” Scientific knowledge is borderless, so does it really matter if we hear about Canadian science?

To answer this I suggested that there is a split: for people learning about science, for keeping up with all the cool developments that are taking shape around the world, then no, it doesn’t really matter. Canadian, American, English, Australian—wherever your news comes from doesn’t really make much a difference.

But, there is the other side of it. There are serious scientific issues in Canadian life—the tar sands, oceans management, fisheries research, the climate of the Arctic—that will only really be addressed by Canadians, and outside of the larger issues of climate change or biodiversity, only really affect Canadians. Without established venues to discuss and report and debate science, without an established culture of science communication, there won’t necessarily be the conversation that we need on these and other issues.

I noted that when people aren’t aware of the work being done by Canadian scientists or Canadian federal agencies that it could become easier for those projects to slide away, a case that came to the fore recently with the cutting of federal scientists, the potential closing of the Experimental Lakes, or the issue of muzzling.

Then, there were the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th questions,

Were you trying to be harsh in your assessment? I read the presentation description which didn’t have a single positive comment about efforts in English Canada; did that hold true for the presentation or did you leaven it with some positive comments (and what were those positive comments)? Note: A link has been removed.

There is a lot of good science communication going on in Canada. Personally, I think that Daily Planet is a treasure, and following the session I had people asking how they could see it from abroad. Marie-Claire, and some audience members, raised examples of informal or non-mainstream media projects that are doing great work on science communication and science outreach.

Would it surprise you to know that about the same time you gave your presentation a group (with no prior knowledge of said presentation) had formed to create a Canadian science blogging network? Full disclosure: I am a member of this group.

I heard whispers of this in the hallways at the conference, and think it’s a great idea. Building a blogging network will help draw people together, and help them find one another. I think that we have a lot of really serious issues to tackle, but this is a great place to start.

Purely for fun, I have three names for a national network. (These names are not from the group.) Which one would you join, if you one had one choice?

(a) Canuckian science blog(ger) network?
(b) Canadian science blog(ger) network?
(c) Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Canadian science blog(ger) network?

The last one, definitely.

You can find the entire set of responses at Colin Schultz’s blog. I wish him good luck as he breathes some life back into it. (His last posting prior to this ‘interview’ was on July 13, 2012, and the posting before that was dated Feb. 8, 2012.)

Note: I did correct two of my own interview typos in the words ‘assessment’ and ‘with’.

There are in fact two groups (that I know of) who have talked about putting together a Canadian science blog(ger) network. There was the group forming at the ScienceOnline 2013 conference and there was another group forming as a consequence of a suggestion in my 2012 roundup. The two groups appear to be coalescing but it’s all very loose at this point. Who knows? There may be other groups who just haven’t made themselves known as yet.

What can be said for certain is this,  Mike Spear at Genome Alberta has created the CanComm.org website for Canadian science communicators, aka, CanComm – Communication with a Science Flavour and a Canadian Twist. Sarah Boon, one of the organizers of our hoped for network, has written a Feb. 23, 2013 post on her Watershed Moments blog that provides pointed and thoughtful insight into many of the current issues on the Canadian science scene and the Canadian science communication scene and includes this (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s not that we don’t have an interested and involved public and the science communicators to engage them. It’s more that we don’t have the infrastructure to link communicators together like the Americans do with the Science Online meeting in Raleigh or the AAAS Meeting in Boston, or blog networks like PLoS Blogs or the Discover and SciAm networks.

To that end, groups like Genome Alberta, the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA), the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC), and Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) are working with individuals such as myself, @frogheart, @8CrayonScience, @raymondsbrain and others to build a Canadian science communication and (ultimately) blog network. If you’re interested in joining, you can register at cancomm.org.

Full disclosure: One of my pieces got a shoutout in another part of Sarah’s posting and I’m chuffed. Regardless, I still would have described her posting as pointed and thoughtful and I notice I’m not alone as per the #cancomm twitter feed.

