A Beginner’s Guide to Science Communication Opportunities in Canada
This guide includes training opportunities, as well as outreach, public speaking, writing, journalism and social media initiatives to get involved with
Today, there is a growing number of science communication opportunities, where individuals can learn, practice and be paid while making science accessible to a general audience. This is a beginner’s guide to science communication opportunities in Canada, which includes outreach, public speaking, writing, journalism and social media initiatives.
Disclaimer: In the past, I have taken part in some of the listed opportunities (e.g. I was a two-time Features editor at The Medium). I have no financial interests in these initiatives (unless marked with an asterisk or stated in the text) — I simply have an interest to foster and support the next generation of science communicators.
It should also be noted that this is not the first list of opportunities and it is certainly not the most complete. But it’s a good place to start!
What training opportunities are there?
There are many short, intensive crash courses dedicated to teaching the fundamentals of science communication. This includes:
- The University of Toronto’s annual three-day-long Introduction To Science Journalism course (taught by Globe & Mail writer Ivan Semeniuk);
- Concordia University’s Projected Futures course where graduate students learn about different forms of scientific storytelling (including radio, podcasting and writing);
- The annual Communicating Science (ComSciCon) series, which has now reached Canada (ComSciConCan) too, with local affiliates in the GTA, Quebec and West regions in 2020;
- Banff’s immersive, but costly, Beakerhead Science Communicator program;
- There are also online courses to turn to such as the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ Visual Journalism course and the World Federation of Science Journalist’s online course in science journalism.
To develop as a public speaker, you can likely turn to your university’s career centre for improv and communication skills workshops, and then practice through course presentations, departmental seminars and even Three Minute Thesis competitions.
Attending conferences, such as the one hosted annually by the Science Writers & Communicators of Canada, is a good way to supplement your training, learn about new science communication practices and meet fellow communicators. The inaugural SciCommTO conference was held in late February 2020, which was dedicated to both beginner and experienced science communicators in the GTA region. You should also consider attending the National Association of Science Writers’ (NASW) annual conference, where they offer a variety of travel fellowships, career grants and diversity fellowships to support science writers.
While you do not need a degree to practice science communication, there are courses, programs and fellowships you can pursue for further training and to ensure your science communication practices are evidence-informed:
- At an undergraduate level, certain Canadian universities offer science communication courses, such as the Simon Fraser University, Guelph University, Queen’s University, Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, and McGill University. It’s not all theoretical courses — you can also make science accessible using art (dubbed as “Sci-Art”) in courses such as Concordia University’s Convergence―Perceptions of Neuroscience (open to both undergraduate and graduate students).
- You can also pursue a master’s degree or a graduate diploma in Science Communication at Laurentian University.
- For those with a Master’s degree or a higher qualification, the University of Toronto’s Munk School offers a global journalism fellowship (and a certificate in health impact), which is a chance to use your academic expertise to engage in more effective science journalism.
- Lastly, structured mentorship programs are also an approach to consider when seeking career advice or to learn critical skills. For example, you can learn about the practice and field of scientific editing via mentorship programs at organizations like the Council of Science Editors and the Society for Scholarly Publishing.
In addition, you can turn to published books to develop as a science communicator, where notable mentions go to: The Science Writer’s Handbook, Science Blogging: The Essential Guide and Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.
Online platforms such as The Open Notebook, the World Federation of Science Journalists, SCOPE (Science Communication Online Programme), and Anthony Lewis’ Communicating Science with Social Media are open resources (amongst many) to turn to learn more. Of note, The Open Notebook has a Pitch Database, a Getting Started in Science Journalism series, and published a book, titled The Craft of Science Writing, which is indeed a great read.
It should also be noted that while science communication is a practice, there is also science behind the art of science communication, so you can turn to peer-reviewed evidence in journals, such as JCOM, for best practices.
Unfortunately, as the science communication field is still slowly developing today, most training opportunities are aimed only at graduate students. Occasionally, university professors or student groups may organize science communication workshops by recruiting external speakers and groups, such as TellPeople or one of Science Borealis’ programs, but this remains a random occurrence. This means that for undergraduate students, the best way to learn is often through practice.
Where can I actively practice as a science communicator?
For a public speaking approach to science communication, you can turn to various initiatives to share your expertise or experiences in an engaging manner. Consider reaching out to:
- International initiatives with a Canadian chapter or presence, such as Soapbox Science, Pint Of Science, The Story Collider* (in Toronto and Vancouver), and even TEDx talks.
- Canada-specific initiatives, such as Science Slam Canada, and some which are more specific to cities, such as the annual Metamorphosis Girls STEM Conference** in Toronto.
- Virtual opportunities, including Exploring By The Seat Of Your Pants, and Skype A Scientist.
Such science communication talks are not formal lectures, but instead encourage the use of a personal touch and innovative formats, such as comedy, using props, PowerPoint Karaoke or the form of a story.
To get involved in science outreach and education, there are an endless number of groups you can volunteer with including:
- Broader initiatives such as Let’s Talk Science, Actua, IndigeSTEAM, Ryerson University’s SciXchange, Letters to a Pre-Scientist, and Canada Learning Code.
- Local science centres, parks and conservation areas (e.g. the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Igenium).
- There are also initiatives focused on addressing gender and racial inequity, such as the Canadian Association for Girls in Science, Girls E-Mentorship, and Visions of Science Network for Learning.
Outreach initiatives tend to provide training, and have different levels of commitment (e.g. a one-off event, as well as short and long-term opportunities). You can also volunteer during key weeks, such as the annual Science Rendezvous in May or Science Literacy Week in September, which are exciting times to build science communication experience as you engage with numerous youth and members of the general public.
