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Science communication in the modern age

Raw Talk Live panelists share insights on science literacy and engagement

Science communication in the modern age

Raw Talk Podcast a project spearheaded by graduate students from The Institute of Medical Science (IMS) at U of T hosted its first live show at JLABS on May 30. A two-part panel discussion, Raw Talk Live explored the current climate of science communication.

Traditionally, science was communicated through conferences, where researchers in the same or similar fields shared their findings with their peers. The responsibility for communicating this research to the public fell on teachers and science journalists. These days, researchers also communicate their findings outside of the academic community through scientific outreach and the media.

Public engagement in science

Tetyana Pekar, an IMS alum and moderator of the first panel, asked panelists what they thought the status quo for public engagement in science was and how it could be improved. The panelists all felt that the status quo was changing for the better, but that there was room for improvement.

One key concern was that scientific outreach tends to stay within the ivory towers of academia, and getting the general public to take interest in science is an ongoing struggle.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Ontario Science Centre found 47 per cent of Canadians do not believe in or understand the science behind global warming.

“There is this aspect of the public’s awareness of science that’s incomplete and they’re going to celebrities for information and that’s very troubling,” said Dan Weaver, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics at U of T.

The results from a 2011 analysis indicate that students from underrepresented or underprivileged backgrounds have less access to science outreach initiatives, which further deepens these misunderstandings as these students are likely deterred from learning about science or pursuing a scientific career.

For Doina Oncel, founder of hEr VOLUTION, a non-profit organization in Toronto that empowers youth in underserved communities to enter STEM, outreach means that “We don’t [just] empower people, we give them tools to empower themselves.”

When Weaver and his research team traveled to Nunavut, they conducted science outreach activities with students from a local school. They showed the students how scientific instruments are used in research to make becoming a scientist a more concrete possibility.

Scientists also benefit from engaging with lay audiences about their research.

“I think the patient [and] parent voice in research is important. I think we have stories to tell and things to say that are valued in the research world,” said Connie Putterman, whose journey in science communication began when her son was diagnosed with autism 18 years ago.

The speakers agreed that citizens have a large impact on science policy, and, in turn, on scientific research. According to the Canadian Science Policy Centre founder and CEO Mehrdad Hariri, by creating a culture of public engagement in scientific research through initiatives like citizen science, we can better defend the integrity of science.


STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

New methods of science communication

Eryn Tong, a Raw Talk segment host, asked speakers in the second panel what they thought effective science communication would look like in an ideal world.

According to Dr. Vicky Forster, a postdoctoral fellow at SickKids, science should be made more accessible through open access publications and accessible language. The other panelists echoed this sentiment. Especially as one in three Canadians are unable to follow science reports published in the media, creativity is necessary when reporting science accurately and in a way that is understood by non-expert audiences.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a real appetite… to take content and customize it and make it so that it’s consumable in ways that people can navigate it in [a] non-linear fashion,” said Kevin Millar, Senior Vice President of Creative and Medical Science at INVIVO Communications, a digital healthcare agency that creates visual aids for communicating science.

Millar added that Canada should invest more time and talent into communicating science more effectively and for specific audiences.

Helen Kontozopoulos, co-founder of the Innovation Lab in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, pointed out that bringing different voices to the narrative could also help change the way scientific research is shared.

Elah Feder, U of T alum and co-host of science podcast Undiscovered, added that communicating the scientific process is equally important. “People just see a headline that coffee is bad for you and then next week they see that coffee is good for you and I think [they get confused] because they don’t understand the process,” said Feder.

Trinity Western loses Supreme Court case on religious freedom v. LGBTQ+ rights

U of T campus group LGBTOUT acted as intervenors on case

Trinity Western loses Supreme Court case on religious freedom v. LGBTQ+ rights

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled against Trinity Western University (TWU) in a case that pits religious freedom against LGBTQ+ rights. TWU is a BC-based evangelical Christian university with a satellite campus in Ontario that was denied accreditation for a proposed law school by the law societies of BC and Ontario on the grounds that TWU discriminates against LGBTQ+ people. On June 15, the Supreme Court ruled 72 in favour of the law societies.

The case arose over a covenant agreement that all TWU students have to sign, which binds them to a code of conduct that specifically requires students to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

“The community covenant is a solemn pledge in which members place themselves under obligations on the part of the institution to its members, the members to the institution, and the members to one another,” reads Section One of the agreement on the school’s website.

“TWU reserves the right to question, challenge or discipline any member in response to actions that impact personal or social welfare.”

As a result of the university’s community covenant agreement, concerns about the personal safety and open access of LGBTQ+ students were raised by various groups, including U of T campus group Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT).

On November 30, 2017, a two-day hearing for the case was held by the Supreme Court against the university. LGBTOUT, which is the longest-standing LGBTQ+ group in Canada, travelled to the Supreme Court to act as an intervenor on the case, arguing that the law school “would harm prospective LGBTQ+ students, who would be effectively barred from TWU just because of their sexual or gender orientation.”

An intervenor on a Supreme Court case is meant to provide perspective to the matter and may be brought in at the discretion of the court.

In a statement released on the group’s Facebook page, LGBTOUT called the ruling “fantastic news.”

“There is no place for LGBTQ+ discrimination in the legal profession or in Canadian society. LGBTOUT is thrilled with this news and victory for our community, especially as it comes during Pride Month!”

Judges Suzanne Côté and Russell Brown were the only judges that sided with TWU, arguing that judicial intervention should be more limited when it comes to approving law programs.

“While, therefore, the [Law Society of BC] has purported to act in the cause of ensuring equal access to the profession, it has effectively denied that access to a segment of Canadian society, solely on religious grounds. In our respectful view, this unfortunate state of affairs merits judicial intervention, not affirmation.”

This is not the first time TWU has faced the Supreme Court over grounds of religious freedom. In 2001, the British Columbia College of Teachers refused to accredit their teacher training programs due to the discriminatory nature of the community covenant.

After the court’s ruling, it is uncertain whether TWU will continue its plans for its proposed law school as the Law Societies of British Columbia and Ontario refuse to accredit their law degrees.