Communicating Canadian Science to the Public


I feel very privileged about how my career in science communication has developed. It has required a combination of keenness, determination, good mentors, and plain dumb luck.

I entered university as a jock interested in the physical world around me. Quickly I became attracted to earth science, not so much for rocks and minerals, but because of earth science's relevance to daily life and the environment. I was fortunate to land summer jobs and conduct B.Sc. thesis research with the Ontario Geological Survey. That is when I met my first real mentor, Peter Barnett, and became fascinated with glaciers and the impact they have had on the Canadian landscape. After my undergraduate degree I headed to the University of Victoria for a master's degree. This time I worked on a mapping project with another mentor, Vic Levson, who was with the British Columbia Geological Survey.

Before I knew it, I had spent 6 years of my life studying glacial geology and working as a field geologist. I had spent field seasons just north of Toronto and in the wilds of British Columbia. But the intent of this article is not to bore you with details about my life history. Instead I would like to focus on how my science background opened the doors to a rewarding career in science-based communication. Let me explain. ...

I have always enjoyed working with people. During graduate school I taught some labs and became active in a national organisation called EdGEO, which develops earth science workshops for teachers. These experiences opened my eyes to the importance of effectively transferring science knowledge to the public. I also became aware that communicating innovative federal government science, in engaging ways, to the Canadian public was not a common practice. It occurred to me that this state of affairs could be related to decreases in research funding: If the public cannot see the value of government research, then politicians will not fund it. I saw a real need for enhanced science communication and was eager to apply for a job!

However, finding a science communication position within the federal government is not easy. Now, don't get me wrong; there are many communication jobs in government. But few of these positions focus on communicating the world-class science that government does. So without any idea of where to look, I relied on the advice of a contact I'd met through EdGEO. As the science program officer in the office where I now work, she was aware of opportunities that most people weren't. She was able to connect me with the right people, and the rest is history. I scored a 3-month contract working in science communication with the Earth Science Sector of Natural Resources Canada. One 3-month contract turned into another, and then I received a 1-year position (which has just been extended).

The scientific research conducted at the institute where I work is diverse and exciting. The research activities are in fields such as earthquake seismology, marine geoscience, geophysics, crustal deformation (geodynamics), and gas hydrates. I began by updating fact sheets (most of which are still in progress!) but soon became involved in two more ambitious initiatives, which I will describe below.

Science in the Centres

Soon after I started working for Natural Resources Canada, we received funding for a new project called Science in the Centres. Because most of the other project participants had other responsibilities, I was in the right place at the right time and became one of the project leaders. Science in the Centres began in 2001, and its main objective is to communicate to the public the world-class science that Natural Resources Canada does. It also strives to develop engaging and interactive science experiences that encourage youth to pursue careers in science. The program has been extremely well received to date and is poised for future successes.

I believe Science in the Centres has been successful because of three major factors: 1) project leaders (myself and my third mentor, a forester named Keith Brown) who are scientists with good communication skills, 2) a partnership with the Canadian Association of Science Centres, and 3) internal collaboration among different sectors within NRCan. This last point is an important one: Science in the Centres would have had limited success if it focused strictly on one facet of natural resource science (for example, forestry or earth science).

The partnership with the Canadian Association of Science Centres has also been invaluable. The association consists of over 30 member institutions whose yearly attendance is about 7 million people. This is greater than the attendance at all professional sporting events in Canada! By working with science centres, Natural Resources Canada is able to provide content that the science centres can transform into a wide variety of interactive experiences. These include an interactive computer interface called the Canada Rover, a borehole camera that can be used to see 30 metres underground, a hydrogen fuel cell school program, and a 45-90 square metre travelling climate change exhibit. The Canada Rover interface uses digital visualisation and computer interactives that allow the user to explore Canada and its science. The travelling climate change exhibit engages the public with multidisciplinary science and is available to communities throughout Canada. It will open in Sudbury, Ontario, in early June, and visits to places such as Ottawa and Nunavut are already planned.

The future of the Science in the Centres initiative looks very promising. A concept document for a new travelling science exhibit on Canada, called "The Great Canadian Science Adventure," has been produced. The exhibit will be 460 square metres, but it will be modular so that components can be pulled out and used in smaller facilities. It will likely consist of science not only from Natural Resources Canada but from other federal departments as well.

Transferring Science Knowledge to Municipalities

Another communications project where my science background is important involves researching how vulnerable Canadian municipalities are to climate change in order to determine appropriate adaptation and mitigation strategies. A limited number of case studies that address some of the climate change issues facing Canada (such as water resource depletion, coastal erosion, and permafrost) are under way. The hoped-for outcome is that municipalities will incorporate the scientific results into their planning processes.

Accomplishing this will require direct involvement of municipal planners and stakeholders in the individual case studies, as well as a communication program aimed at the Canadian Institute of Planners and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. My role is to help communicate science results to a variety of stakeholders and communities. At one level this involves newsletters, open houses, workshops, and so on. However, another aspect focuses on developing innovative technologies and strategies to help diverse parties use scientific information in municipal planning. There is definitely a lot to look forward to.

My transition from a field geologist to a science communicator has been a very enjoyable one. I feel very fortunate to be working, sometimes as one of the leaders, on innovative, science-based communication projects. Based on the positive feedback and support that projects such as Science in the Centres have generated, there seems to be a real need for more such programs. Nonetheless, permanent jobs in this field are not plentiful (I am on my second 1-year contract) and are sometimes viewed as a drain on potential research resources. With that said, I would never discourage someone from pursuing such work. Sometimes the best opportunities occur in places you least expect.

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