Tag Archives: Quirks and Quarks

Part 2 (b) of 3: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment (reconstructed)

Carrying on from part 2 (a) of this commentary on the Science Culture: Where Canada Stands assessment by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC).

One of the most intriguing aspects of this assessment was the reliance on an unpublished inventory of Canadian science outreach initiatives (informal science education) that was commissioned by the Korean Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity,

The system of organizations, programs, and initiatives that supports science culture in any country is dynamic. As a result, any inventory provides only a snapshot at a single point in time, and risks quickly becoming out of date. No sustained effort has been made to track public science outreach and engagement efforts in Canada at the national or regional level. Some of the Panel’s analysis relies on data from an unpublished inventory of public science communication initiatives in Canada undertaken in 2011 by Bernard Schiele, Anik Landry, and Alexandre Schiele for the Korean Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity (Schiele et al., 2011). This inventory identified over 700 programs and organizations across all provinces and regions in Canada, including over 400 initiatives related to museums, science centres, zoos, or aquariums; 64 associations or NGOs involved in public science outreach; 49 educational initiatives; 60 government policies and programs; and 27 media programs. (An update of this inventory completed by the Panel brings the total closer to 800 programs.) The inventory is used throughout the chapter [chapter five] to characterize different components of the Canadian system supporting public science outreach, communication, and engagement. (p. 130 PDF; p. 98 print)

I’m fascinated by the Korean interest and wonder if this due to perceived excellence or to budgetary considerations. The cynic in me suspects the Korean foundation was interested in the US scene but decided that information from the Canadian scene would be cheaper to acquire and the data could be extrapolated to give a perspective on the US scene.

In addition to the usual suspects (newspapers, television, radio, science centres, etc.), the Expert Panel did recognize the importance of online science sources (they would have looked foolish if they hadn’t),

Canadians are increasingly using the internet to seek out information relating to science. This activity can take the form of generalized searches about science-related issues or more targeted forms of information acquisition. For example, Canadians report using the internet to seek out information on health and medical issues an average of 47 times a year, or nearly every week. Other forms of online exposure to scientific content also appear to be common. For example, 46% of Canadians report having read a blog post or listserv related to science and technology at least once in the last three months, and 62% having watched an online video related to science and technology.

An increasing reliance on the internet as the main source of information about science and technology is consistent with the evolution of the media environment, as well as with survey data from other countries. Based on the Panel’s survey, 17% of Canadians, for example, report reading a printed newspaper daily, while 40% report reading about the news or current events online every day. (p. 13/2 PDF; p. 100/1 print)

In common with the rest of the world, Canadians are producing and enjoying science festivals,

In Canada there are two established, large-scale science festivals. Science Rendezvous [founded in 2008 as per its Wikipedia entry] takes place in about 20 cities across the country and combines a variety of programming to comprise a day-long free event (Science Rendezvous, 2013).

The annual Eureka! Festival in Montréal (see Figure 5.6 [founded in 2007 as per its program list]) has over 100 activities over three days; it attracted over 68,000 attendees in 2012 (Eureka! Festival, 2013). More science festivals have recently been created. The University of Toronto launched the Toronto Science Festival in fall 2013 (UofT, 2013), and Beakerhead, a new festival described as a “collision of art and culture, technology, and engineering,” was launched in 2013 in Calgary (Beakerhead, 2013). Two Canadian cities have also recently won bids to host STEMfest (Saskatoon in 2015 and Halifax in 2018), an international festival of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Global STEM States, 2014). (pp. 145/6 PDF; pp. 113/4 PDF)

The assessment notes have a grand total of five radio and television programmes devoted to science: The Nature of Things, Daily Planet, Quirks and Quarks, Découverte, and Les années lumière (p. 150 PDF; p. 118 print) and a dearth of science journalism,