For science writing and journalism, you may have to turn to unpaid platforms at first to build a portfolio and develop your writing skills. This can include:
- Writing science-related articles for your campus newspaper (such as The Varsity’s science section and The Medium) or interning at local newspapers, where you can cover pressing issues or recent findings in the local scientific community.
- Other unpaid writing platforms include Science Borealis, the EEB Quarterly, Sister, and blogs hosted by organizations such as the Royal Canadian Institute for Science, and Evidence for Democracy.
- If you’d prefer a more academic (but still unpaid) approach, you can turn to pitching pieces to The Conversation (where you must be a current academic or be a supervised PhD student).
- You can also get involved with a student-run academic journal (such as the University of Toronto’s Medical Journal or the Canadian Journal of Undergraduate Research), where roles range from being an author, editor, copy-editor to the editor-in-chief.
There is a caveat to many of the opportunities listed above. Many are unpaid, or at best, offer small honorariums. This unfortunately is a widespread problem right now, where a lot of science communication opportunities are unpaid due to a lack of funding or are marketed as valuable under the guise of ‘building experience’.
While systemic change is needed to properly support science communication initiatives and science communicators, I highly encourage you to pursue paid opportunities where possible. This can include:
- Pitching your pieces to paid writing platforms — especially those friendly to beginners and/or scientists (such as Massive Science and Lateral Magazine); [Note: I was previously employed as an assistant editor at Massive Science.]
- Applying for paid science writing internships (such as The Open Notebook’s Fellowship and Ensia’s Mentor program for environmental communicators) or internships at local outlets (such as the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, The Narwhal’s Indigenous Journalism Fellowship, and CBC’s News or Radio & Audio internships, including the science-themed Quirks & Quarks program);
- Asking for honorariums to cover your expenses with a project where possible (this is often difficult to ask — so here’s an excellent guide on how to get paid what you’re worth and a reminder on why you should advocate for yourself);
- Applying for roles related to science communication;
- Using social media to keep an eye out for jobs in this field, such as Twitter (e.g. @SciCommTO — and I regularly tweet out opportunities too) or this closed Science Communication Jobs Facebook group.
But beyond learning and pursuing already present opportunities, there is also a third option.
Forge your own science communication path
Despite the many opportunities available, you can also forge your own path in this field. This can involve being a freelance science writer (i.e. pitching to different outlets), combining your passions with science into a viable online business (such as crocheting your PhD), leading campaigns to push for gender equality (such as getting Inferior into schools across Canada), launching a podcast (e.g. Broad Science), trying innovative formats (such as Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons) or utilizing your social media platforms (like @science.sam) to share what excites you in science.
In fact, you may find inspiration for your unique path in:
- Science Borealis’ visual Reflections: 100 Voices for Canadian Science Communication.
- You can also check out this map of science communicators in Canada, and read more in their accompanying publication to survey Anglophone science communication actors and networks.
- If you’d like to learn about the history of science communication in Canada, check out Alan Shapiro’s piece.
- Consider joining the SciComm Network Slack (open to all, but with many Canadians present) to meet with more members of the science communication community;
- Lastly, in 2014, the Council of Canadian Academies conducted an in-depth, independent assessment to investigate the state of Canada’s science culture.
The question of funding is an important one, so let’s tackle it head-on. Many individuals fund their science communication practices as a ‘side-hustle’ in addition to their primary role (which is often being a student). This unfortunately affects who can be a science communicator.
But there are (limited) options available to support your science communication initiatives.
- If you have a science communication initiative aimed at fostering a passion for science in marginalized individuals, then the NSERC Student Ambassador Grant ($1,000) is a good avenue to apply to.
- If your organization is a registered non-profit, then you are also eligible for greater funding via the annual NSERC PromoScience grant competition. If you’re planning an initiative which involves health research, CIHR’s Planning & Dissemination Grants may be the right fit for you.
- If you are a Canadian registered non-profit organization, postsecondary institution or a non-federal museum or science centre, then you can apply for an NSERC Science Communication pilot grant (up to $20,000 for one year) to provide science communication skills training to students, fellows, and faculty in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from Canadian postsecondary institutions.
- Often, micro-grants or grant competitions pop up online which you can apply to in order to support such initiatives, such as the Aviva Community Fund.
- If you’re currently a student, then registering your initiative as a university student group ensures your eligibility for internal student group grants (such as the University of Toronto’s Student Initiative Fund).
- If all else fails, don’t hesitate to ask for support from fellow science communicators, organizations or university departments whose mandate may overlap with your initiative. In my experience, it doesn’t hurt to ask — and if you pitch your initiative right (and early), you’re likely to get a yes.
In short, there is no single approach to go about science communication in Canada — the best way to get started is to simply dive in headfirst and begin. This guide includes the many opportunities that are already present in Canada to learn, practice and be paid while making science accessible to a general audience, but there’s much more out there (within and beyond Canada) — and there’s room for your unique take on science communication too.
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This Medium post was inspired by a conversation with the Varsity’s former Science Editor (Vindhya Kolluru), with formatting inspired by Erin Winnick’s 2017 list of science communication internships in the U.S. and Europe.
This Medium post was last updated on 14th May 2020. If you’d like to suggest an opportunity, let me know and I’ll add it in! P.S. I am happy to see this re-published for free on other platforms, but please contact me for permission first.
*I have previously participated in a Story Collider talk in Toronto, and received a speaking honorarium.
**I have previously spoken at a Metamorphosis Girls in STEM Conference, and received a speaking honorarium.
Other good reads include:
- Sarah Boon’s Science Blogging 101 and ALL the questions: Notes to a young scientist writer.