Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 1 of 3: Canadians are doing pretty well

After almost two years, Science Culture: Where Canada Stands (256 pp. PDF; 222 pp. print) was released in August  2014 by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA). The assessment as the CCA calls these reports was first mentioned here in a Dec. 19, 2012 post about the questions being asked and with a follow up Feb. 22, 2013 post when its Expert Panel was announced.

I believe this is the first document of its kind, i.e., assessing science culture in Canada, and it is very welcome. I have mixed feelings about the report; there’s some excellent content packaged in a rather unfortunate manner. (BTW, I was chuffed to find that my blog and I were mentioned in it.)

I will start with the good stuff first. The CCA has provided an infographic of how Canada compares to other countries where science culture is concerned,

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It’s encouraging to see how well we’re doing globally although the report does note that some countries don’t have data for comparison and other countries’ may have older data (Canadian data gathered for this report is relatively recent as per one of the excerpts [further in this post] from Ivan Semeniuk’s August 28, 2014 Globe and Mail article) so the rankings may not reflect a truly accurate global ranking.

Here’s another infographic; this one describing Canadians’ attitudes towards and beliefs about science and technology,

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As encouraging as these infographics are, Ivan Semeniuk (also namechecked in the report) notes some of the concerns broached in the assessment in his Aug, 28, 2014 Globe and Mail article,

From knowing what a molecule is to endorsing government support for basic research, Canadians as a whole display a clearer understanding of and a more positive attitude toward science than people in most other developed countries.

Overall, the report’s message is a positive one for Canada. “Canadians rank quite highly when it comes to science knowledge, attitudes and engagement in comparison with other countries in the world,” said Arthur Carty, chair of the panel that produced the report and a former national science adviser.

But despite high levels of interest, the report also reveals that in practical terms, most Canadians have an arm’s-length relationship with science. [emphasis mine] Only 20 per cent of first university degrees in Canada are awarded in science and engineering fields and only 30 per cent of employed Canadians work at science and technology related jobs – fewer than in the majority of other countries with a comparable standard of living.

It seems Semeniuk and the expert panel subscribe to the notion that formal science education is the only true measure of a ;close’ relationship with science. Neither party seems to take much comfort in the fact that Canadians keep up with science once their formal education (scientific or otherwise) is over (from Semeniuk’s article,

Among the most striking results from the survey is that Canada ranks first in science literacy, with 42 per cent of Canadians able to read and understand newspaper stories detailing scientific findings.

The comparatively high interest in science that Canadians express suggests they may be doing better than most at keeping up with the discoveries that have come along since their formal education ended. [emphasis mine] An emphasis on lifelong learning is important for cultivating a national science culture, the report’s authors say, because the leading edge of research is driven by knowledge that was not available 10 or 20 years ago.

The comparatively recent Canadian data, as mentioned earlier, may not provide a true picture of Canada’s ranking (from Semeniuk’s article),

But ongoing research by Dr. Miller [Jon Miller, a panel member and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan] and others suggest that science literacy is on the rise everywhere, and therefore Canada’s high ranking could also be a function of how recently it was surveyed relative to other countries. Whatever the reason, the report’s numbers suggest there is more to be learned about precisely how Canadians are relating to science and how that is changing, says broadcaster and author Jay Ingram, who was also on the panel.

Getting on to the report/assessment proper, I do like the note of skepticism about the impact a strong science culture has on society given the somewhat hysterical claims made by some adherents to this philosophy,

Many claims have been advanced about the impacts of a strong science culture. Such claims are often plausible given the extent to which science and technology feature in most aspects of individual and social life. However, there is limited empirical evidence to substantiate these claims, and in some cases that evidence points to more complexity in the way these impacts are manifested than is typically acknowledged. Much of this evidence suggests that, while a stronger science culture may contribute to a range of personal or social benefits, it is not always in itself sufficient to ensure the realization of those benefits.(p. 24 PDF; p. xxii print]

It’s a thoughtfulness I very much appreciate.

The report offers a definition of science that could include social science but, given a rather egregious omission (more about that in part 3 of this commentary), does not appear to do so,

Science is a systematic means of discovery and exploration that enriches our collective understanding of the world and universe around us. It is a fundamental part of Canadian culture and society, implicated in nearly every aspect of individual and social life. (p. 34 PDF; p. 2 print)

I was intrigued to learn the term ‘science culture’ is specific to Canada,

One of the first challenges faced by the Panel was to define science culture. While often used in Canadian discussions of science and technology policy, the term is rarely defined with precision. It is most frequently used to convey the degree to which society and the public are broadly engaged in, and supportive of, science. For example, at the launch of Canada’s National Science and Technology Week in 1990, the then Minister for Science, William Winegard, stated that “a science culture means a society that embraces science, involves itself in the development, application and use of new technologies, and celebrates national achievements [in science] with pride and enthusiasm” (National Science and Technology Week, 1990).

The use of this term in Canada partly reflects Canada’s bilingual heritage. In other English-speaking countries, terms such as science literacy, public understanding of science, public engagement in science, and public communication of science are more common (Durant, 1993). These terms are not synonymous with each other, or with science culture. However, they are related concepts, representing a range of perspectives that have been applied to the study of how the public relates to, interacts with, and develops views about science and technology. Patterns in the use of these terms in the literature over time also reflect an evolution in the way in which scholars, scientists, and policy-makers discuss science and society issues (Bauer, 2009). In French, the preferred term is generally la culture scientifique or la culture scientifique et technique, and the use of these terms in Quebec may have contributed to the use of the English science culture throughout Canada.