Dedicated science coverage is notably absent from the majority of newspapers and other print journalism in Canada. As shown in Table 5.3, none of the top 11 newspapers by weekly readership in Canada has a dedicated science section, including nationals such as The Globe and Mail and National Post. Nine of these newspapers have dedicated technology sections, which sometimes contain sub-sections with broader coverage of science or environment stories; however, story coverage tends to be dominated by technology or business (or gaming) stories. Few Canadian newspapers have dedicated science journalists on staff, and The Globe and Mail is unique among Canadian papers in having a science reporter, a medicine and health reporter, and a technology reporter. (p. 152 PDF; p. 120 print)

Not stated explicitly in the assessment is this: those science and technology stories you see in the newspaper are syndicated stories, i.e., written by reporters for the Associated Press, Reuters, and other international press organizations or simply reprinted (with credit) from another newspaper.

The report does cover science blogging with this,

Science blogs are another potential source of information about developments in science and technology. A database compiled by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, as of March of 2013, lists 143 Canadian science blogs, covering all areas of science and other aspects of science such as science policy and science culture (CSWA, 2013). Some blogs are individually authored and administered, while others are affiliated with larger networks or other organizations (e.g., Agence Science-Presse, PLOS Blogs). Canadian science blogger Maryse de la Giroday has also published an annual round-up of Canadian science blogs on her blog (www.frogheart.ca) for the past three years, and a new aggregator of Canadian science blogs was launched in 2013 (www.scienceborealis.ca). [emphases mine]

Data from the Panel’s survey suggest that blogs are becoming a more prominent source of information about science and technology for the general public. As noted at the beginning of the chapter, 46% of Canadians report having read a blog post about science or technology at least once in the past three months. Blogs are also influencing the way that scientific research is carried out and disseminated. A technical critique in a blog post by Canadian microbiologist Rosie Redfield in 2010, for example, catalyzed a widely publicized debate on the validity of a study published in Science, exploring the ability of bacteria to incorporate arsenic into their DNA. The incident demonstrated the potential impact of blogs on mainstream scientific research. CBC highlighted the episode as the Canadian science story of the year (Strauss, 2011), and Nature magazine identified Redfield as one of its 10 newsmakers of the year in 2011 as a result of her efforts to replicate the initial study and publicly document her progress and results (Hayden, 2011).

The impact of online information sources, however, is not limited to blogs, with 42% of Canadians reporting having heard about a science and technology news story though social media sources like Twitter and Facebook in the last three months. And, as noted earlier, the internet is often used to search for information about specific science and technology topics, both for general issues such as climate change, and more personalized information on medical and health issues.(pp. 153/4 PDF; pp. 121/2 print)

Yes, I got a shout out as did Rosie Redfield. We were the only two science bloggers namechecked. (Years ago, the Guardian newspaper was developing a science blog network and the editor claimed he couldn’t find many female science bloggers after fierce criticism of its first list of bloggers. This was immediately repudiated not only by individuals but someone compiled a list of hundreds of female science bloggers.) Still, the perception persists and I’m thrilled that the panel struck out in a different direction. I was also pleased to see Science Borealis (a Canadian science blog aggregator) mentioned. Having been involved with its founding, I’m also delighted its first anniversary was celebrated in Nov. 2014.

I doubt many people know we have a science press organization in Canada, Agence Science-Presse, but perhaps this mention in the assessment will help raise awareness in Canada’s English language media,

Founded in 1978 with the motto Parce que tout le monde s’intéresse à la science (“because everyone is interested in science”), Agence Science-Presse is a not-for-profit organization in Quebec that supports media coverage of science by distributing articles on scientific research or other topical science and technology issues to media outlets in Canada and abroad. The organization also supports science promotion activities aimed at youth. For example, it currently edits and maintains an aggregation of blogs designed for young science enthusiasts and science journalists (Blogue ta science). (p. 154 PDF; p. 122)

The final chapter (the 6th) of the assessment makes five key recommendations for ‘Cultivating a strong science culture':

  1. Support lifelong science learning
  2. Make science inclusive
  3. Adapt to new technologies
  4. Enhance science communication and engagement
  5. Provide national or regional leadership

Presumably the agriculture reference in the chapter title is tongue-in-cheek. Assuming that’s not one of my fantasies, it’s good to see a little humour.