For anyone interested in the latest regarding the French language version of hashtag, there’s a Jan. 24, 2013 article in The Connexion; France’s English-language newspaper,

THE French government has caused amusement on the internet by insisting the proper term for “hashtag” in French should be mot-dièse.
I look forward to seeing you all at cancomm.org in any language we can use to communicate.

2012 Canadian science blog roundup and some thoughts on a Canadian science blog network

This is my 3rd annual roundup of Canadian science blogs and the science blogging scene in Canada seems to be getting more lively (see my Dec. 31, 2010 posting and Dec. 29, 2011 posting to compare).

As I did last year, I will start with

Goodbyes

Don’t leave Canada appears to be gone as there hasn’t been posting there since May 4, 2011. I’m sorry to see it go as Rob Annan provided thoughtful commentary on science policy on a regular basis for years. Thank you, Rob. (BTW, he’s now the director of policy, research and evaluation at MITACS.)

Cool Science, John McKay’s blog has been shut down as of Oct. 24, 2012,

Hi everyone. This will mark the final post of the CoolScience.ca site and it will be quietly taken offline in November. I will also be closing down the Twitter and Facebook accounts and moving everything over to my professional accounts that are all focused on communicating science, technology, engineering and medicine.

The Dark Matter science blog by Tom Spears, which I reluctantly (as it was a ‘newspaper blog’ from the Ottawa Citizen)included last year  has since disappeared as has NeuroDojo, a blog written by a Canadian scientist in Texas.

Goodbye ish

Marc Leger’s Atoms and Numbers blog’s latest posting is dated Oct. 23, 2012 but the pattern here seems similar to Marie-Claire’s (see the next one) where the posting is erratic but relatively regular (once or twice per month) until October of this year.

Marie-Claire Shanahan is posting less frequently on her Boundary Vision blog with the last posting there on Oct. 9, 2012.

The Bubble Chamber blog from the University of Toronto’s Science Policy Work Group seems to be fading away with only one posting for 2012, Reply to Wayne Myrvold on the Higgs Boson.

Colin Schulz’s CMBR blog hasn’t had a new posting since July 13, 2012′s 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Canada. In any event, it looks like the blog is no longer primarily focused on science.

The Exponential Book blog by Massimo Boninsegni features an Oct. 24, 2012 posting and a similar posting pattern to Marie-Claire & Marc.

exposure/effect which was new last year has gone into a fairly lengthy hiatus as per its last post in January 30, 2012 posting.

Theoretical biologist, Mario Pineda-Krch of Mario’s Entangled Bank blog is also taking a lengthy hiatus as the last posting on that blog was June 11, 2012.

Nicole Arbour’s Canadian science blog for the UK High Commission in Ottawa hasn’t featured a posting since Oct. 15, 2012′s The Power of We: Adapting to climate change.

Gregor Wolbring’s Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem… features an Aug. 4, 2012 posting which links to one of his nano articles, (Nanoscale Science and Technology and People with Disabilities in Asia: An Ability Expectation Analysis) published elsewhere.

Jeff Sharom’s Science Canada blog highlights links to editorials and articles on Canadian science policy but doesn’t seem to feature original writing by Sharom or anyone else, consequently, it functions more as a reader/aggregator than a blog.

The Black Hole blog which was always more focused on prospect for Canadian science graduates than Canadian science, hence always a bit of a stretch for inclusion here, has moved to the University Affairs website where it focuses more exclusively on the Canadian academic scene with posts such as this, Free journal access for postdocs in between positions  from Dec. 12, 2012.

Returning to the roundup:

John Dupuis’ Confessions of a Science Librarian whose Dec. 26, 2012 posting, Best Science (Fiction) Books 2012: io9 seems timely for anyone taking a break at this time of year and looking for some reading material.

Daniel Lemire’s blog is known simply as Daniel Lemire. He’s a computer scientist in Montréal who writes one of the more technical blogs I’ve come across and his focus seems to be databases although his Dec. 10, 2012 posting covers the topic of how to get things accomplished when you’re already busy.

Dave Ng, a professor with the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, is a very active science communicator who maintain the Popperfont blog. The latest posting (Dec. 24, 2012) features Sciencegeek Advent Calendar Extravaganza! – Day 24.

