Looking Back: A Decade of Canadian Science Communication
It was 2008. I was wrapping up high school and interested in psychology, neuroscience, geography, ecology, and any other discipline that promised words longer than three syllables. Once a week, I volunteered at TELUS World of Science Edmonton, touring galleries and occasionally taking their Segway (still a hot new trend in 2008) out for a spin.
That spring, I caught a talk (“How to Turn Yourself into a Fossil”) by two Scientific American editors — John Rennie and Steve Mirsky. Afterwards I asked them how to build a career in science communication. They told me there was no set path, but my best bet was to get an undergraduate degree in science, a Master’s degree in journalism, and then a writing job at a newspaper or science magazine.
At the time, ‘science communication’ (SciComm) was just a glimmer of a phrase in much of Canada, and even less defined as a career path. Jay Ingram and Ziya Tong hosted the Daily Planet on Discovery Channel Canada, Bob McDonald hosted Quirks & Quarks on CBC radio, and a community of science journalists wrote for large newspapers such as The Globe and Mail. In Québec, the term was more established, with the ACS (Association des Communicateurs Scientifiques du Québec) serving as the umbrella organization.
Fast forward to 2020, and the landscape of science communication in Canada is vastly different. In Vancouver alone, a night out for a science nerd might include an ‘after dark’ tour at Science World or H.R. MacMillan Space Centre; a bar scene science event such as Nerd Nite, Science Slam, or Café Scientifique; or a science art (SciArt) show hosted by Curiosity Collider.
For an undergraduate student exploring science communication as a career, many universities now offer courses in science communication. Conferences such as the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Conference, the ACS Congress, and the Canadian Science Policy Conference offer forums for science communicators to meet and exchange ideas. And from the comfort of your own home, you can follow the adventures of scientists and science communicators alike on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, or through your favourite podcast.
When I posted on Twitter that I was working on a ‘decade in review’ article, the response was overwhelming — evidence itself of the science communication community that has grown in Canada. Drawing on the generous contributions of the Twitter #SciComm community and my own personal experience, here are some of the major themes and milestones in the evolution of science communication in Canada over the past ten years.
New Platforms and Tools
New platforms have contributed immensely to the growth of science communication in the past decade. Whereas science communication in Canada was previously limited to print media and occasional appearances in TV, radio, and film, the internet enabled entirely new avenues of communication, from social media to blogs and everything in between. Podcasts have similarly opened up new frontiers in the audio space.
Social media in particular has removed barriers for science communicators to create and share content, and opened up opportunities to reach a wide range of new audiences. Communities have sprung up around science communication on Twitter and Instagram, connecting science communicators across the country and enabling collaborations across sectors and disciplines. Social media has also allowed content to ‘go viral’ in a way that traditional media never had.
Alongside these new platforms, new tools have broadened the range and accessibility of content. Infographics and animations have emerged as feasible alternatives to static diagrams and graphs, and user-friendly software now makes it possible for non-designers to create and edit visual media. Smartphones with high quality cameras offer a way for emerging communicators to record videos more simply than ever before.
As new platforms and tools have emerged, the demographics of science communication practitioners have also changed. While the number of full-time science journalists in Canada has decreased in the past decade, the mantle has been taken up by science communicators on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and a mix of other platforms. Much of this ‘new wave’ of science communication has been spearheaded by graduate students at universities across Canada, who have taken on leadership roles in science education, outreach, and advocacy organizations and initiatives.
Alongside this shift, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) have become more prominent driving values within the science communication community, and within the research community more broadly. Ada Lovelace Day is just one example, which aims to raise awareness of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Science in Canada is now represented by a much greater diversity of voices, thanks to the tireless efforts of advocates across the country.
Science communication in Canada has also been enriched by creative collaborations with other disciplines. The evolution of SciArt in Canada over the past decade is a wonderful example of a new community created in this way. Although the term SciArt lacks a formal definition, it generally refers to artwork incorporating elements of science. SciArt has taken many forms and appeared in many places across Canada.
From technology and art festivals (Beakerhead, founded in 2013) to artist residencies in science labs (Art the Science, founded in 2015), SciArt pub events (Curiosity Collider, founded in 2015), and art and neuroscience workshops (Convergence, founded in 2016), SciArt has played a key role in enabling artists, scientists, and the public to experience science through creativity.