On to the first recommendation, lifelong learning,

… Science centres and museums, science programs on radio and television, science magazines and journalism, and online resources can all help fulfil this function by providing accessible resources for adult science learning, and by anticipating emerging information needs based on topical issues.

Most informal science learning organizations already provide these opportunities to varying degrees; however, this conception of the relative roles of informal and formal science learning providers differs from the traditional understanding, which often emphasizes how informal environments can foster engagement in science (particularly among youth), thereby triggering additional interest and the later acquisition of knowledge (Miller, 2010b). [emphasis mine] Such a focus may be appropriate for youth programming, but neglects the role that these institutions can play in ongoing education for adults, who often seek out information on science based on specific, well-defined interests or needs (e.g., a medical diagnosis, a newspaper article on the threat of a viral pandemic, a new technology brought into the workplace) (Miller, 2012). [emphases mine] Informal science learning providers can take advantage of such opportunities by anticipating these needs, providing useful and accessible information, and then simultaneously building and deepening knowledge of the underlying science through additional content.

I’m glad to see the interest in adult informal science education although the emphasis on health/medical and workplace technology issues suggests the panel underestimates, despite the data from its own survey, Canadians’ curiosity about and interest in science and technology. The panel also underestimates the tenacity with which many gatekeepers hold to the belief that no one is interested in science. It took me two years before a local organizer would talk to me about including one science-themed meeting in his programme (the final paragraph in my April 14, 2014 post describes some of the process  and my April 18, 2014 post describes the somewhat disappointing outcome). In the end, it was great to see a science-themed ‘city conversation’ but I don’t believe the organizer found it to be a success, which means it’s likely to be a long time before there’s another one.

The next recommendation, ‘Making science inclusive’, is something that I think needs better practice. If one is going to be the change one wants to see that means getting people onto your expert panels that reflect your inclusiveness and explaining to your audience how your expert panel is inclusive.

The ‘Adapting to new technologies’ recommendation is where I expected to see some mention of the social impact of such emerging technologies as robotics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, etc. That wasn’t the case,

Science culture in Canada and other countries is now evolving in a rapidly changing technological environment. Individuals are increasingly turning to online sources for information about science and technology, and science communicators and the media are also adapting to the new channels of communication and outreach provided over the internet. As people engage more with new forms of technology in their home and work lives, organizations may be able to identify new ways to take advantage of available technologies to support learning and foster science interest and engagement. At the same time, as noted in Chapter 2, this transition is also challenging traditional models of operation for many organizations such as science centres, museums, and science media providers, forcing them to develop new strategies.

Examples of the use of new technologies to support learning are now commonplace. Nesta, an innovation-oriented organization based in the United Kingdom, conducted a study investigating the extent to which new technologies are transforming learning among students (Luckin et al., 2012) (p. 185 PDF; p. 153 print)

Admittedly, the panel was not charged with looking too far into the future but it does seem odd that in a science culture report there isn’t much mention (other than a cursory comment in an early chapter) of these emerging technologies and the major changes they are bringing with them. If nothing else, the panel might have wanted to make mention of artificial intelligence how the increasing role of automated systems may be affecting science culture in Canada. For example, in my July 16, 2014 post I made described a deal Associated Press (AP) signed with a company that automates the process of writing sports and business stories. You may well have read a business story (AP contracted for business stories) written by an artificial intelligence system or, if you prefer the term, an algorithm.

