#CanComm, Conferences, and the Search for Allies
Standing in a Raleigh pub last year, the exhilaration and exhaustion of Science Online 2012 still coursing strong, and the news that Canadian federal scientists were being muzzled making waves worldwide, Marie-Claire Shanahan and I arrived on what we felt was a vital topic overlooked in that year’s edition of the annual conference.
By geography and demographics, Science Online attendees skew British and American. Holding strong is the Canadian contingent, but Marie-Claire and I noted that the experiences of our international friends are, in many respects, fundamentally different from our own. In the UK and the US, science magazines, TV shows, radio shows, formal/informal outreach endeavours and bloggers are in far greater supply. Missing from Science Online’s niche debates over how, exactly, scientists, journalists, public relations people and the public should all get along was the broader discussion of how to give a kick in the ass to a science communication ecosystem that is lacking much of the established infrastructure to which nearly all of the conference attendees are accustomed.
Against this backdrop, Marie-Claire and I pitched a session for the following year’s conference: “Communicating science where there is no science communication”—a place to acknowledge the unique issues facing Canadian science communication efforts, and to highlight what we felt would be some of the downstream consequences of our country’s current climate.
The presentation, an early-morning gathering on February 2, went well, I think, generating discussion and debate both during and after the one hour session. The #CanComm twitter tag pulls together much of the ongoing conversation. But, not all were pleased with the representation of Canadian science communication that we conveyed, calling it “overly pessimistic” or “ghastly.”
Indeed, Maryse de la Giroday, who runs the FrogHeart blog, sent me the following email—leading questions suggesting of a displeasure with our presentation. I’ll not be speaking for Marie-Claire but just for myself, but I hope to answer Maryse’s questions, to better explain what I said, why I said it, and where I think we need to go.
Your presentation at the 2013 ScienceOnline conference came up during a recent conference call … apparently, you have ignited a fire in a few bellies with your contentions about Canadian science communication … I wonder if you might answer a few questions for publication on my blog (frogheart.ca) … I’ll be sending the same questions to Marie-Claire Shanahan and hopefully be able to include both sets of answers for each question … there’s not a lot of questions …I promise …
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?
To understand the contents of the presentation, it is important to consider it in context.
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. 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. But for this to work, we first all needed to be on the same page.
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. 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.
Whether these numbers can be deemed “harsh” or not is up to you, but my goal was to give those joining us in the session a baseline count on what our mainstream science communication infrastructure looks like.
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.
Were you trying to be harsh in your assesment? 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)?
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.
The way that many Science Online sessions operate is this: The session leaders lay out an issue, a quick spiel to set up and frame a perceived problem, and then the discussion is opened to the floor. As I said, the conference attendees are brilliant, and I wanted to tap them as much as possible to offer up things they’ve tried, things that they’ve seen work, or to generally just bounce ideas around. The unconference format is unusual in this respect, in that the session leaders are not necessarily meant to be the ones with the answers. The one-hour blitz is the starting point, the opening remarks in a conversation that continues onward online.
Ideally, what you like to see take place in Canada, science communicationwise?
The most important thing to me, and something that I think has happened already, is just to get people talking. I want my international friends to know what we do and what barriers we are facing, and I want those within Canada to come together. Canada is a pretty sprawly place, and the biggest barriers we face stem from being so spread out. The first step in growing our science communication ecosystem and infrastructure is for everyone to know about each other, to know what we’re all up to and working on, and to put our heads together on creative projects. I have some fledgling ideas for things I want to work on, but can’t even begin to claim to have any real answers.
Would it surprise you to know that about the same time you gave your presentation a group (iwith 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.
Thanks for your time and I hope you have a lovely weekend.