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Report on the NSERC Science Promotion Colloquium

15 October 2002

Crowne Plaza Hotel, Ottawa, Ontario

Exective Summary

Upwards of 80 people from all 10 provinces met for a full day to discuss how NSERC could further contribute to science promotion in Canada. The participants included educators at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels, science journalists, heads of science museums, representatives of various independent science and engineering organizations, communications consultants, NSERC staff and members of other government agencies. Their opinions frequently reflected the need for NSERC to play an important part in the promotion of science, as well as an implicit call for greater expenditures on such activities. A morning plenary session set forth several dozen specific issues, including the role of institutions such as libraries or science centres, and the need to reach constituencies such as girls or native youth. In the afternoon, three concurrent sessions dealt separately with the role of NSERC with respect to educators, the role of NSERC with respect to young people and the role of NSERC with respect to other members of wider society. The deliberations of each of these break-out sessions were presented at another plenary session, which identified several opportunities for action. The common themes that seemed to run through all these deliberations were:

  • NSERC can help to establish a clearinghouse for information about science promotion in Canada, a reference site for activities and organizations, as well as conduct studies of effectiveness and best practices;
  • NSERC can be one of the country’s foremost promoters of the value of science communication to the country’s research community, possibly even by incorporating science promotion into reviews that determine monetary support;
  • NSERC should take part in new science promotion initiatives in conjunction with other bodies that have a similar interest in science promotion, such as the other two federal granting agencies, as well as government departments at the federal and provincial level.

As several participants mentioned, the tone of the day’s exchanges was analytical rather than strategic in nature. The suggestions below are thus offered only at face value, rather than with the specific outline of the kinds of measures that would be required to enact them.

Observations and suggestions

During the afternoon proceedings, participants broke up into three separate groups to consider one of three areas for NSERC’s science promotion activities. Each group offered its recommendations in a slightly different way, as follows.

GROUP I, examining NSERC’s role with respect to educators

This group divided their findings into three areas: problems described, solutions identified and suggestions for NSERC.


  1. Teachers may generally believe that science education is important, but these individuals often find themselves limited to the confines of a much more conservative educational culture that emphasizes traditional liberal arts.
  2. Teachers may have trouble presenting role models for scientific activity, individuals whose lives characterize the important connections between individuals working in scientific fields and scientific events in the world.
  3. Keeping up with current events in science might be intimidating for teachers who feel obliged to have all the answers for their students and clearly cannot do so, given the sheer breadth and scope of the subject matter. There is a need for ongoing sources of reference material and support for these educators.
  4. The rapid pace of technological change, combined with its profound impact on our way of life, can be unsettling for anyone in educational circles.


  1. Teachers can benefit from educational programs in science and technology, for themselves as well as their students. This applies especially to the elementary school setting, since many students have already made up their minds about their attitude toward science by the time they start high school. In this context it would be worth enlisting the help of undergraduate and graduate science students.
  2. Workshops would be a good step in this direction, but they must be ongoing in order to be effective. A better approach might be some form of on-line support, such as a link with textbook publishers who could keep teachers up to date on current scientific issues.
  3. Recruitment of teachers with an interest in science, so that the resulting course work might have a “hands-on” approach that conveys to students how science actually gets done.

What NSERC can do:

  1. More money should be dedicated to NSERC's PromoScience program, along with new categories that could provide support programs specifically aimed at improving the calibre of science teaching;
  2. Support teachers who want to adopt creative approaches, highlighting the best ideas and best practices;
  3. Create a national body for science teaching, comparable to the National Science Teachers Association in the U.S., as well as provide support for teachers to attend a national conference to discuss challenges set before this organization.
  4. Closer collaboration with SSHRC on matters of common interest in research on science education.

GROUP II, examining NSERC’s role with respect to the broader public, including communities, libraries and the media

This group focused exclusively on five key recommendations for NSERC, as follows:

