President Meric Gertler’s opening remarks for the 2015 Science Leadership Program

Molly Shoichet and Meric GertlerThank you Molly. And let me take this opportunity to thank you for your scholarship, your leadership, and your remarkable efforts to share the excitement of science and engineering with an audience that extends across our campuses, our nation, and around the world.

Thank you also to the members of the planning advisory group. This is the third year of the program and word is evidently getting out: we have had applications from a broader range of units at U of T, and from a growing number of departments and institutions across Canada.

Let me extend a warm welcome to all those joining us this evening and for the next couple of days – from U of T and beyond. I am delighted to be joining you here this evening.  The program that you have signed up for is, in my view, not only innovative and stimulating, but also extremely timely. I say this for at least three reasons.

First, I think it is fair to say that the lay public is fascinated by science. They seem to have an insatiable appetite for readily comprehensible stories about scientific insights and discoveries. I had the experience not long ago of attending a screening of the documentary film ‘Particle Fever’, which tells the story of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the drama leading up to the empirical verification of the Higgs Boson. It was a Tuesday evening at the Bloor Cinema, and the film had already had a two-week run. I had expected a sparse crowd, but I was wrong. In fact, the theatre was packed, and most of the audience stayed for a Q&A following the screening, featuring some of the Canadian scientists involved in the project. You could hear a pin drop. One can also point to the extraordinary success of recent commercial films such as ‘The Theory of Everything’ and ‘The Imitation Game’, which has turned Stephen Hawking into a rock star, and Alan Turing into a household name. So interest in science among the general public seems to be at an all-time high.

Second, at a time when many are questioning the role and value of universities, I believe it is incumbent on all of us who are privileged enough to be employed at such institutions to make our work – and its implications – accessible and intelligible to the lay public. In doing so, we help to underscore the ‘public good’ nature of higher education and research, reminding the taxpayer that there are indeed broader social benefits to their collective investment in our enterprise. In the wake of yesterday’s Federal Budget, which reaffirms the government’s commitment to CFI, the granting councils, and big science projects such as the Thirty Meter Telescope and TRIUMF, we are reminded of the continued political importance of this kind of activity.

Third, it is well documented that countries like ours need to recruit more students to pursue careers in STEM disciplines. The life sciences remain popular – in keeping with enthusiasm for medical school – and engineering similarly continues to grow, though much of the demand now originates overseas. But many students are turning away from the mathematical and physical sciences. It seems that nearly anything is more attractive to high school students than studying math. In light of my first point – about the growing fascination with stories of scientific discovery and breakthroughs – this phenomenon seems somewhat paradoxical.

For all these reasons and more, the skills and capacities you will develop over the course of the next couple of days are critically important. By learning to communicate and share your work and its implications more widely and effectively, you will ‘pull back the veil’ on scientific discoveries, insights and breakthroughs that help us all make sense of the world around us. In doing so, you will help make the case for the importance of scientific research and higher learning at our universities. And you may inspire our youth to pursue careers in science and engineering in greater numbers.

But let us not underestimate the challenge ahead. There are times when it seems that our culture has embraced passionate argument with no grounding in evidence. Our media often gives equal time to various sides of a story even when there is really only one – think of vaccines or climate change – favouring ersatz ‘fairness’ or the desire to stir up controversy over intellectual merit. And, in today’s social media world, myth becomes reality with breathtaking speed and alarming ease.

Science literacy is the antidote to all of this. And this is where all of you play such a vital role. Indeed, we might situate the Science Leadership Program in the context of an increasingly important development within journalism more broadly. As traditional media struggle to survive in a hugely competitive and resource-scarce environment, they have been forced to cut costs and trim resources. Consequently, dwindling numbers of staff journalists are asked to cover a greater range of subjects in – by necessity – ever more general and superficial terms. Often they overlook or misunderstand the real stories – particularly when those stories are nuanced or complicated. Worse, in the battle for attention and market-share, there is the growing and unfortunate temptation to write what an audience wants to hear rather than what a story has to say.

Against that background, a program that coaches specialists with a deep understanding of their material to communicate it in a compelling and approachable manner takes on a special importance. Science literacy involves understanding the methods, the meanings, and the stories behind the science – aspects that specialists appreciate best. Being able to tell these stories, being able to convey an understanding of science as a mode of thinking, is a means to inspiring awe and creating lifelong curiosity.

In this sense, science literacy is one of the core competencies our species needs to advance our collective prosperity and build a happier, better world. Ultimately, I think that’s why you are all here.