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Canadian Science Funding Review Should Include Science Communication

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by Sarah Boon (Science Borealis Management Team) & Pascal Lapointe (Agence Science-Presse)

What would happen to Canadian science and science culture if federal research funding included support for science communication? It’s not that far-fetched an idea.

In the US, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has a ‘broader impacts’ component that requires scientists applying for research grants to outline how they’ll contribute to improved public scientific literacy, engage the public with science and technology, increase diversity in science, and more. In Canada, science communicators in Québec have been considering how to have the provincial government support science communication since early 2015.

On 13 June 2016, Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s Minister of Science, announced a far-reaching review of federal funding for fundamental science. The review committee has indicated that they’ll be examining everything from funding access for early career researchers to the role of government versus industry in Canadian science.

Missing from the committee’s mandate is the role of federal funding in science communication and outreach.

One thing that appears to be missing from the committee’s mandate is the role of federal funding in science communication and outreach.

Currently, the main federal funding vehicle for science outreach is the National Science and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) PromoScience program, which started in 2000. In the last five years, they’ve awarded a total of $16.7 million to Canadian non-profits, institutions, and non-federal science museums: ~$3.3 million per year. While the recipients of these awards have done tremendous work, it remains a relatively small pool of money (0.1%) compared with the $3 billion in research funding that will be awarded this year alone to Canadian researchers and their labs. PromoScience funding is primarily aimed at hands-on outreach programs that work directly with students, or large science fairs like Beakerhead. Science journalism and digital science communication programs are generally not funded.

Individual scientists are also not generally funded via PromoScience, even though scientists are increasingly aware that sharing and promoting their research is a critical process that pays dividends through increased funding, engaging citizen scientists and the public, initiating new collaborative research, and contributing to science policy. Unfortunately, there are few resources for scientists who want to communicate to a non-expert audience. While many do so out of personal interest, the professional payoff is limited. Outreach activities are rarely counted toward tenure and promotion in the university system, and are often frowned upon as indicating a lack of seriousness about science.

In 2015, Québec science writer Valérie Borde suggested that science communication could be supported by setting aside a percentage of government income from private sector science and technology taxes. These funds would be used to finance science communication initiatives and promote science culture. She argued that raising sufficient funds for such a program would essentially require collecting only 50 cents per year from each Québec citizen.

Borde’s proposition came at a troubling time in Québec: only two weeks prior (December 2014), the Québec government had announced they were cancelling their funding for science culture, putting the monthly Québec Science magazine and Agence Science-Presse in the crosshairs, and weakening several other science communication organizations. While the cuts were cancelled following massive protests, they illustrated the fragility of the Québec science communication ecosystem, and emphasized the importance of dedicated funding to support a robust science culture.

A good example of federal government support for science communication is New Zealand’s strategic plan, A Nation of Curious Minds, launched by their Chief Scientist in 2014 as a blueprint for New Zealand science up to 2024. This report explicitly pushes for science-based organizations—such as education, universities, and the private sector—to engage with the public, but also singles out the importance of the media, museums, and individual scientists doing science communication.

Consider how much science communication work could be done with 3% (compared to the current 0.1%) of a Canadian research budget.

Last month, Swedish communications consultant Olle Bergman suggested that 3% of research funds be used for external science communication. Consider how much science communication work could be done with 3% (compared to the current 0.1%) of a Canadian research budget. As with the NSF model, funds could be provided as a component of a research grant, with the stipulation that researchers outline their outreach plans in their proposals and budget appropriately for them.

Funds could also continue to be distributed via PromoScience, but to a broader range of users and with a larger budget. This money could be used to hire a Canadian science journalist (or several freelancers for small media outlets), to create a museum exhibit, to support digital initiatives, and much more.

With both approaches, funds could be provided over a longer term (e.g., five years, similar to an NSERC Discovery Grant), which would solve the problems of continuity and legacy programs. For example, while one person on a 6-month science communication contract can do some good work, investing in several people to do full-time science communication over a period of several years would allow these communicators not only to build their own expertise, but to train others in science communication, and contribute to building a Canadian science culture.

Why has there been so little federal or provincial support for science communication? It’s relatively easy to convince governments and the private sector to promote science careers, as they’re considered vital for our economy and future. However, promoting science culture or science communication doesn’t have as definitive a result. What’s the payoff of having citizens who are more curious about and engaged with science? It’s not easy to represent such an outcome in quantifiable terms (e.g., cost benefit analysis).

Another problem lies in convincing universities and/or scientific institutions to spend money on science communication or science journalism, rather than using this money either for research or for their own advertising.

NSERC’s latest strategic plan placed heavy emphasis on science outreach and communication, under its first strategic goal of “fostering a science culture in Canada.” To deliver on this promise, NSERC will have to increase its investment in outreach programs—and broaden its definition of science outreach to include individual scientists and research programs, science journalists, and digital ventures such as Science Borealis.

The more a society talks about science, the more visibility is afforded to those who do science.

The more a society talks about science, the more visibility is afforded to those who do science. This federal science funding review is the perfect time to incorporate science communication into Canada’s science funding ecosystem and start enhancing Canada’s science culture from the ground up.

Note: Header image by Geralt (public domain).

Correction (2016/07/12): The previous version had the incorrect inception date for NSERC PromoScience grants. The program began in 2000, not 2011.

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