Increase science communication

Question:How do we make best use of our science and research strengths?
on 09/07/2016

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Canada has the opportunity to greatly increase science communication, by adopting and extending existing successful models.  In particular we can look to the Perimeter Institute and BBC Radio 4 as outreach models.  Gresham College in London UK also provides an additional model to consider.  There are also many other outreach efforts from learned societies that could be models, such as the UK Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on science.

The Perimeter Institute has outreach to the general public through a lecture series and special events.  https://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/outreach/general-public

This is a model that every government-funded science institution should follow.  This means:

  • all existing government-funded science institutions should be retrofitted with lecture halls if they do not already have them, equipped with webcasting technology
  • all new government-funded science institutions should have one or more lecture halls, equipped with webcasting technology
  • in order to enable easy public access as well as attract new knowledge workers, all new government-funded science institutions should be centrally located in downtown cores, with excellent pedestrian, cycling and transit access
  • also consider co-locating new government-funded science institutions with universities, in cases where those universities are already centrally-located downtown
  • also consider partnering with universities for lectures, in cases where those universities are already centrally-located downtown
  • every government-funded science institution should have a public lecture series, with in-person and webcast options
  • the government should partner with Canadian media outlets to ensure the widest possible distribution of the science lectures, in particular special science events
  • the government should leverage CBC Radio and CBC Podcasts as a key distribution mechanism

The Perimeter Institute is a key model to build upon for this kind of science communication.  NRC would be a logical next science organisation to implement this model.

Beyond just institution-centric communication, the government should look to BBC Radio 4 as a model of nation-wide science communication.  Canada, with a population of approximately 35 million people, has two main national radio science programmes (Quirks & Quarks and Les années lumière) and two main national TV science programmes (The Nature of Things and Découverte).  I am only aware of one radio programme about technology (CBC Spark).  The UK, with a population of 64 million, has literally dozens of public radio programmes on various areas of the natural and social sciences, and over the course of the years, has accumulated hundreds of such programmes with thousands of episodes available online.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/programmes/genres/factual/scienceandnature/all  Sometimes I only find out about Canadian-born scientists when they are profiled on The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015sqc7 - where is Canada's equivalent radio programme?  (I would focus on radio programming due to its broad reach and low cost; television is much more expensive to produce.)

The government should set a Canadian target to match and exceed the natural and social sciences content available on BBC Radio 4 by 2020, by creating new CBC radio programmes (and perhaps consider a partnership between CBC Radio and BBC Radio 4 on such content).

An additional model to consider is Gresham College, a college that exists entirely to provide free public lectures.  University professors join Gresham on temporary professorships, spending their time there lecturing on their topics of expertise.  http://www.gresham.ac.uk/  All lectures are recorded and webcast.  Could this model be adapted for Canada, with dedicated one-year lectureship positions made available?

Lastly, on a smaller but also highly impactful scale, UK learned societies have lecture series, such as the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures started by Michael Faraday http://www.rigb.org/christmas-lectures  Accordingly, the government should call on Canadian learned societies to start such lecture series, and provide financial and communications support, including CBC broadcasting of the events on radio.

As you can see, models of science communication exist.  Canada should build upon these models to become a leader in science communication.  Ideally every city in Canada would be a hub of public science lectures, augmented by webcasts, radio broadcasts, podcasts, and additional specialised radio science programmes.

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