Why Communicate Science?

Communicating Science at The U of T

Article by: Nina Rafeek

“Certain people believe it is a marvelous achievement to extol so crazy a thing, like that Polish astronomer who makes the earth move and the sun stand still. Really, wise governments ought to repress impudence of mind”. –Phillip Melanchthon October 16th, 1541 on Copernicus’ heliocentric theory   

While initially met with dismissal and ridicule, Nicholas Copernicus’ theory in his seminal book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), published in 1543, wouldcatalyze a fundamental shift in our perception of the world.  Decades later, his book would ignite the Scientific Revolution.  This revolution, however, would not have been possible if Copernicus’ contemporaries, such as Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno and Johannes Kepler (to name a few) did not communicate his work to the public after Copernicus death in 1543; the year his book was published.

The culture of research, communication and engagement with the public in the scientific community in Copernicus’ time continues to be the foundation of discovery and innovation here at The University of Toronto.  The discovery of insulin by Banting in 1921, stem cells by Till and McCulloch in 1961 and the oldest water in the world by Dr. Oliver Warr and his team just last December, are only a few examples of how communication and innovation at the U of T has led to significant paradigm shifts of how we understand our bodies and the world around us.  The Science and Engineering Engagement (SEE) is especially committed to keeping the public in-the-know of all the incredible things happening on our three campuses and the wider university community.  We asked some science communicators in the U of T community how they communicate science and why they think it is important:

Professor Molly Shoichet, Senior Advisor to the President on the Science and Engineering Engagement (SEE) and one of the founding partners of Research2Reality:

Research2Reality is a national, multi-media website, designed to engage the public directly with the scientists behind the cutting-edge research that is happening in Canada as we speak.  Its content is 100% Canadian and 100% science.  An integration of blogs, short videos, articles and images are used to inform the public on how science and innovation is constantly shaping our world.  “We tell people what research is going on and why it’s important”, says Shoichet.

On why the public should engage with the scientific community, Professor Shoichet had this to say:

“Part of the reason we started R2R is so that people could make informed decisions you know even with a small amount of information they could have a better understanding of the world around them”.  Shoichet continues: “If you have a better understanding of how things work, you can have a more informed opinion and then you yourself can make a difference and you can take that knowledge and learn more about it or be active about it, but then it will be based on something not just that it “sounds wrong” or that it “sounds right”.

In the past few years, students and faculty at the U of T have also designed some fun, creative, interactive and educational ways to communicate science:

The Cabinet Project (coming this April), Science at the Movies (ongoing), Sounds of Science, From Good to Gold are some examples of the events that are/were held around the campus. For updates and information on upcoming science-themed events happening around the campuses, check out our events page.

The Graduate student community also plays a big part in science communication.  Graduate students Jennifer Logie, Teresa Dean and Samantha Yammine recently participated in a program called Science Outside the Lab – North, a one-week immersive course – open to all Canadian graduate students – on science policy in Canada.  They spoke about how research, communication and science policy in the government is interconnected and some of the take-home messages from the program.

Teresa Dean: “In a democracy, the opinion of the public is taken seriously in many political decisions. Communicating science to the public helps to inform individuals so that they can form an opinion based on facts and evidence. I believe that making sure that the correct information is available and that people are informed is vital.

Jennifer Logie: “scientists should not be giving recommendations, but effectively communicate scientific evidence in order to make policy decision making easier.”

Another way the Graduate student community communicates science is through public talks.  The purpose of these talks is to connect with the public on a more intimate level.  Graduate students Kenneth Grisé and Mukul Tewary weighed in on why they chose to participate in communicating with the public.

Kenneth Grisé: “I chose to do a public talk because I believe it is largely up to scientists to engage the public in order to increase the general scientific literacy of the population”, Grisé continues: “The reason scientific literacy is so important is because the more thoroughly people understand the principles of science, the more they understand its aims, applications, impact, and promise. In turn, more people will incorporate and prioritize science in their personal and societal decision-making processes, which I think could fundamentally improve almost every aspect of the lives of all people and human ecology.”

Mukul Tewary: “I work on a project that aims to understand how a human embryo might develop. Briefly, we use bioengineering techniques to control the environment of human pluripotent stem cell colonies in an attempt to recreate the environment that a developing embryo would experience.” Tewary continues: “However, because of the fact that it deals with a topic that has the potential to raise ethical concerns, I felt it was necessary for me to do my part in informing as many people as I can about the benefits, and the depth of information that we are able to extract from our study. This was the main reason I chose to do the public talk”.

We also spoke to U of T alumni, in the science communication field, about their thoughts on the benefits of public awareness and support of the scientific community.

Jesse Hildebrand is a science communicator.  He founded Science Literacy Week, a nation-wide initiative and a celebration of all things science.  Sci-Lit week will celebrate its fourth year and with NSERC as a brand-new sponsor of the event, it promises to be bigger than ever.  Hildebrand shared his thoughts on why science communication is important and why he is passionate about communicating the sciences.

“More than ever, more things are reliant on science.  When you wake up and check your phone, that is made possible by connectivity across the planet. We are alive and as healthy as we are due to medical innovations that have enabled us to be so.  […] the world around us has its basis in science and technology.  Because of that, it is important for people to understand the science that’s going on around them.  Because it’s so pervasive, that’s why it is more important than ever.  All of the science that we’re doing is rooted in a fact-based understanding of the world”.

Ivan Semeniuk is an award-winning science reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He has been communicating science for over 30 years.  He has done work for The Discovery Channel, New Scientist, Nature and most recently for his alma mater.  He teaches 5-week workshop called “Introduction to Science Journalism” to graduate students here at the university.  Semeniuk shared his thoughts on the importance of reporting science news to the public.

“None of us can say for sure if science if going to be up to all the challenges that human civilization will face going forward. But I think it’s pretty clear that without science, we’re not going to get far in meeting those challenges. Therefore, the part of journalism that includes informing the public about science stands to be really important to our collective future.”

If we think and reflect about where we would be as a society if we still believed the world was flat, or that our planet was the centre of the universe or that our bodies were not a result of millions of years of evolution, we would be remiss to overlook the crucial importance of scientific research and communication as a tool in solving the problems that lie ahead of us.  From scientific evolution to revolution, history has shown us the value of public awareness and support for the scientific community.

The University of Toronto promises to continue the legacy of science communication and public engagement into the future.