Calling All Scientists! Agriculture Needs You to Speak Up, Too

If you support research-based solutions to agricultural challenges, rejoice.

A new report from a group called the Council of Canadian Academies says Canadians have the lowest level of reservation toward science among 17 countries considered.

That’s heartening for the pro-science crowd. It runs counter to the growing belief that precaution is prevailing among Canadians, rather than science, for policy and decision making.

And that’s important information for the agri-food sector, which relies heavily on research to maintain a competitive edge.

Here’s even more to be happy about. The report also claims an overwhelming number of Canadians – 93 per cent, in fact – are moderately or very interested in scientific discoveries or technological developments.

That’s encouraging, no question. It’s a huge figure and it more than suggests we are part of an inquisitive culture, one that wants to know what’s going on.

But here’s an alarming stat: Only about 40 per cent of the respondents said they believe they have sufficient knowledge to grasp basic scientific concepts and to understand media coverage of scientific issues.

Depending on your perspective, that could be cause to celebrate. Given shrinking news holes in the media, the intricacies of science and the challenges that come with explaining it, 40 per cent might be considered a healthy number.

But what about the other 60 per cent?

To me, that figure suggests that despite Canadians’ willingness to learn about science, there’s still a lot of confusion about it.

On the upside, though, it also represents a big opportunity to help people figure things out.

And who shall assume this role?

How about scientists!

Farmers are implored by their member organizations to talk to the public and help people understand farming, in which they’ve taken more and more interest thanks to local food and a growing desire for all things community. So likewise, when it comes to explaining science – including the science of farming – who has more facts that scientists?

Certainly, many of them already have some level of public engagement. They realize its importance and the contribution they make when they stand and be counted, when they try explaining their research to farmers and others, when they patiently go over a concept that is elementary to them but difficult to others.

There is indeed an initiative trying to further advance the understanding of science, called Speaking Of Research. It gives researchers a chance to say their piece online. The scientists I’ve met who are associated with it are mainly committed to explaining the 5 Ws and the H about animal research in particular, a hot button with the public despite what it claims is its open attitude towards science.

Often it’s hard to engage in animal research without using animals, but scientists try. Their credo is replacement, reduction and refinement. They try to replace animal studies with other research methods (such as computer models) when they can. They reduce the number of animals in their studies to the bare minimum possible. And they refine research procedures to minimize potential pain and distress for the participating animals.

Sometimes, though, there are no alternatives to involving animals. By law, new medical treatments and some drug treatments require animal testing before they move onto clinical trials for humans. And realistically, animals cannot always be replaced by computer models.

That’s seen in the numbers.  Canadian researchers use a lot of animals in their studies – more than three million a year. About 70 per cent are fish and mice. Dogs, cats and non-human primates together account for about 0.5 per cent of all animals used.

On Canadian university campuses where animals are involved in research, there’s an entire animal care unit and ethics management group dedicated to looking after their interests. Nationally, the independent Canadian Council for Animal Care sets high standards that research institutions must meet, and conducts periodic visits to follow up.

Does the public know all this? I don’t think so. Maybe if it did, support for research would rise even further.

At the very least, Speaking Of Research has an opportunity to advance the dialogue about science. Perhaps through such efforts the public’s ability to comprehend basic science will grow.


Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy


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One Comment

Robert Wager

Anyone who has had to fill out a CCAC request for animal use application knows how amazingly thorough the process is at protecting animals from abuse.


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