Eric Michael Johnson continues with his The Primate Diaries blog on the Scientific American blog network. His Dec. 6, 2012 posting is a reposted article but he has kept up a regular (once per month, more or less) posting schedule,

Author’s Note: The following originally appeared at ScienceBlogs.com and was subsequently a finalist in the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize judged by Richard Dawkins. Fairness is the basis of the social contract. As citizens we expect that when we contribute our fair share we should receive our just reward. When social benefits are handed out …

Rosie Redfield is keeping with both her blogs, RRTeaching (latest posting, Dec. 6, 2012) and RRResearch (Nov. 17, 2012).

Sci/Why is a science blog being written by Canadian children’s writers who discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?

Mathematician Nassif Ghoussoub’s Piece of Mind blog continues to feature incisive writing about science, science funding, policy and academe.

Canadian science writer Heather Pringle continues to post on the The Last Word on Nothing, a blog shared collectively by a number of well known science writers. Her next posting is scheduled for Jan. 3, 2013, according to the notice on the blog.

A little off my usual beat but I included these last year as they do write about science albeit medical and/or health science:

Susan Baxter’s blog Curmudgeon’s Corner features her insights into various medical matters, for example there’s her Dec. 1, 2012 posting on stress, the immune system, and the French antipathy towards capitalism.

Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders co-own two different blogs, Obesity Panacea, which is part of the PLoS (Public Library of Science) blogs network, and Science of Blogging which features very occasional posting but it’s worth a look for nuggets like this Oct. 12, 2012 (?) posting on social media for scientists.

After posting the 2011 roundup,

I had a number of suggestions for more Canadian science blogs such as these four who are part of the Scientific American SA) blogging network (in common with Eric Michael Johnson),

Dr. Carin Bondar posts on the SA blog, PsiVid, along with Joanne Manaster. There’s more than one Canadian science blogger who co-writes a blog. This one is self-described as, A cross section of science on the cyberscreen.

Glendon Mellow, a professional science illustrator,  posts on The Flying Trilobite (his own blog) and Symbiartic: the art of science and the science of art, an SA blog he shares with Kalliopi Monoyios.

Larry Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, posts on science and anything else that tickles his fancy on his Sandwalk blog.

Eva Amsen who posts on a number of blogs including the NODE; the community site for developmental biologists  (which she also manages) but the best place to find a listing of her many blogs and interests is at easternblot.net, where she includes this self-description on the About page,

Online Projects

  • Musicians and Scientists – Why are so many people involved in both music and science? I’m on a mission to find out.
  • the NodeMy day job is managing a community site for developmental biologists around the world. The site is used by equal numbers of postdocs, PhD students, and lab heads.
  • SciBarCamp/SciBarCamb – I co-instigated SciBarCamp, an unconference for scientists, in Toronto in 2008. Since then I have co-organized five similar events in three countries, and have advised others on how to run science unconferences.
  • You Learn Something New Every Day – a Tumblr site that automatically aggregates tweets with the hashtag #ylsned, and Flickr photos tagged ylsned, to collect the interesting bits of trivia that people come across on a daily basis.
  • Lab Waste – During my last months in the lab as a PhD student, I made a mini-documentary (using CC-licensed materials) about the excessive amount of disposable plastics used in research labs. It screened in 2009 in the “Quirky Shorts” program of the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York.
  • Expression Patterns – In 2007 I was invited to blog on Nature Network. The complete archives from 2007-2012 are now on this site.
  • easternblot.net – Confusingly, my other science blog was named after this entire domain. It ran from 2005 to 2010, and can be found at science.easternblot.net

I believe Amsen is Canadian and working in the UK but if anyone could confirm, I would be much relieved.

Someone, who according to their About page prefers to remain anonymous but lives in Victoria, BC, and posts (somewhat irregularly, the last posting is dated Nov. 10, 2012) on The Olive Ridley Crawl,

I am an environmental scientist blogging about environmental and development issues that interest me. I prefer to be anonymous(e) because I work with some of the companies I may talk about and I want to avoid conflict of interest issues at work. This gets tricky because I am at the periphery of a lot of events happening in the world of my greatest expertise, persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disrupting compounds, their effects on health and the policy fights around chemicals, their use the controversies! So, I’ve reluctantly moved away from writing about what I know most about, which means this blog suffers severely. I still soldier on, though!

