Are Canadians interested in science?

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by the Science Borealis team

The CBC’s Rick Mercer is a staunch science advocate, and his November 19th rant was no exception. He addressed the state of basic science in Canada, saying that Canadians are “passionate and curious about science.”

In response, scientist David Kent wrote a post on the Black Hole Blog in which he disagreed with Mercer, saying, “I do not believe Mr. Mercer’s idea that Canadians as a whole are interested although I, like him, would wish it to be the case.”

Kent’s post has generated some fierce discussion, both in the comments on his original post and in the comments on a Facebook post by Evidence for Democracy.

Here at Science Borealis, we rely on a keen and enthusiastic public to engage with the broad range of science-based work our bloggers share, so we decided to address some of the arguments Kent presented in his post.

  1. Anecdotal evidence versus data

Kent says “Mr. Mercer’s claims about Canadians’ passions are anecdotal at best, and lack any evidence – indeed it is possible that Canadians don’t give a hoot about science for science’s sake.”

Unfortunately, Kent’s own argument is based on anecdotal evidence (“To me it appears that… the average Canadian adult does not particularly care about how or why something works.”).

If you’re looking for data, they’re available in a recent Council of Canadian Academies report that specifically studied science culture in Canada. Results show that Canadians are very interested in science.

  1. How do we define ‘interested in science’?

Kent defines interested in science as “car[ing] about how or why something works” rather than “car[ing] about cures for [our] loved ones, faster mobile phone technologies, higher-resolution televisions, and fuel-efficient cars and homes.”

But definitions of ‘interested in science’ vary. Does it mean interested in doing science? In the fundamental research and theory behind everything in our lives (as Kent suggests)? Being fascinated by the cool stuff science reveals? Voting in politicians who support science, or supporting federal funding for science?

The definition of ‘interested’ necessarily dictates what statistics and other information can be used to support that argument.

  1. Population

Kent compares Canada directly to the US and UK. Unfortunately, our population is ½ that of the UK and 1/10th that of the US, which likely corresponds with reduced science outreach capacity, and less funding for those activities.

  1. Funding

Kent says “In the U.K., there are incredible [science] books and radio/television programs produced.”

This implies that a dearth of Canadian science books and radio/TV programs is evidence that Canadians don’t care about science. We do produce some great science books – see the CSWA Science in Society Book Awards for just a small sampling. As for TV and other productions, our problem may have more to do with budgets than lack of interest. A few examples: the Canadian Science and Technology Museum has had to vacate their building temporarily while mould and other issues are addressed. By the same token, the CBC has been subject to budget cuts since 2010, which have impacted the quality of programming they can produce.

  1. Popular recognition

Kent says “very very few people in the U.K. have heard of the Canadian science juggernaut David Suzuki [unlike David Attenborough or Stephen Hawking].”

What other countries know of our science outreach activities is a limited indicator of Canadians’ interest in science. If we rephrased this as “very very few people in the UK have heard of Henrik and Daniel Sedin,” would that provide an accurate reflection of Canadians’ interest in hockey? Not likely.

  1. Political vs. public support for science

Kent suggests that “the current government is simply reflecting the average Canadian adult’s priorities.”

This is a tricky one, as it conflates public opinion with government action. However, the current government was elected with the support of 39.6% of the population. So while we could state that the government represents the views of a segment of the population, it certainly isn’t the majority.

Additionally, our government isn’t exactly crazy about science – particularly science communication. Unfortunately, this makes the government a less than ideal model for the public in terms of encouraging public support for, or interest in, science.

While it’s not apparent that Canadians are disinterested in science, we can all agree that science outreach infrastructure is of critical importance. This is something that Canadian science journalist Colin Schultz & University of Calgary professor Marie-Claire Shanahan brought up in a conference session on science communication back in 2013, and something that many of us across the country are working to rectify. Organizations like Let’s Talk Science, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, Laurentian University’s degree in Science Communication, UBC’s Guardians of Science, the Banff Science Communications program, and many, many more, are doing their best – often on shoestring budgets – to bring people and science together.

One thing that’s certain: Kent’s post has stirred up a lot of discussion, and hopefully more good things will come of it.

Share your thoughts on the debate in the comments below, via Twitter, or on Facebook!

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