The recommendation for ‘Enhancing science communication and engagement’ is where I believe the Expert Panel should be offered a bouquet,

… Given the significance of government science in many areas of research, government science communication constitutes an important vector for increasing public awareness and understanding about science. In Canada current policies governing how scientists working in federal departments and agencies are allowed to interact with the media and the public have come under heavy criticism in recent years …

Concerns about the federal government’s current policies on government scientists’ communication with the media have been widely reported in Canadian and international
press in recent years (e.g., Ghosh, 2012; CBC, 2013c; Gatehouse, 2013; Hume, 2013; Mancini, 2013; Munro, 2013). These concerns were also recently voiced by the editorial board of Nature (2012), which unfavourably compared Canada’s current approach with the more open policies now in place in the United States. Scientists at many U.S. federal agencies are free to speak to the media without prior departmental approval, and to
express their personal views as long as they clearly state that they are not speaking on behalf of the government. In response to such concerns, and to a formal complaint filed by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch, on April 2, 2013 Canada’s Information Commissioner launched an investigation into whether current policies and policy instruments in seven federal departments and agencies are “restricting or prohibiting government scientists from speaking with or sharing research with the media and the Canadian public” (OICC, 2013).

Since these concerns have come to light, many current and former government scientists have discussed how these policies have affected their interactions with the media. Marley Waiser, a former scientist with Environment Canada, has spoken about how that department’s policies prevented her from discussing her research on chemical pollutants in Wascana Creek near Regina (CBC, 2013c). Dr. Kristi Miller, a geneticist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was reportedly prevented from speaking publicly about a study she published in Science, which investigated whether a viral infection might be the cause of declines in Sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River (Munro, 2011).

According to data from Statistics Canada (2012), nearly 20,000 science and technology professionals work for the federal government. The ability of these researchers to communicate with the media and the Canadian public has a clear bearing on Canada’s science culture. Properly supported, government scientists can serve as a useful conduit for informing the public about their scientific work, and engaging the public in discussions about the social relevance of their research; however, the concerns reported above raise questions about the extent to which current federal policies in Canada are limiting these opportunities for public communication and engagement. (pp. 190/1 PDF; p. 158/9 print)

Kudos for including the information and for this passage as well,

Many organizations including science centres and museums, research centres, and even governments may be perceived as having a science promotion agenda that portrays only the benefits of science. As a result, these organizations are not always seen as promoters of debate through questioning, which is a crucial part of the scientific process. Acknowledging complexity and controversy is another means to improve the quality of public engagement in science in a range of different contexts. (p. 195 PDF; p. 163 print)

One last happy note, which is about integrating the arts and design into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics communities),

Linking Science to the Arts and Design U.S. advocates for “STEM to STEAM” call for an incorporation of the arts in discussions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an effort to “achieve a synergistic balance” (Piro, 2010). They cite positive outcomes such as cognitive development, reasoning skills, and concentration abilities. Piro (2010) argues that “if creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking — all touted as hallmark skills for 21st-century success — are to be cultivated, we need to ensure that STEM subjects are drawn closer to the arts.” Such approaches offer new techniques to engage both student and adult audiences in science learning and engagement opportunities.

What I find fascinating about this STEM to STEAM movement is that many of these folks don’t seem to realize is that until fairly recently the arts and sciences recently have always been closely allied.  James Clerk Maxwell was also a poet, not uncommon amongst 19th century scientists.

In Canada one example of this approach is found in the work of Michael R. Hayden, who has conducted extensive genetic research on Huntington disease. In the lead-up to the 2000 Human Genome Project World Conference, Hayden commissioned Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre to fuse “the spheres of science and art in a play that explored the implications of the revolutionary technology of the Human Genome Project” (ECT, n.d.). This play, The Score, was later adapted into a film. Hayden believes that his play “transforms the scientific ideas explored in the world of the laboratory into universal themes of human identity, freedom and creativity, and opens up a door for a discussion between the scientific community and the public in general” (Genome Canada, 2006). (p. 196 PDF; p. 164 print)

I’m not sure why the last recommendation presents an either/or choice, ‘Providing national or regional leadership’, while the following content suggests a much more fluid state,

…  it should be recognized that establishing a national or regional vision for science culture is not solely the prerogative of government. Such a vision requires broad support and participation from the community of affected stakeholders to be effective, and can also emerge from that community in the absence of a strong governmental role.

