Canadian Science Policy Advocate Interviews: Sarah Boon, Editorial Manager of Science Borealis

Welcome to the rebooted science interview series here at Confessions of a Science Librarian! The previous incarnation mostly concentrated on people in the broadly defined scholarly communications community, like Mark Patterson of eLife, Peter Binfield and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ or author Michael Nielsen.

The series has been extremely irregular for the last few years so I thought my more recent involvement with Canadian science policy advocacy presented an interesting opportunity to start over. In particular, my participation in the recent iPolitics science policy series presented itself as a amazing chance to tap into a wonderful pool of science policy advocates and see what they think about the current situation in Canada.

So what I've done is invite each of the authors from that series to respond to the same set of email interview questions with the idea that I would publish their exact responses here.

During the first few months of 2014 I will be publishing the interviews from those that have agreed to participate. Once a few of those are up, I plan to widen the field and invite a broader range of Canadian science policy advocates to join the fray.

Suggestions of interview participants are more than welcome. Please feel free to email suggestions to jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

Today's subject is Sarah Boon, Editorial Manager of Canadian science blogging aggregator Science Borealis. Sarah has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about the environment, science communication & policy, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writer's Association, Editor's Association of Canada, and The Explorer’s Club, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Find her on Twitter: @snowhydro.

Sarah's article in the iPolitics series was An ‘abundance’ of bears: Aglukkaq cold-shoulders the science.

Previous subjects include: Paul Dufour, Fellow and Adjunct Professor, Institute for Science, Society and Policy; University of Toronto Ph.D. candidate Dak de Kerckhove and University of Toronto historian of science Jonathan Turner.



Q1. Could you tell us a little bit about your scientific/technical/journalistic/political background and how you ended up involved in science advocacy? How do you define advocacy and what’s been the focus of your advocacy activities?

I consider myself a reluctant (and lately – lapsed) academic. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with organized education, from skipping elementary school because I had ‘headaches’, to planning on dropping out of university after my first year. But I stuck with it, got my BSc in Physical Geography at UVic, and went on to do an MSc in Glaciology at UAlberta. I’d worked out that I could manage two (or so) years of graduate education, and I was planning to go into science writing and editing immediately afterwards.

However, I ended up converting my MSc into a PhD (UAlberta 2005), I did a brief postdoc in paleohydrology (UVic), and then I landed a teaching position through which I started research into snow, forests, and mountain pine beetle and wildfire (UNBC). That pretty much launched the rest of my research career. One day I looked around and I had tenure, a thriving research group, and lots of interesting stuff to work on.

It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, however. At the same time that I was ascending the academic ladder, the political climate for environmental science was becoming dicey. Funding was getting scarce: It was five years in before I was awarded an NSERC Discovery Grant, even though I ticked all the boxes of being a successful researcher. The criteria had become increasingly stringent as funds became scarcer. Opportunities like the Research Tools and Instruments Grant and the Major Resources Support grant were cancelled. I came within a hair of being awarded a prestigious Alberta Ingenuity award, but at the last minute they reduced the number of grants to meet new budget restrictions, and I was one of the scientists left on the cutting room floor.

I’d also become more aware of the role of women in academia – and in science in particular. I was blissfully ignorant of these issues throughout my university education and first faculty position, as I wasn’t as involved in the broader research community. But as I moved farther along, I realized my voice was considered less relevant and carried less weight simply because it was female.

I reached a point where my world was under siege by external forces, and I needed to do something about it. These political and gender-related issues weren’t going to sort themselves out on their own, and they weren’t just affecting me – they were affecting my community.

I define science advocacy as being a scientist in public: sharing your knowledge with friends, colleagues and acquaintances in a conversational way that builds on interaction rather than pedantic lectures. In tandem with this approach, I advocate for breaking down the barriers between academia and the public. I don’t believe that academic science should be done in a vacuum, and I’ve always been keen to involve industry, government, communities and citizens.

These beliefs, however, require fighting a war on multiple fronts. On the one hand you’re working to save science from the government’s axe – whether it’s funding, resources, people, legislation, programs…the list goes on. For this fight to be successful, however, you have to battle on a second front: helping non-scientists understand why science is worth saving. As a scientist, I want make that clear, but it’s not easy given that you’re not just working with facts – you also have to account for cultural identities and norms. But there’s a third front as well: the academic establishment itself, which often looks down on science communication efforts. As grad students we weren’t trained in communication because it doesn’t count the same way a publication does as a line on your CV – so hiring committees and granting bodies don’t give you credit for these types of activities. In some cases you’re considered a less serious scientist who’s not totally committed to the research if you dabble in science communication.