I was born, and grew up in India, so I am interested in all things South Asian and tend to view most all Western government and Western institution actions through a colonialist scratched lens! I am also becoming much more active about my feminism, so who knows what that will do to this blog. I have been meaning to write a monstrous essay about women, the environment and justice, but that’s a task!

I used to live in Chapel Hill, NC with a partner of long vintage (the partnership, that is, not her!) and a crazy cat who thinks he’s a dog. We moved to Victoria, BC in 2008 and I’ve been busy learning about Canadian policy, enjoying this most beautiful town I live in.

Why Olive Ridley? Well, the Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys Olivacea) nests on the coasts of Madras, India and I got my start in the wonderful world of conservation working on the Olive Ridley with the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network. So, I do have fond memories for this beautiful creature. And yes, as my dear partner reminds me, I did meet her on the beach when I was doing this work.

Agence Science-Presse (based in Québec and headed by Pascal Lapointe) features three blogs of its own:

Blogue ta science : les billets dédiés aux jeunes.

Discutez avec notre expert : avez-vous suivi notre enquête CSI ?

Autour des Blogues : les actualités de nos blogueurs et de la communauté.

There’s also a regular podcast under the Je vote pour la science banner.

genegeek appears to be Canadian (it has a domain in Canada) but the blog owner doesn’t really identify herself (there’s a photo) on the About page but no name and no biographical details. I did receive a tweet last year about genegeek from C. Anderson who I imagine is the blog owner.

There’s also the Canadian BioTechnologist2.0 blog, which is sponsored by Bio-Rad Canada and is written by an employee.

These next ones were added later in the year:

Chuck Black writes two blogs as he noted in June 2012,

I write two blogs which, while they focus more on space than science, do possess strong science components and overlap with some of the other blogs here.

They are: Commercial Space and Space Conference News.

Andy Park also came to my attention in June 2012. He writes the  It’s the Ecology, Stupid! blog.

Something About Science is a blog I featured in an Aug. 17, 2012 posting and I’m glad to see blogger, Lynn K, is still blogging.

New to the roundup in 2012:

SSChow, Sarah Chow’s blog, focuses on science events in Vancouver (Canada) and science events at the University of British Columbia and miscellaneous matters pertinent to her many science communication efforts.

The Canadian federal government seems to be trying its hand at science blogging with the Science.gc.ca Blogs (http://www.science.gc.ca/Blogs-WSE6EBB690-1_En.htm). An anemic effort given that boasts a total of six (or perhaps it’s five) posting in two or three years.

The Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) currently features a blog roll of its members’ blogs. This is a new initiative from the association and one I’m glad to see.  Here’s the list (from the CSWA member blog page),

Anne Steinø (Research Through the Eyes of a Biochemist)
Arielle Duhame-Ross (Salamander Hours)
Bob McDonald (I’m choking on this one since it’s a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] blog for its Quirks and Quarks science pr0gram)
Cadell Last (The Ratchet)
Edward Willett
Elizabeth Howell (she seems to be blogging again and the easiest way for me to get to her postings was to click on the Archives link [I clicked on December 2012 to get the latest] after doing that I realized that the images on the page link to postings)
Heather Maughan
Justin Joschko
Kimberly Gerson (Endless Forms Most Beautiful)
Mark Green (a CSWA member, he was born and educated in the US where he lives and works; ordinarily I would not include him, even with his  CSWA membership status,  but he writes a monthly science column for a Cape Breton newspaper, which has made me pause)
Pamela Lincez (For the Love of Science)
Sarah Boon (Watershed Moments)
Susan Eaton (she seems to be reposting articles written [presumably by her] for the AAPG [American Association of Petroleum Geologists] Explorer and other organizations in her blog]

Barry Shell’s site (listed as a CSWA member blog) doesn’t match my admittedly foggy notion of a blog. It seems more of an all round Canadian science resource featuring profiles of Canadian scientists, a regularly updated news archive, and more. Science.ca is extraordinary and I’m thankful to have finally stumbled across it but it doesn’t feature dated posts in common with the other blogs listed here, even the most commercial ones.