The final chapter (the seventh) restates the points the panel has made throughout its report. Unexpectedly, part 2 got bigger, ’nuff said.

Part 2 (a) of 3: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment (reconstructed)

Losing over 2000 words, i.e., part 2 of this commentary on the Science Culture: Where Canada Stands assessment by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC) on New Year’s Eve 2014 was a bit of blow. So, here’s my attempt at reconstructing my much mourned part 2.

There was acknowledgement of Canada as a Arctic country and an acknowledgement of this country’s an extraordinary geographical relationship to the world’s marine environment,

Canada’s status as an Arctic nation also has a bearing on science and science culture. Canada’s large and ecologically diverse Arctic landscape spans a substantial part of the circumpolar Arctic, and comprises almost 40% of the country’s landmass (Statistics Canada, 2009). This has influenced the development of Canadian culture more broadly, and also created opportunities in the advancement of Arctic science. Canada’s northern inhabitants, the majority of whom are Indigenous peoples, represent a source of knowledge that contributes to scientific research in the North (CCA, 2008).

These characteristics have contributed to the exploration of many scientific questions including those related to environmental science, resource development, and the health and well-being of northern populations. Canada also has the longest coastline of any country, and these extensive coastlines and marine areas give rise to unique research opportunities in ocean science (CCA, 2013a). (p. 55 PDF; p. 23 print)

Canada’s aging population is acknowledged in a backhand way,

Like most developed countries, Canada’s population is also aging. In 2011 the median age in Canada was 39.9 years, up from 26.2 years in 1971 (Statistics Canada, n.d.). This ongoing demographic transition will have an impact on science culture in Canada in years to come. An aging population will be increasingly interested in health and medical issues. The ability to make use of this kind of information will depend in large part on the combination of access to the internet, skill in navigating it, and a conceptual toolbox that includes an understanding of genes, probability, and related constructs (Miller, 2010b). (p. 56 PDF; p. 24 print)

Yes, the only science topics of interest for an old person are health and medicine. Couldn’t they have included one sentence suggesting an aging population’s other interests and other possible impacts on science culture?

On the plus side, the report offers a list of selected Canadian science culture milestones,

• 1882 – Royal Society of Canada is established.
• 1916 – National Research Council is established.
• 1923 – Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des sciences (ACFAS) is established.
• 1930 – Canadian Geographic is first published by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
• 1951 – Massey–Lévesque Commission calls for the creation of a national science and technology museum.
• 1959 – Canada sees its first science fairs in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hamilton, Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver; volunteer coordination eventually grows into Youth Science Canada.
• 1960 – CBC’s Nature of Things debuts on television; Fernand Séguin hosts “Aux frontières de la science.”
• 1962 – ACFAS creates Le Jeune scientifique, which becomes Québec Science in 1970.
• 1966 – Science Council of Canada is created to advise Parliament on science and technology issues.
• 1967 – Canada Museum of Science and Technology is created.
• 1969 – Ontario Science Centre opens its doors (the Exploratorium in San Francisco opens the same year).
• 1971 – Canadian Science Writers’ Association is formed.
• 1975 – Symons Royal Commission on Canadian Studies speaks to how understanding the role of science in society is important to understanding Canadian culture and identity.
• 1975 – Quirks and Quarks debuts on CBC Radio.
• 1976 – OWL children’s magazine begins publication.
• 1977 – Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec is established.
• 1978 – L’Agence Science-Presse is created.
• 1981 – Association des communicateurs scientifiques creates the Fernand-Séguin scholarship to identify promising young science journalists.
• 1982 – Les Débrouillards is launched in Quebec. (p. 58 PDF; p. 26 print)

The list spills onto the next page and into the 2000’s.

