A case for Government Science outreach

From the time I was doing my undergraduate degree, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in science outreach. Specifically, designing hands-on activities and experiments to get people (and in my case, kids) excited and engaged about science. That they, too, can participate in that mind-blowing moment of discovery, where you go through a process and reach that “a-ha!” moment, and finally understand how it works, and what’s going on.

Why is this important? Because as a voting society, people need to be able to make reasonably informed choices. They need to be able to look at the plots of data around climate warming and it’s projected impact on society and convince themselves that there might be something going on and to be worried about, rather than relying entirely on the opinion of the person on the television that can shout the loudest.

[As a slight aside, I can’t underestimate the importance of this kind of outreach. I grew up in a lower-income neighborhood, and even though I’m the only person from my peer group to complete any post-secondary education, while I like to think I was at least in the top 5%, a lot of those other smart kids ended up doing their own things (and making success on their own terms), or in some unfortunate cases, put those smarts to less productive endeavors. Part of the problem is that very few of the smart kids at that impressionable age get the chance to even realize that a. they are indeed smart, and that b. there is this unbelievable career in having your mind repeatedly blown in the STEM field; That science and math class can be interesting, cool and engaging. What better way to show this than by having scientists come and, not just show you, but get you to do what they do?]

I then joined the public service. I was surprised to find much more than passive interest in any kind of science outreach, and shocked to discover that we were afforded a single day of our public service per year towards volunteerism. Needless to say, my science outreach activities have since stalled.

Given recent changes in the public service, just about any kind of public science outreach is near impossible. Communications with the media are vetted beyond any sense of reason. Give a talks at a scientific conference, and expect a warning from your boss about what kinds of questions you can answer, or be provided with a minder. Travel to virtually anywhere these days is nearly impossible, and requires a level of bureaucratic acrobatics through paperwork that I still am unable to fully comprehend.

Contrast that with what the Government (and DFO specifically) says they want to do. To its credit, science outreach is specifically outlined in DFO’s recently published Science framework.  Under section 4.4 of the document, it states:

“A Strategic Science Outreach Strategy was developed to ensure that DFO Science proactively communicates with its clients. The key goals of the strategy are to:

  • Ensure that scientific advice is fully considered in policy development and decision-making;
  • Build public and stakeholders confidence and trust;
  • Explain DFO Science and the benefits for Canadians.

The emphasis is placed on using modern communication methods to deliver information and advice to our clients and stakeholders, and to the general public as well.”

Clearly, the department is concerned about it’s public image, and rightly so. Other summaries around the issues of science outreach from government scientists are well summarized here and here. But where is it now? This statement is coming from a department that operates a twitter account that’s about as interactive as my vacuum cleaner, and you can be sure that every tweet passes across 10 different desks before it ever sees the light of day.

It would seem that there is a vast chasm between where the department wants to be vs. where they are currently.

Part of the problem may lie in what the government has traditionally thought of as outreach. This passage on a not-too-long-ago Environment Canada page on Education and Outreach is telling. Based on their description, some glossy information pamphlets, a website entry or two, organized ad campaigns and some carefully controlled workshops is all you need for outreach. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

To be engaged in science outreach, people (kids included) need to connect with real people, not glossy pamphlets. So much can come from a personal connection, an education moment where you can give someone the opportunity to discover for themselves the importance of science in their lives.

It’s great to hear from at least one government department that science outreach is a priority in the future. But given the bureaucratic strangle-hold on everything from getting what you say approved to being allowed to walk out the door, to being able to dedicate more than a single day a year to volunteer somewhere and organize a science outreach activity, I can’t imagine how it will function under the current climate.

Hopefully the strategy will pave a way through the paperwork, and the noose can be loosened so that a real government science outreach strategy can become a reality.