When it comes to science, Canadians care more than ever

September 17, 2014

In 2003, the University of Ottawa introduced Canada’s first ever President’s award to recognize professors who share their expertise with the media. Many universities and colleges across the country host science summer camps and open their research facilities for public tours. These are just some of the ways our postsecondary institutions are helping make science more accessible. So it was reassuring to hear the essential message of a report released last week by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) that aimed to assess the state of Canada’s science culture: that Canadians know and care more about science than ever, and they know and care more than the citizens of many other developed countries.

The study surveyed Canadians from across the country and found that 42 percent of them understood the basic concepts behind science-based newspaper articles. That’s a significant jump since 1989, the last time a survey of this type was done, and it places Canada first out of 11 countries on a science literacy index. Perhaps more noteworthy is that 93 percent of Canadian respondents reported being moderately or very interested in scientific discoveries and technological developments, placing Canada first out of 33 other countries.

The shift since the 1980s shouldn’t come as a surprise; the world has changed. The Internet, how we communicate, the issues that dominate our news, including medical breakthroughs and the environment, the rise of a global knowledge-based economy and a host of outreach and education programs: all of these mean people are more exposed to science. But, when it comes to why Canada ranks highly against other countries, there is more to it.

Those of us who have been immersed in Canadian science for the past quarter century know that research in Canada has advanced. Not only are universities and colleges more aware of the need to be visible, but public investments in science have also been on the rise. Between 2000 and 2010 funding to Canada’s three granting councils, went from about $1.1 billion to $2.6 billion per year, an increase of more than 130 percent. In 1997, the Canada Foundation for Innovation was formed and has since funded more than $6 billion towards approximately $14 billion-worth of research infrastructure in labs across the country, helping transform our research environment from the brain drain of the 1990s into an environment that now attracts the world’s leading scientists. The Canada Research Chairs, along with prestigious scholarship programs, were also introduced.

The CCA report suggests that Canadians agree with these developments: “Canadians express above-average levels of support for public funding of scientific research, and a strong majority of Canadians view science and technology as important in pursuing a range of social objectives such as environmental protection and improving Canada’s economic prospects.”

It is likely, then, that a strong science culture in this country is at least in part due to a trickle-down effect from these initiatives. After all, with an investment of public money comes a need for accountability, which means the organizations administering these funds become more visible to the general public through things like outreach programs and media coverage. With visibility, comes engagement and with engagement comes knowledge.

Yes, there’s room for improvement: 13 percent of Canadians answered the question “Does the sun go around the Earth, or does the Earth go around the sun?” incorrectly. Moreover, only 20 percent of first university degrees awarded are in science and engineering. Still, the momentum is undeniable. Science in this country has come a long way over the last couple of decades.

Another recent CCA report states that “the Canadian science and technology landscape is healthy and growing in both output and impact.” We are sixth in the world for the percentage of most frequently cited scientific papers we produce. That there is evidently a strong science culture in Canada shows that Canadians have come along for the ride. Where will science culture and literacy in Canada rank 25 years from now? The answer to that question will depend at least in part on how high we set the bar for research.

Dr. Gilles Patry is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the country’s only organization dedicated to funding state-of-the-art research infrastructure. This opinion piece originally appeared on the University Affairs website on September 17, 2014.​