It’s a relief to see the Expert Panel give a measured response to the claims made about science culture and its various impacts, especially on the economy (in my book, some of the claims have bordered on hysteria),

The Panel found little definitive empirical evidence of causal relationships between the dimensions of science culture and higher-level social objectives like stronger economic performance or more effective public policies. As is the case with much social science research, isolating the impacts of a single variable on complex social phenomena is methodologically challenging, and few studies have attempted to establish such relationships in any detail. As noted in 1985 by the Bodmer report (a still-influential report on public understanding of science in the United Kingdom), although there is good reason prima facie to believe that improving public understanding of science has national economic benefits, empirical proof for such a link is often elusive (RS & Bodmer, 1985). This remains the case today. Nevertheless, many pieces of evidence suggest why a modern, industrialized society should cultivate a strong science culture. Literature from the domains of cognitive science, sociology, cultural studies, economics, innovation, political science, and public policy provides relevant insights. (p. 63 PDF; p. 31 print)

Intriguingly, while the panel has made extensive use of social science methods for this assessment there are some assumptions made about skill sets required for the future,

Technological innovation depends on the presence of science and technology skills in the workforce. While at one point it may have been possible for relatively low-skilled individuals to substantively contribute to technological development, in the 21st century this is no longer the case. [emphasis mine] Advanced science and technology skills are now a prerequisite for most types of technological innovation. (p. 72 PDF; p. 40 print)

Really, it’s no longer possible for relatively low-skilled individuals to contribute to technological development? Maybe the expert panel missed this bit in my March 27, 2013 post,

Getting back to Bittel’s Slate article, he mentions Foldit (here’s my first piece in an Aug. 6, 2010 posting [scroll down about 1/2 way]), a protein-folding game which has generated some very exciting science. He also notes some of that science was generated by older, ‘uneducated’ women. Bittel linked to Jeff Howe’s Feb. 27, 2012 article about Foldit and other crowdsourced science projects for Slate where I found this very intriguing bit,

“You’d think a Ph.D. in biochemistry would be very good at designing protein molecules,” says Zoran Popović, the University of Washington game designer behind Foldit. Not so. “Biochemists are good at other things. But Foldit requires a narrow, deeper expertise.”

Or as it turns out, more than one. Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack. Others—often “grandmothers without a high school education,” says Popovic—exercise a particular social skill. “They’re good at getting people unstuck. They get them to approach the problem differently.” What big pharmaceutical company would have anticipated the need to hire uneducated grandmothers? (I know a few, if Eli Lilly HR is thinking of rejiggering its recruitment strategy.) [emphases mine]

It’s not the idea that technical and scientific skills are needed that concerns me; it’s the report’s hard line about ‘low skills’ (which is a term that is not defined). In addition to the notion that future jobs require only individuals with ‘high level’ skills; there’s the notion (not mentioned in this report but gaining general acceptance in the media) that we shouldn’t ever have to perform repetitive and boring activities. It’s a notion which completely ignores a certain aspect of the learning process. Very young children repeat over and over and over and over … . Apprenticeships in many skills-based crafts were designed with years of boring, repetitive work as part of the training. It seems counter-intuitive but boring, repetitive activities can lead to very high level skills such as the ability to ‘unstick’ a problem for an expert with a PhD in biochemistry.

Back to the assessment, the panel commissioned a survey, conducted in 2013, to gather data about science culture in Canada,

The Panel’s survey of Canadian science culture, designed to be comparable to surveys undertaken in other countries as well as to the 1989 Canadian survey, assessed public attitudes towards science and technology, levels and modes of public engagement in science, and public science knowledge or understanding. (The evidence reported in this chapter on the fourth dimension, science and technology skills, is drawn from other sources such as Statistics Canada and the OECD).