  1. NSERC should do a better job in promoting the role models within the research community that we do support. We have to do a better job of making the stars of Canadian science available to Canadians. This included making all the details of research projects publicly available, either through media promotion or at least on the Web, in order to call attention to the real research stars.
  2. NSERC should expand its activities to include support for science promotion and science communications, creating a national organization for these initiatives. This might manifest itself in such steps as setting up chairs for science teaching or science promotion, establishing a national network in this area, which could in turn support the necessary research into this area of education. By assembling the knowledge, experience and best practices of everyone working in this field, this information could be distributed to everyone with an interest in the matter.
  3. NSERC should create a “positive pressure” on the research community to recognize and reward those who do take the time to participate in science promotion and science communication. Graduate students should not have to hide such efforts from their colleagues and superiors, lest they be penalized for diverting their attention from more immediate research goals. Some participants in the discussion went so far as to suggest that a research grant require recipients to spend a specified portion of their time doing science promotion, communication or teaching assistance.
  4. NSERC should develop active partnerships with others who are acting in the field of science promotion, including SSHRC, CFI, CIHR, HRDC, and various scientific and professional engineering societies and provincial agencies. The aim would be to create a national network of shared interests.
  5. Sundry suggested activities for NSERC, put forward in a more random fashion, including:
    • assembling a speakers bureau for use by media and educators;
    • enhancing the quality of science material in libraries;
    • promoting the notion that working as a scientist can be a powerful way of solving some of the world’s problems (a concept that appeals mightily to children);
    • identifying popular media scientists as scientists, something that is not usually done;
    • adopting a different terminology when the word "science" carries too much baggage.

GROUP III, examining NSERC’s role with respect to young people (be they students or otherwise)

As this group distilled the results of its discussion, the primary role that emerged for NSERC was that of an enabling organization. Six main recommendations build on activities already currently being undertaken by NSERC.

  1. Characterization of the continuous spectrum of science promotion activities in Canada, so that individuals and organizations on that spectrum will have some idea where they stand.
  2. Formation of a stronger, more formalized network of organizations aimed at youth, where ideas and information could be exchanged. This network’s activities might be largely virtual, limited to that of keeping lines of communication open between various partners, but there is also the possibility of mounting major conferences that would bring these partners together in person.
  3. More recognition for academic activities relating to youth, reflecting nothing less than a fundamental cultural change on the part of the research community.
  4. Research grants or internships to enable students to gain direct experience working in research environments of all types.
  5. More funding for research into the effectiveness of various science promotion activities, perhaps in the form of “Who’s doing what” and “Is it working” in order to reveal best practices.
  6. Setting up social dates for Dr. Brzustowski, by way of promoting science culture across the country. More specifically this would mean lunch for him with the president of the CBC to promote the creation of a television science show aimed at children, lunch with members of SSHRC and CIHR encouraging them to take stronger stances on science promotion and lunch with the Prime Minister to frame a state-of-the-union address on science in Canada.

A further elaboration of this group’s vision came in the form of a pyramidal model, where students were brought up from a base of knowing little about science to a higher level of literacy with regard to scientific issues. Yet students can be urged to aspire to levels higher than this, where they immerse themselves in science as a way of life or a career. This model becomes particularly useful with respect to assessing NSERC programs based on which part of the pyramid they address.

9:00 a.m. Opening remarks
Dr. Brzustowski welcomed the participants and talked about science promotion in the context of NSERC’s and the government’s overall plans.
9:20 a.m. Overview of current Science Promotion activities at NSERC – Tim Nau, Director of Communications
9:45 a.m. Science Promotion Discussion
Some 30 participants offered their view of science promotion and what might be expected of NSERC in this regard. These observations ran a wide gamut, from noting the need to respect the needs and potential of specific constituencies to a call for aggressive expansion of NSERC’s budget for science promotion.
10:30 a.m. Break
10:45 a.m. Presentation of the 2002 Michael Smith Awards for Science Promotion
Four of this year’s five winners were on hand to receive their medals and plaques. Ottawa-Centre MP Mac Harb was on hand to congratulate these winners and offer his own thoughts on the value of science and technology in Canada.

12:00 p.m. Lunch
12:45 p.m. “Science Promotion and Learning: A Great Voyage”, Luncheon address by Claude Benoit, President and CEO, Société du Vieux-Port de Montréal, which includes the Montréal Science Centre.
1:15 p.m. Participants were divided into three groups to explore various ways that NSERC could promote science: by helping improve teaching in the schools; by promoting science to young people within and outside the educational system; and by working more closely with other groups that have an interest in science, including the media, museums, and other government agencies. Each group was asked to summarize their findings for the plenary session afterward.
2:45 p.m. Break
3:00 p.m. The observations and suggestions of the breakout groups were presented in a final plenary session. After brief discussion, common themes of all the suggestions were agreed to. These are given above.
4:00 p.m. Closing remarks
Dr. Brzustowski closed the colloquium with a summary and his reflections on some of the key themes.
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