November 5th, 2009
Let’s Talk Science. Or at least let’s try to talk sensibly. I last blogged about my experience attending a large Science Policy Conference in Toronto. I wish to follow up with part II of that experience, since I was writing then at the very beginning of the event and a lot of talk happened in the following days.
My initial skepticism about what could be accomplished in such a short amount of time with so many bureaucrats, academics, and industry players in one hall yielded, at least in part, to a more positive take on what might be possible. As I mentioned last week, the goal of the proceedings was to establish a dialogue on establishing a national infrastructure for science policy. Unlike almost every developed country in the world Canada lacks such a network. As someone pointed out at one of the sessions, we don’t even have a credible nation-wide journal or magazine that speaks exclusively to science-based issues. How lame is that? Globally, Canada ranks pretty low on the science policy side by most credible measures. How, then, to get our act together?
We heard from the Honourable Gary Goodyear, who is Minister of State (Science and Technology). His presentation was predictably positive about all the government investment in science and tech, accompanied by a slide show of familiar, iconic images of young people in lab coats staring into glass beakers or up into space. Nothing new there, except reinforcement for the view that government is all about spinning the figures and making themselves look good. Meanwhile, on the floor, so to speak, the participants muttered about being underfunded in their faculties and programs. Recently, a McGill alumnus who won the Nobel Prize for Physics, Willard S. Boyle, openly lamented the narrow-mindedness in government circles across the continent but especially in this country about funding for research. Arguing for the importance of open-ended research–that is, research that isn’t under pressure to meet some particular deadline, cure cancer, or generate a product/drug for the greedy marketplace. Boyle’s comments got quite a bit of media pickup, resonating as they do with the anxious times.
And so in one corner there were the Goodyears and in the other the detractors and those who openly worried about the climate for research funding in general. Much of this worry was carried over into discussions about the Canadian public being either indifferent to or ignorant of what science actually was or is. The phrase ‘science literacy’ was tossed around the ballroom like a shuttlecock, until a few people started to wonder what the term meant, and how you would define it, not an easy thing to do, since few of us could actually articulate it ourselves. We all know what we don’t know about H1NI or fossil fuels, the stratosphere, oceans, and the hot burning sun, but is what we do know enough to make us literate? And how do we become more literate?
These kinds of questions led to a lot of air time given over to the theme of the media’s role in “translating” science knowledge to the world, and this line of thought in turn led to a lot of the blaming of the media for miscommunication or distortion. One young woman spoke forcefully of having spent hours explaining to a science reporter what the nature of her research was one summer, examining some neat gas-producing material on the bottom of the ocean floor. She decried the eventual story that focused exclusively on what a “cool” summer job she had, and nothing about the actual cool science.
Her well-told story notwithstanding, as a union card-carrying member of the media myself, I tire of these blame-the-media whining sessions. They don’t really deal with the problem, which is that scholars and researchers often abnegate the responsibility of translating the knowledge they have to the wider public. Just look at the abstract of 95% of doctoral dissertations and tell me if you think they would be comprehensible to anyone on the street. I chair a lot of these defenses and often haven’t a clue what these students and their examiners are talking about. What’s wrong with this picture?
A science journalist got up at some point and really blasted all the media detractors, arguing forcefully that it is up to us, not the media, to make the best case to the tax-paying public about what we do. If we can’t do that then there is something wrong with us, for goodness sake. As we say in Newfoundland, gotta love him. He sounded a strong persuasive note in an otherwise self absorbed session.
If I took anything away from those three hi-power days of science policy talk it was that, first, it is critical to own up to the task of speaking more plainly, rationally, clearly about what it is we are actually doing when we talk about science research—and why it is important to have support for it. Science education is critical, but most important is ensuring our scientists can actually communicate with people other than scientists. The second point is actually related and it has to do with the moral obligation we have to educate budding scientists about the wider world in which their practice and discovery might have an effect. It is about connecting science not only to policy but to politics.
What really resonated with me personally is Peter Singer’s address to the group. As director of the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, Singer delivered a potent message about our responsibility to link what we practice in our labs and classrooms to the very real conditions of global disparity, of the challenges of nations that are cash-strapped and struggling for food and medicine, while the rest of us benefit from entitlement and way too much privilege. I was moved by his talk, and the applause following his presentation suggested everyone else was, as well. Someone had the audacity to suggest that all science students should be studying international politics in their undergraduate curriculum, learning about the complex nexus of industry and national politics.