Tyler Irving (I had no idea he had his own blog when I mentioned him in my Sept. 25, 2012 posting about Canadian chemists and the Canadian Chemical Institute’s publications) posts at the Scientific Canadian.

I choke again, as I do when mentioning blogs that are corporate media blogs, but in the interest of being as complete as possible Julia Belluz writes the Scien-ish blog about health for MacLean’s magazine.

Genome Alberta hosts a couple of blogs: Genomics and Livestock News & Views.

Occam’s Typewriter is an informal network of science bloggers two of whom are Canadian:

Cath Ennis (VWXYNot?) and Richard Wintle (Adventures in Wonderland). Note: The Guardian Science Blogs network seems to have some sort of relationship with Occam’s Typewriter as you will see postings from the Occam’s network featured as part of Occam’s Corner on the Guardian website.

My last blogger in this posting is James Colliander from the University of  Toronto’s Mathematics Department. He and Nassif (Piece of Mind blog mentioned previously) seem to share a similar interest in science policy and funding issues.

ETA Jan.2.13: This is a social science oriented blog maintained by a SSHRC- (Social Science and Humanities Research Council) funded network cluster called the Situating Science Cluster and the blog’s official name is: Cluster Blog. This is where you go to find out about Science and Technology Studies (STS) and History of Science Studies, etc. and events associated with those studies.

I probably should have started with this definition of a Canadian blogger, from the Wikipedia entry,

A Canadian blogger is the author of a weblog who lives in Canada, has Canadian citizenship, or writes primarily on Canadian subjects. One could also be considered a Canadian blogger if one has a significant Canadian connection, though this is debatable.

Given how lively the Canadian science blogging scene has become, I’m not sure I can continue with these roundups as they take more time each year.  At the very least, I’ll need to define the term Canadian Science blogger, in the hope of reducing the workload,  if I decide to continue after this year.

There’s a rather interesting Nov. 26, 2012 article by Stephanie Taylor for McGill Daily about the Canadian public’s science awareness and a dearth of Canadian science communication,

Much of the science media that Canadians consume and have access to is either American or British: both nations have a robust, highly visible science media sector. While most Canadians wouldn’t look primarily to American journalism for political news and analysis, science doesn’t have the same inherent national boundaries that politics does. While the laws of physics don’t change depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, there are scientific endeavours that are important to Canadians but have little importance to other nations. It’s unlikely that a British researcher would investigate the state of the Canadian cod fishery, or that the British press would cover it, but that research is critical to a substantial number of Canadians’ livelihoods.

On the other hand, as Canadian traditional media struggles to consistently cover science news, there’s been an explosion of scientists of all stripes doing a lot of the necessary big picture, broad context, critical analysis on the internet. The lack of space restrictions and accessibility of the internet (it’s much easier to start a blog than try to break in to traditional media) mean that two of the major barriers to complex discussion of science in the media are gone. Blogs struggle to have the same reach as newspapers and traditional media, though, and many of the most successful science blogs are under the online umbrella of mainstream outlets like Scientific American and Discover. Unfortunately and perhaps unsurprisingly, there is currently no Canadian science blog network like this. [emphasis mine]

Yes, let’s create a Canadian science blog network. I having been talking to various individuals about this over the last year (2012) and while there’s interest, someone offered to help and then changed their mind. Plus, I was hoping to persuade the the Canadian Science Writers Association to take it on but I think they were too far advanced in their planning for a member’s network to consider something more generalized (and far more expensive). So, if anyone out there has ideas about how to do this, please do comment and perhaps we can get something launched in 2013.

