Tag Archives: Nicole Mortillaro

The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (an addendum)

I missed a few science journalists (part 1 of this series, under the Science Communication subhead; Mainstream Media, sub subhead) as the folks at the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC) noted on Twitter,

Science Media Centre @SMCCanada Apr 16 Replying to @frogheart

Thanks for the mention. But I think poor @katecallen at the Toronto Star would be dismayed to read that @IvanSemeniuk is the only science reporter on a Canadian newspaper. And @row1960 Bob Weber at Canadian Press is carried in every newspaper in the country.

Science Media Centre @SMCCanada Apr 16 Replying to @frogheart

In addition, @mle_chung at CBC News Online (#1 news source in Canada) is read more than any other science writer in the country, as is her colleague @NebulousNikki

Thank you.

***ETA April 29, 2020 at 0910 PT: Yesterday, April 28, 2020, Postmedia announced that it was closing 15 community newspapers and a number of jobs elsewhere in the organization. Earlier in the month on April 7, 2020 Postmedia announced that 85 positions were being eliminated, including 11 in the editorial department of TorStar (Toronto Star). I hope they keep a position for a science writer at the Toronto Star.***

Alice Major, a poet mentioned in Part 3 under The word subhead; Poetry sub subhead, wrote with news of two other poets who focus on science in their work.

  • Christian Bök
  • Adam Dickinson

From Bök’s Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Christian Bök[needs IPA] (born August 10, 1966 in Toronto, Canada) is an experimental Canadian poet. He is the author of Eunoia, which won the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize.

On April 4, 2011 Bök announced a significant break-through in his 9-year project to engineer “a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem”.[7][8] On the previous day (April 3) Bök said he received confirmation from the laboratory at the University of Calgary that my poetic cipher, gene X-P13, has in fact caused E. coli to fluoresce red in our test-runs—meaning that, when implanted in the genome of this bacterium, my poem (which begins “any style of life/ is prim…”) does in fact cause the bacterium to write, in response, its own poem (which begins “the faery is rosy/ of glow…”).”[9]

The project has continued for over fifteen years at a cost exceeding $110,000 and he hopes to finish the project in 2014.[10] He published “Book I” of the resulting Xenotext in 2015.

Xenotext: Book 1 published by Coach House Books is described this way,

Internationally best-sellling poet Christian Bök has spent more than ten years writing what promises to be the first example of ‘living poetry.’ After successfully demonstrating his concept in a colony of E. coli, Bök is on the verge of enciphering a beautiful, anomalous poem into the genome of an unkillable bacterium (Deinococcus radiodurans), which can, in turn, “read” his text, responding to it by manufacturing a viable, benign protein, whose sequence of amino acids enciphers yet another poem. The engineered organism might conceivably serve as a post-apocalyptic archive, capable of outlasting our civilization.

Book I of The Xenotext constitutes a kind of ‘demonic grimoire,’ providing a scientific framework for the project with a series of poems, texts, and illustrations. A Virgilian welcome to the Inferno, Book I is the “orphic” volume in a diptych, addressing the pastoral heritage of poets, who have sought to supplant nature in both beauty and terror. The book sets the conceptual groundwork for the second volume, which will document the experiment itself. The Xenotext is experimental poetry in the truest sense of the term.

Adam Dickinson is a poet and an associate professor at Brock University (Ontario). He describes himself and his work this way (from the Brock University bio page),

Adam Dickinson is a poet and a professor of poetry. His creative and academic writing has primarily focused on intersections between poetry and science as a way of exploring new ecocritical perspectives and alternative modes of poetic composition. His latest book, Anatomic (Coach House Books), involves the results of chemical and microbial testing on his body, and was shortlisted for The Raymond Souster Award. Sections of it were also shortlisted for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Poetry Prize. His book, The Polymers (House of Anansi [2013]), which is an imaginary science project that combines the discourses, theories, and experimental methods of the science of plastic materials with the language and culture of plastic behaviour, was a finalist for both the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. He has published two previous books, Kingdom, Phylum (also nominated for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry) and Cartography and Walking (nominated for an Alberta Book Award). His scholarly work (supported by SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada]) brings together research in innovative poetics, biosemiotics, pataphysics, and Anthropocene studies.

