It's Hip to be Square, So Can Science be as Fun as Farming?

Things have changed quickly in society, maybe faster than ever.

For example, I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, science was definitely not cool.

One of my contemporaries (age-wise), a top-notch, internationally respected environmental toxicologist, reiterated that for me recently during a discussion about occupational choices.

“I didn’t become a scientist because I as cool,” she said. “Actually, I was a nerd. A lot of people who are scientists now started out as nerds.”

Today, nerds and geeks are hip. Look at Agronomy Geeks (a.k.a nerds) on this very website. Not long ago you would reel at someone calling you a geek or a nerd, let alone labeling yourself as one.

Now it’s a badge.

In agronomy and elsewhere, social stigmas no longer appear to haunt those who are immersed in science, including those at a young age.

Here’s proof. A new report from a science education and outreach organization called Let’s Talk Science (which has an active chapter at the University of Guelph) says there’s been a huge jump in young people who think science is “fun.”

In fact, in just three years, the percentage of those who jump for joy at the mention of science has increased by almost 40 per cent, to 72 per cent.

To me, that’s amazing. Almost three-quarters of young Canadians think science rocks!

And besides being amazing, it’s encouraging. If you appreciate science at a young age, perhaps you’ll mature into an adult who understands the value of science-based polices and decisions.

You’ll be someone who doesn’t throw rocks at progress just because doing so is fashionable.

But on the other hand, you also will not be someone who laps up every corporate message you’re fed.

You’ll try to reach accord between evidence and emotions, which can be really challenging, but necessary as problems and solutions get more complex.

This has everything to do with agriculture. I spoke about communications in one of my favourite professor’s classes this week, a fourth-year human health and nutritional science class full of students preparing for either a research or business career in nutrition.

Is there any closer connection to nutrition than agriculture? I don’t think so, and neither does she. In fact, she’s working with plant scientists at the University of Guelph to develop crops that can provide unique flour for baked goods such as bagels, that would help your body cut the speed at which it absorbs glucose. This could be a huge breakthrough for diabetics.

How cool is that? Who wouldn’t want to help hundreds of thousands of people, simply by growing then processing a special kind of grain or oilseed? It appears that many young people want to contribute: the Let’s Talk Science report showed nearly 85 per cent are motivated by their values. “They want jobs that use higher order skills, like making a useful contribution to society,” according to the report.

But unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t getting past the it-sounds-cool level. The report also noted that although interest is high in science, there’s a huge gap between saying you think science is cool, and taking the plunge and becoming a scientist as a career.

In fact, less than half of Grade 12 students complete a science course. So it’s no wonder then that just a little over one in 10 say they’d consider a science-based career.

I think they need exposure to what makes science not only fascinating, but useful. And again, agriculture comes to the fore. One of my most enthusiastic agricultural communication students has her eye on a master’s program in agricultural science, because she’s focused on a career as a plant breeder.

She’s working as the student coordinator for a program called Seed of the Year, which we started at Guelph more than 10 years ago to annually award excellence in publicly funded plant variety development. The winner will be announced next week, and she’s all fired up about it – agricultural plant varieties developed at the University of Guelph, with the support of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and organizations such as SeCan, contribute more than $650 million a year to the province’s economy and helped farmers in all parts of Ontario prosper.

To her, as a student from a farm, the prospect of helping Ontario agriculture by developing new plant varieties is extremely exciting.

It’s interesting that both science and farming have become cool at about the same time. The challenge to science is to do what farming has done, which is  capitalize on its good standing (and prices) to attract some more or new blood, and make sure sons and daughters return from college and university to run the farm.

Agriculture still has a ways to go, but it’s on the right track. The wisest in the industry are using agriculture’s wholesome image to take it beyond cool.

Science, including agri-science, can do the same thing. Campaigns are underway now such as Research Matters to show how Canadian researchers are making meaningful contributions to society by addressing the challenges and opportunities before them.

To me, they’re fun, and cool. What a great way to make a living, and a contribution.

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