Science communication strategies and muzzles on Canadian scientists

A friend of mine phoned to tell me about Mark Hume’s Jan. 23, 2012 column (for the Globe and Mail) about science writers and the Canadian government’s policy of not allowing the writers to communicate directly with their scientists. I searched for the piece since I wondered if I’d missed any news about the situation since last summer.

I agree with a great deal of what Hume has to say about it all. He discusses some of the problems writers have encountered since these policies have been instituted and mentions Kathryn O’Hara’s 2010 letter protesting the situation on behalf of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA). From the Jan. 23, 2012 column by Hume,

The CSWA represents more than 500 science journalists, publicists and authors in Canada. Ms. O’Hara recounted a series of incidents that occurred during the year leading up to her letter in which requests for interviews with researchers had been bluntly refused by public affairs handlers, or thwarted by them through endless bureaucratic delays.

The most egregious incident that I’ve come across was the one with Kristina (Kristi) Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientist. From Hume’s Jan. 23, 2012 column,

The government’s stifling of Dr. Miller was so extreme that she was even told by DFO officials not to attend workshops at which experts were discussing salmon issues, out of fear media might attend and hear what she had to say.

I did mention the incident with Miller in an Aug. 19, 2011 posting (scroll down approximately 2/3 of the way) where I was giving an overview of scientific integrity policies in the US.

Briefly, Miller’s work was being read in that month’s issue of Science magazine, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and she was getting interview requests which were declined by the Privy Council Office. (For anyone unfamiliar with Privy Council Office, it supports the Prime Minister’s Office, in this case, Stephen Harper’s office.)

That big kerfuffle was six months ago (July 2011 was when Margaret Munro broke the story) and O’Hara’s letter was first published in Nature, Sept. 29, 2010. Why is Hume writing about this situation now?

There is no fresh incident to set off further discussion. Naturally, one expects that science writers are still upset given they deal with these policies on a daily basis but frustrations of this order are usually not considered worthy of news or column space.

I wonder if this is the beginning of a campaign by the CSWA being timed to coincide with the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 2012 meeting.

Canada Election 2011, science writers, and an update on Peer Review Radio Candidate Interviews

Emily Chung (CBC News online) wrote up an April 26, 2011 article highlighting an open letter that the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) have sent during this election 2011 campaign season to Conservative leader, Steven Harper; Green party leader, Elizabeth May; Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff; and NDP leader, Jack Layton about the ‘muzzle’ place on federal scientists (from the article),

A group representing 500 science journalists and communicators across Canada sent an open letter Tuesday to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May documenting recent instances where they say federal scientists have been barred from talking about research funded by taxpayers.

“We urge you to free the scientists to speak,” the letter said. “Take off the muzzles and eliminate the script writers and allow scientists — they do have PhDs after all — to speak for themselves.”

Kathryn O’Hara, president of the association, said openness and transparency are issues that haven’t come up much in the election campaign, and her group felt it was important to ask about them.

The federal government spends billions each year on scientific research, and taxpayers must be able to examine the results, she said, otherwise, “how can you get a real sense of … value in money going toward science?”

The public also needs to be able to see whether government policy is based on evidence uncovered using taxpayer money, she added.

It’s good to see science writers getting the topic of science into the election coverage. I’m a little puzzled that the science policy centre folks (Canadian Science Policy Centre) don’t seem to have organized an ‘ask your candidates about science campaign’ or composed questions and sent their own open letter to the federal parties or devised some other tactic to highlight science and science policy in this election campaign.

One more bit about science and the Canada 2011 federal election, Peer Review Radio has now posted two interviews with candidates answering questions about science policy and their respective parties. The interviews with Scott Bradley, running for the Liberal Party in Ottawa-Centre and Emma Hogbin running for the Green Party in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound are each about 22 minutes long. The show producer and host, Adrian J. Ebsary promises to post the interviews with me, Marie-Claire Shanahan, and other interested science policy observers soon. Unfortunately, he was not able to broadcast the interviews as he hoped.

