November 17, 2014

Sci + Tech | November 26, 2012
Out of sight, out of existence
How lack of public awareness hurts Canadian science
Written by | Visual by Oles Chepesiuk

The Globe and Mail doesn’t have a science section. Neither does the National Post. Add to this the fact that there are no dedicated Canadian science magazines for the general public, and it starts to become obvious why Canadians rarely hear about groundbreaking science research done across the country.

Of course, Canada is a relatively small country by population, and this means our contributions to science are often pieces of larger projects spearheaded by American or European groups. While those pieces are often critical to the project’s success, freelance journalist Colin Schultz wryly noted in an interview with The Daily that “it’s hard to get jazzed up about a piece of a puzzle.” More people were excited about the International Space Station or the shuttle program than the Canadarm, even though the robotic arm was a major contribution to both projects and a remarkable feat of engineering.

However, the stories that do make the news are often popular, showing that Canadians do have an appetite for Canadian science. The lack of dedicated media makes public awareness difficult; there are few forums where Canadians can talk about science and research at length or consistently.

Partially, this is because the Canadian media as a whole is small, so Canadian science media is a small wedge of a small pie. Science is usually shuffled in with general news, and because of the limited space and spotty coverage given to science, there’s hardly any room for anything beyond bare-bones reporting of events: no long-term perspective, no critical analysis, no opinion pieces. “There [are] almost no examples of Canadian science stories playing out across several media outlets,” lamented Marie-Claire Shanahan, a professor of science education at the University of Alberta. As part of her teaching, she looks for widely covered stories to use as case studies for her students to dissect, and “[has] to go with almost completely American stories.”

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.

The lack of homegrown reporting and communication to a wide Canadian audience becomes a big problem when, in the wake of massive budget cuts at Environment Canada (EC) and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), groups like the ozone research group and ocean contaminants groups are dissolved. Alarmingly, Schultz and Shanahan both remarked that they had heard about one or another of the groups cut at EC and DFO not from a Canadian source, but from the Guardian, a British newspaper.

There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon: we either don’t have the resources to report on our own federal public service, or we don’t collectively prioritize reporting on our own federal public service. Both of those are a big problem. The public’s understanding of what’s going on in the federal public service, which is a bellwether for the federal government’s direction and policy, should not be left to the whims of a foreign media outlet that will focus on it through an international lens.

Ironically, the recent silencing of Canadian scientists has shone a spotlight on these chronic deficiencies in Canadian science media. The government’s “let no information out, however innocuous” strategy is looking increasingly retrograde – as well as being totally at odds with scientific practice, which thrives on the flow of information and open communication. Journalists started noticing that federal scientists were not able to speak to the press in 2010, and since then have highlighted the need for flow of information, access to federal scientists, and a concerted public discourse, in pieces published in high profile journals such as Nature. Two years later, these pieces are still being written, but the government’s communication strategy has not shifted.

But the government’s lockdown on information is not necessarily in their own interest. “You’re going to get yourself in a situation where you’re not going to be able to have the … explanation ‘look, we’re doing what our scientists are telling us.’ There are going to be things that arise that you really want to say that because … you’re going to want to depoliticize your response,” said Stephen Strauss, president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA). Arguably, situations like this have already arisen, like the XL Beef recall, and the government is unwavering in its strategy. But because the Canadian science media often struggles for visibility in the public eye, it’s easier for the government to silence its scientists with relative impunity. A scattered science media leads to scattered discussion, making it harder for the average citizen to follow the discussion over long stretches of time or even to keep up with pieces written criticizing the government’s treatment of science. However, as more and more instances of questionable science policy come to (faint) light, the government may be forced to change.

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.

All these factors create a complex situation where it is difficult to have a public discourse about the role of science in Canadian culture and the role of Canadian culture in our science initiatives. Due to a host of environmental and scientific issues from climate change to proposed pipelines to water treatment, now, especially, we need space to have those discussions and analysis. We need, somehow, to recover a national narrative of Canadian science to be able to navigate those issues. Even with the growth of the internet, the power to shape public discourse is still held by the mainstream press; Strauss and Shanahan emphasized that traditional media is still where most people get their news. The science community and science writers need to continue to press traditional media (through advocacy groups like the CSWA) to cover and develop science stories. Kathryn O’Hara, professor of journalism and former president of the CSWA, thinks that things are starting to change, at least with regards to the clampdown on federal scientists. “I think we’re beginning to build a bit of a groundswell in people understanding that something is amiss. People say ‘Oh, something’s going on here.’” It’s realizations like this that need to happen en masse, to allow the public a voice in an increasingly political discourse about science, and to, perhaps, place pressure on the government to fund the research Canadians, and not just the Conservative government, deem important.

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