His current research-creation project, “Metabolic Poetics,” (also supported by SSHRC) is concerned with the potential of expanded modes of reading and writing to shift the frames and scales of conventional forms of signification in order to bring into focus the often inscrutable biological and cultural writing intrinsic to the Anthropocene, especially as this is reflected in the inextricable link between the metabolic processes of human and nonhuman bodies and the global metabolism of energy and capital.

He has been featured at prominent international literary festivals, such as Poetry International in Rotterdam, The Harbourfront International Festival of Authors in Toronto, and the Oslo International Poetry Festival in Norway. Adam has also been a finalist for the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature, Administered by the Ontario Arts Council. Adam welcomes potential student supervisions on topics in poetry and poetics, environmental writing, science and literature, and creative writing.

Thank you.

This last addition may seen a little offbeat but ARPICO (Society of Italian Researchers & Professionals in Western Canada) has hosted a surprisingly large number of science events in Vancouver. Two recent examples include: The Eyes are the Windows to The Mind; Implications for Artificial Intelligence (AI) -driven Personalized Interaction on March 4, 2020 and, the relatively recent, Whispers in the Dark: Underground Science on June 12, 2019.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to resist the impulse to make any more additions.

***ETA April 30, 2020: Research2Reality (R2R) was launched in 2015 as a social media initiative featuring a series of short video interviews with Canadian scientists (see more in my May 11, 2015 posting). Almost five years later, the website continues to feature interviews and it also hosts news about Canadian science and research. R2R was founded by Molly Shoichet (pronounced shoyquette) and Mike MacMillan.***

For anyone who stumbled across this addendum first, it fits on to the end of a 5-part series:

Part 1 covers science communication, science media (mainstream and others such as blogging) and arts as exemplified by music and dance: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (1 of 5).

Part 2 covers art/science (or art/sci or sciart) efforts, science festivals both national and local, international art and technology conferences held in Canada, and various bar/pub/café events: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (2 of 5).

Part 3 covers comedy, do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, chief science advisor, science policy, mathematicians, and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (3 of 5).

Part 4 covers citizen science, birds, climate change, indigenous knowledge (science), and the IISD Experimental Lakes Area: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (4 of 5).

Part 5: includes science podcasting, eco art, a Saskatchewan lab with an artist-in-residence, the Order of Canada and children’s science literature, animation and mathematics, publishing science, *French language science media,* and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (5 of 5).

*French language science media added December 9, 2020.

Canadian scientists in a national protest on May 19, 2015 and some thoughts on a more nuanced discussion about ‘science muzzles’

For anyone unfamiliar with Canada’s science muzzle, government scientists are not allowed to speak directly to the media and all requests must be handled by the communications department in the ministry. For one of the odder consequences of that policy, there’s my Sept. 16, 2010 posting about a scientist who wasn’t allowed to talk to media about his research on a 13,000 year old flood that took place in the Canadian North. Adding insult to injury, his international colleagues were giving out all kinds of interviews.

Here’s a more recent incident (h/t Speaking Up For Canadian Science, May 20, 2015) recounted in a May 19, 2015 news item by  Nicole Mortillaro for CTV (Canadian television) news online ,

“Unlike Canadian scientists, I don’t have to ask permission to talk to you.”

That was one of the first things National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Pieter Tans said when I called to reach him for comment about rising carbon dioxide levels reaching historic levels.

The topic itself was controversial: climate change is a hot-button topic for many. But getting in touch with NOAA was easy. In total, there were five email exchanges, all providing information about the topic and the arrangement of the interview.

Compare that to trying to get response from a Canadian federal department.

While I’ve had many frustrating dealings with various federal agencies, my most recent experience came as I was working on a story about ways Canadians could protect themselves as severe weather season approached. I wanted to mention the new federal national emergency warning system, Alert Ready. I reached out to Environment Canada for more information.

You’d think the federal government would want to let Canadians know about a new national emergency warning system and they do, in their fashion. For the whole story, there’s Mortillaro’s piece (which has an embedded video and more) but for the fast version, Mortillaro contacted the communications people a day before her Friday deadline asking for a spokesperson. The communications team missed the deadline although they did find a spokesperson who would be available on the Monday. Strangely or not, he proved to be hesitant to talk about the new system.

