May 4, 2009

Is Canada losing the lab-rat race?

Good article in Saturday's Globe and Mail by Erin Anderssen and Anne McIlroy.

Ariana Rostami ranks chemistry and biology as her favourite classes. She gets top marks in her advanced Grade 11 courses and is happy to discuss quantum mechanics. But ask her about a career in research and she grimaces as though someone suggested locking her in a dark closet.

Which is only a slight exaggeration of how she and many of her fellow students regard the scientific enterprise - they picture long, lonely nights exiled in a lab, isolated from other humans, continually begging for funding.

"Look up 'scientist' on Google," the 16-year-old says, "and you will see someone in a lab coat." At the moment, she is considering something with more immediate results, such as physiotherapy.


How do you change education systems that often drive students away from science and build a national culture in which the best young minds naturally envision themselves as future Nobel winners and not ostracized, penny-pinching lab rats?

Just ask the students in Ottawa if they can name a Canadian scientist. "Only if he's dead," jokes Shadman Zamau, 16, before volunteering Alexander Graham Bell - whose invention of the telephone is now more than 130 years old.

It's a very eye-opening article on an important issue -- attracting young people to science research careers. There's a very interesting tension, here, of course. You always want the best and brightest to pursue research careers. But there are many things that are discouraging them.

First of all, actual career prospects are mixed at best for academia. Salaries are often only mediocre after a very long apprenticeship. Compared to other careers like medicine or law, this is definitely to science's disadvantage.

Second of all, scientists have a very low media profile and what there is of it is very poor. Again, compared to medicine and law, what's the profile of science on TV or in the movies? Pretty well the only positive images are in the CSI shows, and those are more crime shows than science shows.

Third of all, science has a low social profile in Canada. When you look at how it's published (especially the major commercial and academic houses, which virtually ignore science and what's happening at NRC Press), how it's featured in newspapers and other media, what the various governments actually do as opposed to what they say they're going to do, it's hard not to argue that we're getting the national science infrastructure we actually want.

Interestingly, the one argument that doesn't resonate with me is the idea that science is poorly taught in high school and that discourages students. I went to high school, and all the subjects were taught poorly, not just science. I had good science teachers and bad science teachers. But the exact same thing was true of the other subjects as well -- there were good and bad teachers.

Anyways, read the article. It makes these points in much more eloquent detail that I can.

BTW, I can't help seeing this particular quote in the article as a clarion call for more Canadian science blogging:
Success breeds success, he says. "As a nation, we expect our hockey teams to win because they always have. If you are good as a nation at something, there are role models for young people coming through."

Scientists themselves accept some of the blame. Samuel Weiss, who won a prestigious Gairdner Award last year for his discovery that the adult brain can produce new cells, says Canadian scientists have to get better at thumping their chests.

"As scientists, we are way too reticent to tell the story and engage the community the way scientists engage the community in other countries. ... We'll point to government, but I don't know if we have made the case about how important science is."


Michael White said...

It doesn't help that high schools may be discouraging students from taking "hard" subjects like physics because it could lower their GPA and hurt their chances of getting into the university of their choice. See the Canadian Association of Physcists June 2008 open letter to h.s. principals:

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Michael.

Yes, there are lots of factors and I hadn't thought of that one before.

JobSearchNinja said...

One thing to remember is that salary ranges are all very well, but the key to maximizing your compensation is about clearly demonstrating the benefits that you can bring to an organization. A well-documented performance which provides a prospective employer with quantitative results and shows him how you solved problems or accomplished tasks is pretty tough to argue with!

Mickey Schafer said...

My "mad scientist" plan is that regularly during the K-12 school trip, kids should have to participate in Citizen Science right along side memorizing their national anthem, writing paragraphs, and making posters to describe a designated state. I can see these kids a couple of decades later, sitting around Happy Hour, bemoaning the Christmas they spent counting song birds, or summers counting bees, or hours gazing at the Galaxy zoo...having had to blog about it on nings, post group papers in the IMRD format, arguing whether APA or CSE was more a pain in the arse to deal with...not because they are all going to grow up to become scientists, but that they should grow up having to experience science with the same intensity with which they are expected to deal with literature.

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Mickey.

It would be great if we could instill in kids the love of science like we can sometimes instill the love of literature, music or history.

Life Insurance Canada said...

Well, with Mr. Harper killing the funding for many science projects and researches it definitely is hard to decide to live off of science. No wonder scientists are dying out in our country. Not much motivation for the young people...

Take care, Lorne