Canada has a rich history of public outreach through science centres, museums, and universities. Traditionally, science outreach was conducted by and at large institutions, creating an element of distance between science and everyday life. Key successes included engaging children and youth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), supported by national organizations such as Actua and Let’s Talk Science.
“During the latter part of the 20th century, science communication in Canada focused on informing the public, promoting scientific careers to support economic development, and increasing science literacy in the Canadian population. More recently, Canadian science communication has focused on public engagement, knowledge co-creation, and a ‘science in culture’ — or thinking about how society talks about science.”
— Riedlinger et al. (2019)
The past decade has seen science move into the community in a bid to reach broader audiences and lessen the disconnect between science and the public. Community events such as Science Slam, Pint of Science, Soapbox Science, Nerd Nite, BistroBrain, Freestyle Social, and others now take place in cafes, pubs, theatres, and on street corners across the country.
Together with festivals such as Calgary’s Beakerhead and the cross-Canada Science Literacy Week and Science Odyssey, these events blend science, culture, and entertainment in new and exciting ways.
While science communication is not yet a core part of post-secondary science curriculums, training opportunities have taken off in the past decade. Laurentian University is perhaps the most notable Canadian success story, launching Canada’s first Master’s in Science Communication degree in 2017. Université Laval offers a graduate microprogram in Science Communication and Journalism, and many universities and colleges from coast to coast to coast now offer courses in science communication in one form or another.
“When I was in grad school 10–12 years ago my personal experience was that I was a canary in a coal mine. When I spoke about seeking ways to connect science with people who could use it I was shunned and told that I must not be a good scientist if I had such interests… Fast forward 10–12 years, now I see ‘Science Communicator’ in the tagline of a large number of graduate students… I think it’s now quite common for grad students to see the value of science communication and to speak about it in a positive light.”
— Matthew Pyper, Co-Founder, Fuse Consulting
Opportunities outside post-secondary institutions, while more limited, have also taken off. The Banff Science Communications Program, first founded in 2005, now runs science communication training workshops under the banner of Beakerhead. Similar programs are offered through the Science Media Centre, as well as through a national network of independent trainers. The newest arrival to the scene, ComSciCon, is an annual national science communication workshop aimed at graduate students.
A single blog post can’t do justice to the past decade of science communication in Canada. There’s easily enough material to fill a book. We could spend hours exploring the evolution of research funding, knowledge translation, science policy, or any number of other factors that impact the SciComm ecosystem.
And while the successes of science communication in the past decade are plain to see, it’s important to note that many barriers still exist. From lack of funding for adult focused initiatives to the rise of misinformation on social media to institutional barriers to science communication in universities and research organizations.
When Nikki Berreth and I ran our first Science Slam in 2016, we booked a community coffee shop space, lined up a handful of speakers, and waited to see if we’d have an audience. The idea resonated with audiences, and four years later, Science Slam Canada has hosted dozens of events in cafes, pubs, conference rooms, and theatres from Vancouver to Halifax.
In those four years, other initiatives have come and gone, and the science communication community continues to flourish with each passing day. Just a few weeks ago, I learned about Toronto’s Science is a Drag event, which challenges stereotypes of science through drag performances and interactive science presentations.
SciComm community, it’s been a slice. Time to see where another decade takes us.
A special thank you to Alexandra Gellé, Dawn Bazely, Dorina Simeonov, and Matthew Pyper for providing their insights, as well as to everyone who shared their thoughts and ideas on Twitter (you can find the original Twitter thread here). And a huge shout-out to Julia Krolik for the beautiful illustrations!
A beginner’s guide to science communication opportunities in Canada — Farah Qaiser
Canadian science needs more than funding: It needs public champions — Sarah Boon
Mapping the new landscape of science communication in Canada — Juan Pablo Alperin et al.
Reflecting on science communication and history — Dawn Bazely
Reflections: 100 voices for Canadian science communication — Science Borealis
Science culture: Where Canada stands — Council of Canadian Academies
The landscape of science communication in contemporary Canada — Michelle Riedlinger, Germana Barata, and Alexandre Schiele