Conducted in April 2013, the survey relied on a combination of landline and mobile phone respondents (60%) and internet respondents (40%), randomly recruited from the general population. In analyzing the results, responses to the survey were weighted based on Statistics Canada data according to region, age, education, and gender to ensure that the sample was representative of the Canadian public. 7 A total of 2,004 survey responses were received, with regional breakdowns presented in Table 4.1. At a national level, survey results are accurate within a range of plus or minus 2.2% 19 times out of 20 (i.e., at the 95% confidence interval), and margins of error for regional results range from 3.8% to 7.1%). Three open-ended questions were also included in the survey, which were coded using protocols previously applied to these questions in other international surveys. 8 All open-ended questions were coded independently by at least three bilingual coders, and any discrepancies in coding were settled through a review by a fourth coder. (p. 79 PDF; p. 47 print)

The infographic’s data in part 1 of this commentary, What Do Canadians Think About Science and Technology (S&T)? is based on the survey and other statistical information included in the report especially Chapter four focused on measurements (pp. 77  – 127 PDF; pp. 45 – 95 print). While the survey presents a somewhat rosier picture of the Canadian science culture than the one I experience on a daily basis, the data seems to have been gathered in a thoughtful fashion. Regardless of the assessment’s findings and my opinions,  how Canadians view science became a matter of passionate debate in the Canadian science blogging community (at least parts of it) in late 2014 as per a Dec. 3, 2014 posting by the Science Borealis team on their eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The CBC’s Rick Mercer is a staunch science advocate, and his November 19th rant was no exception. He addressed the state of basic science in Canada, saying that Canadians are “passionate and curious about science.”

In response, scientist David Kent wrote a post on the Black Hole Blog in which he disagreed with Mercer, saying, “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.”

Kent’s post has generated some fierce discussion, both in the comments on his original post and in the comments on a Facebook post by Evidence for Democracy.

Here at Science Borealis, we rely on a keen and enthusiastic public to engage with the broad range of science-based work our bloggers share, so we decided to address some of the arguments Kent presented in his post.

Anecdotal evidence versus data

Kent says “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.”

Unfortunately, Kent’s own argument is based on anecdotal evidence (“To me it appears that… the average Canadian adult does not particularly care about how or why something works.”).

If you’re looking for data, they’re available in a recent Council of Canadian Academies report that specifically studied science culture in Canada. Results show that Canadians are very interested in science.

You can find David Kent’s Nov. 26, 2014 post about Canadians, Rick Mercer and science here. Do take a look at the blog’s comments which feature a number of people deeply involved in promoting and producing Canadian science culture.

I promised disturbing statistics in the head for this posting and here they are in the second paragraph,

Canadian students perform well in PISA [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)] , with relatively high scores on all three of the major components of the assessment (reading, science, and mathematics) compared with students in other countries (Table 4.4). In 2012 only seven countries or regions had mean scores on the science assessment higher than Canada on a statistically significant basis: Shanghai–China, Hong Kong–China, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Estonia, and Korea (Brochu et al., 2013). A similar pattern holds for mathematics scores, where nine countries had mean scores higher than Canada on a statistically significant basis: Shanghai–China, Singapore, Hong Kong–China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Macao–China, Japan, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland (Brochu et al., 2013). Regions scoring higher than Canada are concentrated in East Asia, and tend to be densely populated, urban areas. Among G8 countries, Canada ranks second on mean science and mathematics scores, behind Japan.

However, the 2012 PISA results also show statistically significant declines in Canada’s scores on both the mathematics and science components. Canada’s science score declined by nine points from its peak in 2006 (with a fall in ranking from 3rd to 10th), and the math score declined by 14 points since first assessed in 2003 (a fall from 7th to 13th) (Brochu et al., 2013). Changes in Canada’s standing relative to other countries reflect both the addition of new countries or regions over time (i.e., the addition of regions such as Hong Kong–China and Chinese Taipei in 2006, and of Shanghai–China in 2009) and statistically significant declines in mean scores.

My Oct. 9, 2013 post discusses the scores in more detail and as the Expert Panel notes, the drop is disconcerting and disturbing. Hopefully, it doesn’t indicate a trend.

Part 2 (b) follows immediately.

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 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.