Earlier this week, Margaret Munro from the Postmedia Network reported that one of Canada’s recent superstar hires – a Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in diabetes research from the UK – is ditching the program and heading back home. I have to admit I cheered as I read this. Not because he was leaving, but because it exposes the cracks in the foundation of the whole CERC program. The bigger problem, though – and one I’m not cheering for – is that it also reveals cracks in the foundation of Canadian science culture as a whole that may be more difficult to address in the absence of combined political, institutional and individual will.
A brief background on the CERC program. Back in 2010, the government hired 19 ‘superstar’ scientists into prestigious research chair positions at Canadian universities. The controversy? All were male. None were Canadian. Most were well into their careers – i.e., not fresh young minds but closer-to-retirement minds. And each was awarded up to $10 million over a 7 year period. Many universities made deals with their provincial governments as well, to sweeten the pot by several million dollars for the duration of each chairship.
While everyone was gushing over what an opportunity this was for us, my thought was that it was just an extra hard kick in the teeth for the Canadian science community. The public face of the CERC program suggested that if you were a woman and/or a Canadian, you weren’t a top scientist. In response to the critics, the government stated that there just weren’t many female candidates put forward, and those that had been had declined. No need to go in detail to refute that argument, as I’m sure you can all figure out WHY so few female candidates had been put forward, and have heard enough about women’s CHOICES in declining such positions.
As for nationality? The government thought that we needed to recruit the top talent worldwide, and that would kickstart innovation in Canada. Right. Particularly when that same government has been cutting science all across Canada, at universities and in the public sector (see my previous post summarizing these cuts). The best part? The government just announced that they’ll be funding 11 more CERCs. This after their latest budget cutting and slashing of research programs like the Experimental Lakes Area and the air & ocean pollution monitoring arms of Environment Canada, plus reducing opportunities via NSERC’s Research Tools & Instruments program, which is meant to fund Canadian scientists.
What was particularly troubling in Munro’s article was the tacit acceptance that CERCs shouldn’t be required to spend much time in Canada. A geomicrobiology CERC at the University of Manitoba, for example, spends 2/3 of his time out of country. As outlined in Munro’s article, Rorsman, who left UofA to go back to the UK, couldn’t understand why the University couldn’t arrange for him to spend 3/4 of his time in the UK. He thought he could easily communicate via email and Skype, and have other people run his research group.
Both CERCs seem to forget that they were the ones who were hired, and are thus expected to do the work and earn the salary. Besides, how many scientific breakthroughs have you heard of that happened on Skype? More often they pop up during coffee break, or in the pub when you’re having a quick drink before heading home for the evening. People relax and talk about all the ideas they might not bring up in formal meetings and conversations. The true science happens when people interact casually, face-to-face. Not when they set a Skype date to rush through a list of priorities and sub-priority topics.
One other thing caught my attention in Rorsma’s statement. Somewhat condescendingly, he commented that “A lot of the people I would be interested in recruiting from other places… would hesitate to move to Edmonton. So basically you are left with people who are local and maybe from surrounding areas, which is not bad but it’s good to have some influx of talent from other places as well.” Reading between the lines: Edmonton has a crap climate and no one even reasonably scientifically talented would want to live there, thus all he has to work with is sub-par scientific talent from the region. Woe is Rorsman!
Why is climate quoted as a factor, and from what does the perception of sub-par researchers arise? The climate is far more dismal somewhere like Swansea, in Wales, where it’s generally rainy and windy. But researchers have no problem going there. Here in Canada we have excellent science expertise, but it’s underfunded (see my previous post comparing us to the US). On top of that, our country is vast and has a low population density. To create an international image of our nation as scientifically strong, we have to work together to develop national networks that illustrate that ability and excellence. This means that everyone – homegrown ‘superstars’ (i.e., not CERC imports) and ‘regular’ researchers alike, needs to make common cause, committing to overcome our geographic distance to find ways to connect – and promote – more regularly and more broadly.