It’s a bit of a Gordian knot, which I sometimes feel stuck in the middle of, trying to find the loose end of string that will pull it all apart.

Q2. The Conservative Government’s science policies since 2006 have been pretty controversial and hotly contested. What do you think has been the most damaging thing that they’ve done?

It’s difficult to pick one thing. Perhaps the biggest issue is the government’s ideological approach to governance rather than a sound, evidence-based approach. It’s also important to note their scorched earth policy of destroying records or datasets that could be useful to future governments. For example, the long form census, data from the long gun registry, books from a range of government libraries, well-established research groups/programs with long data histories (e.g., PEARL, ELA, Marine Contaminants at DFO, etc.)

Q3. The conservative response to a lot of the activism that’s happened over the last few years has basically been to affirm that the Harper government has increased overall funding for science and that what some have called muzzling is really just management asserting its right to control what their employees communicate to the media. How do you respond to this?

Re: the Harper government increasing overall funding for science – Kennedy Stewart gave a great summary in his latest letter to Greg Rickford regarding public input to the Science & Technology Strategy. Stewart outlines that funding for science has decreased when you factor in inflation, that we are falling behind OECD countries (not G7 countries which is the statistic the CPC likes to use), and that funding is now tied largely to industry via applied research, while basic research has been hung out to dry.

As for the muzzling issue…government always wants to control the message. This government seems to take it further than previous governments, though I don’t know enough political history to say that absolutely. I think agreements on what employees can discuss are appropriate – but those agreements also need to be appropriate to the times. Public servants should be allowed to discuss their work unless there are national defense issues at stake – and by discuss, I mean talk to the media, give presentations and answer questions publicly, blog and/or tweet, and publish in peer-reviewed journals without requiring the signature of a manager who has no sense of how science even works.

Scientists don’t make policy – that’s the job of government. But they should be able to talk about the relevance of their research to policy in a way that anyone can understand. If different interest groups can talk about the impacts of policies on their constituents, then scientists should be able to talk about the effect of their science on the policies themselves. By subjecting employees to restrictions on media access, restrictions on collaborators talking about research, and more, the government creates a climate of mistrust and suppression that casts future interactions with them in a negative light.

Q4. When the next government comes in, they will effectively have a kind of science blank slate to work with. What do you think are some policies the next government should focus on to rebuild their science and technology activities and infrastructure?

I think they’ll have more of a graveyard than a blank slate. The challenge for the next government will be to kickstart Canadian innovation in areas outside of the resource industries. To regain the trust and support of the scientific community. To salvage what they can to try and rebuild the scientific enterprise in Canada AND link it soundly back to policy.

Q5. In the meantime, there’s lots of work to be done. But many in the science community shy away from overt political activity as it relates to their work. How would you convince skeptical but interested scientists to get involved with advocacy? And what do you think would be the most effective way for them to channel their energies?

This is a tough one. In his interview with you, Paul Dufour identified some phenomenal science advocacy movements that have sprung up in response to what Chris Turner calls the war on Canadian science. Many of these are spearheaded by scientists who never imagined they’d be in the public spotlight, vocally advocating for science. I think these groups represent one end of the spectrum, however, and many scientists – no matter how far they’re pushed – are very uncomfortable in the type of advocacy role that scientists like Katie Gibbs and Diane Orihel have taken on so ably.

Some of my colleagues are figuring out how to work within the new system: get funding for applied research, put some of the people hours or equipment on double duty to support what we call Saturday afternoon science. Projects done on the side with the least resources, but that further the basic research goals of your scientific field. This is admirable and resourceful, and - speaking from personal experience of cobbling together applied research funding for years while doing basic research on the side - can yield good results. But it doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

That’s what I hope scientists will think about. Step outside of your individual research program or your group research projects. Look at what you used to do for research and what you do now – or, if you’re a newer researcher, look at what your older colleagues used to work on and what they work on now. Look at the workload (more grant applications for smaller amounts of money, each of which requires more and more reporting), with fewer graduate students because: (a) there’s less funding for them; and, (b) we’re not doing a great job of exposing graduates to careers outside of the academy. Consider how things might be in the future, with continually shrinking budgets for research in general, for basic research in particular, and for the university and public systems within which many scientists operate. Can you picture what Canadian science will look like in 5, 10, even 15 years?

Then consider what you can do, even in a small way, to support science. Write to or call your MP. Support an existing science advocacy movement through donations of time or funds. Talk to your students and colleagues about the issues. Talk to your non-scientist friends about what you do and why it’s interesting and potentially useful. Write a letter to the editor, or a guest column in the local paper about what you’re working on and why non-scientists might be interested in it. Hold an open house for your lab, give a talk at the local museum or science centre.

Make science an issue in the 2015 election.


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