Writing about science in Canada

While there is a dearth of science communication in Canada, there are many people working to change that. Canada’s science writers are getting to ready to gather at their 39th annual conference, At A Crossroads: Science Communication in the Digital Age, June 5 – 8, 2010 in Ottawa at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. I’ve excerpted part of the opening day’s programme (the group’s official name is the Canadian Science Writers’ Association [CSWA]),

1:15 pm – 2:15 pm

Conference welcoming remarks from CSWA President Kathryn O’Hara

Workshop: Using Canada’s new Science Media Centre

Penny Park, director Canada Science Media Centre

2:20 pm – 3:20 pm

Plenary panel: Social media, privacy issues and other public institution challenges in the digital age

Representatives from government new media teams discuss the perils, roadblocks and opportunities of promoting their science agendas online

- Christian Riel, new media, Canadian Institutes of Health Research

- Michael White, Senior Research Analyst, New Media, Parks Canada

- Dariusz Burzynski, Manager, Science and Technology Cluster, Strategic Science-Technology

3:25 pm – 4:25 pm

Kick-off event: “Outbreak!” interactive news simulation

A fictional emergency hits the capital, and its up to YOU and a panel of experts to assess and responsibly get the word out via digital media

This session will be followed by a moderated post-mortem discussion

The rest of the programme ranges from using a Twitter account to rouse more interest in your work to communicating with tomorrow’s science writers (teenagers) to reporting climate change to covering art/science projects.

Science communication in Canada (part 4a); Italian nano

For this fourth part, I’m going to focus on science public relations (pr) and marketing and  public engagement in Canada. In my view, these activities are part of the science communication spectrum but they are not synonymous with it as others suggest (see part 2 of this series).

This should have been pretty short as there is very little science pr or marketing in Canada but I will be contrasting the situation here with  elsewhere. As for public engagement in Canada, that  has tended to be focused on biotechnology, which is not currently a hot topic, consequently, there is little activity at the moment.

To get the best sense of what I mean by science pr and marketing let’s contrast the efforts here with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in the US.

The organization’s name suggests two meanings (a) scientists discuss and critique their work thereby advancing research and (b) advancing science in the public eye. The AAAS holds a very large annual meeting which anyone can attend if they can pay the registration fee. From the AAAS 2010 conference website,

AAAS President and Nobel Laureate Peter C. Agre invites you to join a diverse array of leading scientists, engineers, educators, and policy-makers at the association’s 176th meeting. It will attract attendees from all U.S. states and territories as well as more than 50 countries

This is well attended by journalists and you will notice, if you pay attention to the presentation titles and abstracts, that after a meeting, stories about these presentations start appearing. The first stories usually directly reference the meeting but you can also see stories up to one or two  or even more years later. For example, the first discussion of the ‘CSI effect’ on forensic science and public expectations was held at a AAAS  annual meeting (I think it was the 2005 meeting). There have been many media stories since about the CSI effect.

From a pr/marketing perspective, this is an excellent effort. Last year, the AAAS even added a little flare to their efforts by holding a ‘Dancing with the Scientists’ video contest. You can read more about the contest here at the TierneyLab blog on the NY Times website.

The American Chemical Society (ACS), in addition to its usual meetings,  has also gotten into the act and has held two video contests that focus on describing and explaining nanotechnology. (You can find more about these contests in my July 21, 2009 and Feb. 23, 2009 postings.)

There are no comparable organizations of scientists in Canada. There is the Canadian Science Writers Association which has this on its website,

We stand for “excellence in science communication in Canada”, representing nearly 500 journalists, students, scientists, communications officers, and policy makers
in Canada and abroad.

Weirdly, you cannot access their events page unless you are a member. This seems like an odd policy since most organizations market to new members through their events and it stands as an example of the tentative kind of science communication that is practiced in Canada. (more on Monday)

Two quick items, (a) Andrew Maynard has found a fabulous Italian nano wine commercial from the 1970′s. There was no nanotechnology associated with either the production of the wine or the packaging; I guess someone just liked the word nano. Do watch the video, it’s very ’70s. (b) Rob Annan on Don’t leave Canada behind has posted more comments on the basic vs applied science debate which is taking place in the US (and in Canada too). He excerpts and cites some provocative material about the ‘false’ dichotomy.

Happy weekend.