It also means we have to improve our science communication infrastructure. We need a finely oiled machine that spreads the message of stellar Canadian science internationally. Think about it. How many science-related TV or radio shows do we have? One: Bob MacDonald’s excellent ‘Quirks & Quarks’. But it’s on CBC – and many people don’t listen to CBC because they mistakenly think it’s just for eggheads. How many popular science magazines do we have? None. What about high profile science journalists? Right now I can think of Margaret Munro and Ed Struzik as great examples of keen journalists who keep their science reporting interesting and matter of fact, never giving in to sensationalism. But who else is out there of that calibre? Note: I forgot to mention Jay Ingram in my original post – he had a Discovery Channel show and is very active in the Banff Science Communications Workshop. What about Canadian science bloggers? We don’t have an Ed Yong or an Andy Revkin. We have a loose network of bloggers who don’t even know each other, let alone a network.
What do we have? Well, the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC) is one* (see added note below). Thing is, I stumbled on it quite by accident relatively recently, although it looks like they were formed in 2009. They haven’t had a newsletter since December 2011, and their website shows no events planned anywhere in Canada at least until February of 2013. They only have four staff members, all of whom are based on Ontario. We also have NSERC, which has a media office to keep track of research they fund and provides regular press releases and updates on those projects (although there’s definitely a government bias involved). Finally, we have the Canadian Science Writer’s Association (CSWA), whose mission is ‘to cultivate excellence in science writing and science journalism’, and whose goal is ‘to increase public awareness of science in Canadian culture’. Great – that sounds like exactly what we need.
If these three organizations could get together and take the lead in promoting science nationally – from coast to coast to coast, they could then pull together the (not well known) network of Canadian science bloggers and hook into the blogoverse. Make sure Quirks & Quarks is on board, and bring in some of these top science journalists. This would create a buzz about the innovations going on in our ‘cold’ country, and about the fun to be had in talking about them and reporting on them. Which could spawn a new popular science publication, or website, or radio show – something to engage Canadians, and then also show the world we can do this.
If this is something you’re interested in, Marie-Claire Shanahan over at the Boundary Vision blog, and Colin Schultz over at CMBR blog are running a session at ScienceOnline2013 (#scio13) on ‘Communicating Science Where There is No Science Communication’. It’s all about our unique situation in Canada, and the need to improve our science communication strategy.
So if you’re a Canadian scientist, science journalist or blogger, or just a Canadian interested in science – think about how you can engage others and communicate to everyone what great work we do and why people like to work here. And maybe one day (soon) we’ll convince the government to invest in our own science capacity again, instead of bringing in a cast of ‘superstar’ migrant workers. 🙂
*Note: I was apparently too hard on the SMCC, basing my comments on their web events calendar and newsletter list. Penny Park, the Director of SMCC, helpfully corrected some of my comments above. “We are a non-profit charity set up to help journalists cover science. We offer a variety of services including one-on-one help for journalists (on their time-line) looking for Canadian expertise and research in all areas of science including the natural and physical sciences, engineering, health and even some of the social sciences. We opened our doors about 2 years ago and have at this point sent out weekly alerts on over 5000 science stories. We have held 20 webinars (on-line briefings) on everything from adaptation to climate change (before the IPY conference last spring) to the Royal Society of Canada report on Early Childhood Development (last week). We have two webinars coming up in the next few weeks, one with Chris Hadfield and one on Genomics. We don’t really hold ‘events’ as such, although we did hold an Alberta launch event in the summer of 2011 and included Dr. Dan Johnson from the University of Lethbridge on our panel. We use the internet to hold virtual on-line briefings so that we can service journalists across the country. We also offer Journalism 101 bootcamps for researchers. The purpose of these half-day sessions is not media training but helping scientists, researchers and the like better understand what makes journalists tick. Our belief is that this better understanding will help improve communications. You can read about the approach in detail on our website.” This is valuable information to know – now if we can integrate across several Canadian organizations I think we may have a powerhouse of Canadian scicomm.