Getting back to the science muzzle protest of 2015 and the muzzle itself, there’s a May 17, 2015 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail providing more detail about the muzzle and the then upcoming protest organized by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) currently in contract negotiations with the federal government. (Echoing what I said in my Dec. 4, 2014 posting about the contract negotiations, the union is bargaining for the right to present science information which is unprecedented in Canada (and, I suspect, internationally). Back to Semeniuk’s article,

With contract negotiations set to resume this week, there will also be a series of demonstrations for the Ottawa area on Tuesday to focus attention on the issue.

If successful, the effort could mark a precedent-setting turn in what the government’s critics portray as a struggle between intellectual independence and political prerogative.

“Our science members said to us: What’s more important than anything else is our ability to do our jobs as professionals,” said Peter Bleyer, an adviser with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, whose membership includes some 15,000 scientists and engineers.

Government scientists have always been vulnerable to those who hold the reins of power, but tensions have grown under the Conservatives. After the Tories enacted a wave of research program and facility cancellations in 2012, stories began to emerge of researchers who were blocked from responding to media requests about their work.

The onerous communications protocols apply even for stories about scientific advancements that are likely to reflect positively on the federal government. Last month [April 2015], after it was announced that Canada would become a partner in the Thirty Meter Telescope, The Globe and Mail had to appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office to facilitate an interview with the National Research Council astronomer leading the development of the telescope’s sophisticated adaptive-optics system.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is currently conducting an investigation into complaints that scientists have been muzzled by the Conservative government.

As Semeniuk notes at the end of his article in a quote from the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists’ representative, the problem is not new and not unique to Canada. For a ‘not unique’ example, the UK government seems to be interested in taking a similar approach to ‘muzzling’ scientists, according to an April 1, 2015 post by Glyn Moody for Techdirt (Note: Links have been removed),

Techdirt has been following for a while Canada’s moves to stop scientists from speaking out about areas where the facts of the situation don’t sit well with the Canadian government’s dogma-based policies. Sadly, it looks like the UK is taking the same route. It concerns a new code for the country’s civil servants, which will also apply to thousands of publicly-funded scientists. As the Guardian reports:

Under the new code, scientists and engineers employed at government expense must get ministerial approval before they can talk to the media about any of their research, whether it involves GM crops, flu vaccines, the impact of pesticides on bees, or the famously obscure Higgs boson.

The fear — quite naturally — is that ministers could take days before replying to requests, by which time news outlets will probably have lost interest. As a result of this change, science organizations have sent a letter to the UK government, expressing their “deep concern” about the code. …

As for ‘not new’, there’s always a tension between employer and employee about what constitutes free speech. Does an employee get fired for making gross, sexist comments in their free time at a soccer game? The answer in Ontario, Canada is yes according to a May 14, 2015 article by Samantha Leal for Marie Claire magazine. Presumably there will be a law suit and we will find out if the firing is legally acceptable. Or more cynically, this may prove to be a public relations ploy designed to spin the story in the employer’s favour while the employee takes some time off and returns unobtrusively at a later date.

I have a couple of final comments about free speech and employers’ and employees’ rights and responsibilities.First, up until the muzzles were applied, the Canadian government and its scientists seemed to have had a kind of unspoken agreement as to what constituted fair discussion of scientific research in the media. I vaguely recall a few kerfuffles over the years but nothing major. (If someone can recall an incident where a scientist working for the Canadian government seriously embarrassed it, please let me know in the comments.)  So, this relatively new enthusiasm for choking off  media coverage of Canadian science research seems misplaced at best. Unfortunately, it has exacerbated standard tensions about what employees can and can’t say to new heights. Attempting to entrench the right to share science research in a bureaucratic process (a union contract) seems weirdly similar to the Harper government’s approach, which like the union’s proposition added a bureaucratic layer.

As for my second thought, I’m wondering how many people who cheered that soccer fan’s firing for making comments (albeit sexist comments) in his free time are protesting for free speech for Canadian government scientists.

It comes down to* matters of principle. Which ones do we want to follow and when do we apply them? Do principles apply only for those people and ideas we find acceptable?

I just wish there was a little more nuance brought to the ‘science muzzle in Canada’ discussion so we might veer away from heightened adversarial relationships between the government and its scientists.

* The phrase was originally published as “to a matters of principle …” and was corrected on May 22, 2015.