Compared with science literacy or public understanding of science, science culture is a more expansive concept, encompassing different aspects of the relationship between society and science. (p. 39 PDF; p, 7 print)

Globally, discussions about science are necessary,

Public discussions about the role of science in society are now dominated by a number of critical issues. Debates about nuclear power, climate change, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and stem cells are common across many countries and have been frequently the source of both national and international studies. For example, concern about anthropogenic global warming has generated a significant amount of research on public perception and attitudes related to science and technology. … The global reach of many of these issues requires international policy responses involving coordination and alignment of many governments. Both government actions and media coverage of these issues can have an impact on public perception of science and technology on an international scale.

Specific events abroad can also have a major impact on science culture around the world. The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, for example, caused widespread concern over nuclear safety across many countries and significantly affected public perception of the safety of these technologies (Kim et al., 2013). In Canada this event precipitated a review of all major nuclear facilities and the development of a four-year action plan to strengthen the safety of the nuclear industry (Canadian Nuclear Association, 2012; Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, 2012) (pp. 46/7 PDF; pp. 14/5 print)

In a description of how new technologies are changing society and affecting the practice of science, the expert panel introduces the notion of ‘citizen science’ (Note: I agree with the notion and have a category for citizen science on this blog),

One such impact concerns how the public can participate in and contribute to scientific work. Canadian physicist Michael Nielsen argues that new possibilities for large-scale scientific collaboration resulting from web-based platforms can potentially transform the practice of science due to changes in how scientists collaborate, and to the development of online platforms for engaging the public in scientific research (Nielsen, 2012). “Citizen science” initiatives allow the public to contribute to many kinds of scientific activity, often through collaborative, web-based platforms … (p. 47 PDF; p. 15 print)

I was pleased to see that the influence of popular culture was also mentioned although I did feel it was a bit lacking,

First, popular culture can influence attitudes towards science and technology and perceptions of scientists and their role in society. The foundation of science is the acquisition of knowledge. Ungar (2000) argues that in some segments of society, attaining highly specialized knowledge is viewed as elitist. [emphasis mine] As such, it is sometimes popular to denigrate intellectualism in favour of a more egalitarian and conversational ethos, which may devalue the contributions of scientists. In a review of U.S. children’s educational science programs, Long and Steinke (1996) report that images of science have emphasized characteristics such as truth, fun, accessibility, and ubiquity. Scientists were portrayed through several stereotypes in these shows, ranging from being omniscient and elite to eccentric and antisocial. (p. 51 PDF; p. 19 print)

The panel adopted a rather interesting approach to a fairly complex topic and, in my view, gave it shorter shrift than it deserved. Frankly, the view that the science community is elitist has some merit. How do you like someone using the term ‘dumbing down’ in your presence?

Getting back to the assessment, I was happy to see that Québec was more or less given its due,

As the only Canadian province with a predominantly French-speaking population, Quebec has its own organizations dedicated to the promotion of science in the public (e.g., Association francophone pour le savoir); its own set of French- language science media organizations and programs (e.g., Agence Science-Presse, “Découverte,” “Le Code Chastenay”); French-language science museums and centres (e.g., Centre des sciences de Montréal); science festivals (e.g., Festival Eurêka!); and many other organizations and programs involved in supporting science culture and communication for the Francophone population. The formal science education and training system also differs in Quebec, given the role of institutions such as the collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP). The historical development of science culture in Quebec is also distinct from that of Anglophone Canada, more firmly rooted in French and European discourses about science, culture, and cultural policies (Chartrand et al., 1987; Schiele et al., 1994). As a result of these differences, past inquiries into science culture in Canada have often treated Quebec as separate from the rest of Canada, and the Quebec government has sponsored its own investigations into science culture in the province (e.g., CST, 2002a). (p. 53 PDF; p. 21 print)

I believe it’s the province with the most support of any for science culture and it cannot be an accident that Seed (a former Canadian and once successful English language science magazine and enterprise) was founded in Montréal, Québec.

The report also notes Aboriginal contributions to Canadian science culture,

Canada’s Aboriginal cultures also play a role in defining the science culture landscape in Canada, both through their own knowledge traditions and their impacts on science education and outreach. Aboriginal knowledge has also been incorporated into some provincial science curricula, and some science textbooks now teach students about both scientific and Aboriginal knowledge systems, as a result of the collaboration between ministries of education, Aboriginal Elders, and one Canadian publisher (Aikenhead & Elliott, 2010). Aboriginal knowledge and traditions have also had impacts on scientific research in Canada, with biologists, ecologists, climatologists, and geologists incorporating Aboriginal knowledge in their research in a number of ways … (pp. 53/4 PDF; pp. 21/2 print)

It would have been nice to know if any experts of Aboriginal origin were included in the expert panel and/or in the group of reviewers as it would have been nice to see more women in those groups. If you’re going to discuss diversity and opening things up then perhaps you should consider ‘being the change’ rather than simply discussing it.

The report also mentioned Canada’s ageing population never once suggesting there might be ways to integrate that population into the larger science culture. The report’s bias was definitely youthful. Again on the subject of ‘being the change’, it might have been interesting to include youth and seniors in an advisory capacity to the panel.

On to part 2 and part 3.

*Note: I corrected CAC to CCA on February 6, 2020.

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