Science for youth: the key to addressing Canada’s economic future

Concrete solutions for the societal challenges of tomorrow

As we emerge from a global pandemic, Canada faces two related challenges when it comes to economic growth: an acute shortage of skilled personnel and the need to equip Canadians with the knowledge necessary to navigate an increasingly technological world. 

Addressing these challenges will require us to offer opportunities to engage, develop and retain Canada’s talent. We must approach these issues with a long-term view while keeping people at the top of the agenda. We must begin with young people — both those who are planning their careers and those who are entering the workforce. Their future will be influenced by the paths we offer them.

This is why the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) along with Acfas (a Quebec-based association for the advancement of science) engaged the market-research company, Ipsos, to conduct a survey of 18- to 24-year-olds across the country. We asked questions about their confidence in science, their interest in pursuing a career in science or other fields and the sources of information they use for making decisions.

The results revealed that science matters for young adult Canadians. Seventy percent of those surveyed said science can be relied upon because it is based on facts and not opinion. In addition, 77% thought STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines represented good fields for their age group to pursue as a career.

There were, however, some areas of concern. Among a cohort of young adults identified as having an interest in science, 84% report feeling ill-equipped to understand it, often linked to a lack of confidence in math. Those surveyed also rely disproportionately on social media as a source of information. Seventy-five percent of them use social media every day, with 40% spending four or more hours a day connected to Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, for example. In addition, 73% of respondents reported they follow at least one social media influencer who has expressed anti-science views.

Scientific literacy has never been more important to our society. This survey took place in a public environment where social media, fake news and unreliable sources can strongly influence the development of attitudes and belief systems among young people. These can stay with them for life and have a direct impact on their career, health and societal choices.  

To probe further on our survey results, we gathered experts in science education, communication and skills development for a national conversation on youth and science. Everyone agreed that the issue is fundamental to the future of our society and economy and of such importance that governments, educators, scientists and communicators must come together to address it. 

What we heard was that schools need to prioritize teaching the scientific method and critical thinking. No child is too young to learn to question, reason and think independently. Science, and all knowledge acquisition, must be understood as a process during which our understanding develops and changes based on the information available at the time. This means students should be given problems to solve that reflect significant issues and do not have predictable solutions. By demonstrating that scientific evidence is gathered over time and that issues are complex, we can help young people appreciate the changing nature of scientific knowledge, which could support them in making sense of the information they encounter during a public health or environmental crisis, for example.

Communicators also have work to do. For one, they should avoid continually restating a single message; the public stops listening and opinions become entrenched. Instead, communicators should ensure that they publish a variety of credible perspectives and facts.

Engaging only with those already in agreement does not provide consensus nor does alienating those who do not share the same views. Informing those who do not naturally follow science and engaging with those who do not share common views is critical to ensure no one feels left out of a society driven by scientific knowledge and technology.

It is insufficient to simply present as much information as possible in the hope that this will convince people of the value of a given observation or conclusion. Instead, it is essential to engage audiences and to conduct a dialogue with them in order to win their empathy for the challenging task scientists face.

Communicators need to reach out to young Canadians where they are. This generation does not rely on print and traditional media but they can be reached reliably through newer social media platforms like TikTok. Although it can be daunting for members of the scientific community to reach out in this way, these platforms convey an important sense of vulnerability and authenticity that can win over younger audiences.

The image of the scientist also needs to be nuanced. Popular culture makes much of the mad scientist: absent-minded, hard to understand, forgetting the social good while immersed in some elaborate technology or experiment.

We need to see scientists who are not afraid to admit they are fallible and not always correct. We also need to redefine success. When a researcher is seeking a cure for a disease, each trial that does not produce the cure should be considered not a failure but one step closer to victory. It is important for young people to become familiar with this idea of failure as integral to the scientific process, especially for those discouraged by the sometimes long and difficult timelines science requires.

When it comes to the role of science in skills development, we know that in a world that competes for talent, it is essential to invest in support for students. Careers in science should not be reserved for those who can afford the tuition and should not exclude families that do not have the means to support their young people through a course of study that lasts a number of years. When science programs are not offered where people live, the costs and complexities of the situation are multiplied. These young people need financial assistance to pursue science as a career.

If we want to benefit from the contributions of our diverse population, we must make education truly accessible by enhancing programs for scholarships and bursaries, fellowships and postdoctoral awards. We need only look around the world to see that if we do not provide sufficient support, we will lose top students to other nations and many will be discouraged from pursuing their education at all.

Several decades ago, there was a bold experiment. The Government of Ontario offered to match funds raised by institutions of higher education to create endowments that would support students. The program was incredibly successful. This could be repeated with the goal of creating bursaries for students in need. Similarly, funds could be raised to provide places to live for students from Northern and remote regions who must move to pursue study. 

To fully support young people, we also need to invest in the research enterprise. Hands-on opportunities for students to experiment and understand how ideas can be developed are essential. They open minds to the pursuit of science and doors to its applications. Research requires scientific technicians to keep state-of-the-art equipment operational and train future employees for industry. Ensuring there is ongoing funding to support the salaries of these professionals would be a wise investment to engage the students in seeing how science works. They say clothes do not make the individual, but if you never have the opportunity to enter a lab and don a lab coat, you may never imagine the possible careers you might pursue.

Colleges, polytechnics, Cégeps and universities across Canada are hubs for talent, offering opportunities to develop essential skills including the ability to solve problems and discover new ideas, processes and products. We need to support them and their research — both fundamental and applied.

Collaboration, sharing and international cooperation are the words of the day. The research agenda, which includes the environment, health, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, agriculture, Northern, rural and urban issues, ocean science, transportation and data-driven discovery, to name a few, is vast. Ethics, equity and inclusion of our diverse population also top the list. Everyone recognizes the importance of teaching and doing research across disciplines to promote discovery and create a workforce prepared not only to solve the problems of today, but also to meet the challenges of tomorrow. By inviting the world to join us, by being able to participate in the global teams that work together in times of crisis and on a daily basis, and by seeking to discover the secrets of the universe, we will motivate scientists to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. We will also offer youth the inspiration to dream and give us all hope for the future.

Developed nations around the world are investing in education and research, and base their predictions for economic growth on this commitment. In Canada, we need to invest wisely and target our resources specifically to talent and research at this time. If we do, we will reap the reward of having created vital and economically strong communities.

This opinion piece by CFI CEO and President, Roseann O'Reilly Runte, originally appeared in on Wednesday, August 17, 2022.