A Brief History of Time(ly SSHRC feedback).


I’ll be the first to admit it. I was pretty disappointed when we found out that our SSHRC proposal wasn’t successful. We had quite a few folks take a good look at the documentation we worked on, and generally speaking I really thought we had a strong and interesting proposal which stood a good chance.

Still, I think one of the curious things about these interdisciplinary projects, is that perhaps I got especially caught up in my own biases and particular academic views. Since the project is tip toeing across so many ideas, and therefore different areas of research, it was perhaps inevitable that how others viewed the project was different, although different in a way that would provide valuable insight. As well, the process of looking at this with social science eyes was new to me (as a science academic), and reading through the comments was actually quite challenging for me (which is to say that jargon exists everywhere!).

In any event, in empirical terms, our “score” (based on “challenge”, “feasibility”, and “capability” categories) was 11.88 out of 18, which I think meant that we ranked somewhere in the middle. These ratings were determined as an average between two reviewers, whereupon we essentially received one strong review, and one weak review. In both cases, it was our numbers for the “challenge” element that took a hit.

Since we’re not sure of the copyright around straight up releasing the reviewers comments, we thought it best to simply highlight the core criticisms. At this point, I won’t respond to them, as I think it’ll make more sense to address them at a later date and when we’ve move along in the project and have had a chance to see how anticipatory these comments were.

Overall, however, I think they do a great job of showcasing a variety of valid criticisms inherent in our proposal (although I’ll also let Marie-Claire comment on this in the future, especially as she is the more experienced social scientist in this project).

Anyway, in no particular order, here are the main points of concern:

1. That the research primarily focuses on ideas where creativity is a general construct, as oppose to forms that are tied to specific scientific practices in specific fields (i.e. the specifics of creativity in DNA work, or particle physics or microscopy/microbial exploration as the case would be in our particular outreach opportunities). In general, it was thought that this more directed examination (a “situated approach”) would better focus the research.

2. That perhaps a broader framing of science studies literature would better serve the project. Here, the proposal was thought to have good grounding from a sociological perspective, but that it would be beneficial to also explore framing with other areas (such as philosophy, anthropology, history, rhetoric, etc… of sciences).

3. That given the overall goals of the research (towards impacting identities, impacting school science and teaching practices), there may be problems with using one-day fieldtrips as our experiential conduit, where the limited time is likely insufficient. Possibly related to this, one of the reviewer expressed some confusion over our plans for longitudinal data (i.e. returning kids over a three year period).

4. That the research strongly assumes the notions of children thinking that science is “an algorithmic process that always proceeds as a set of research steps resulting in potential loss of scientific identity.” Basically, there was concern that this was too vague a generalization, and that using this to initially frame the studies is premature if not incomplete.

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Anyway, there you have it. I think laying this all out was certainly a good starting point for our next steps, as well as great fodder for potentially thinking about a second application down the road.

And luckily, we were able to find some funding to start the research project in an exploratory way. Partly to see if we can begin to collect some data that can strengthen our proposal, and also to begin logistically working out what processes/techniques/methods may be best suited for our study.

Anyway I’ll start to unpack the build up to this preliminary work in the next few blog posts. Stay tuned!


The feedback on the v1.0 edit (a.k.a. our “pretty good” edit)

This is a bit delayed, but I thought it would be worth highlighting some of the feedback we got from the last edit. Just to reiterate, this was an edit that was deemed penultimate (i.e. pretty ready to go in many respects) that was submitted to our collaborator (Samson Nashon at UBC Education) and also to be reviewed by a committee within Marie-Claire’s department (UofC Education). We also managed to attract a great comment from Vince LiCata, who happens to be a friend of mine with a similar profile of “science background, but creative leanings.”

Lots of different pieces of advice: including comments related to our writing voice, which tended to be passive or would sometimes even change (a side effect of two people writing it, I suspect); as well as lots of specific issues that could be compartmentalized as efforts to be more precise with our limited page lengths (sections could spend less time on existing program testimonials and more on what is missing that the research could fill), and/or pointers that would be akin to “tricks of the trade” (at least as it pertains to what SSRHC reviewers normally expect and like to see). Here, an example might include not assuming all reviewers would be familiar with certain concepts, especially if the concepts themselves can be open to multiple forms of interpretation depending on the academic background – i.e. “authentic science”, “creativity.” Another suggestion was as straight forward as avoiding using field specific acronyms (without explanations), or care in mentioning publications without a bit of context (it’s well known if you were a…). In some respect, a lot of these issues were a result of the wide breadth of discipline coverage in the research proposal. There are, after all, elements on education, on identity, on science, on writing, on creativity, and so on.

Still, at the end of the day, the primary criticism that was brought up the most was a perceived lack of focus on what exactly the research aimed to look at. Or rather, that the language and phrasing we used could have been much more direct to clarify the intent of the project. Quite often, this would entail suggestions to organize our thoughts in terms of the objectives we want to achieve, or the problems we want to tackle. For instance, this one quote from one of the social scientists reviewing it gives you an idea of what needed more work.

Stylistically, I often think of the opening paragraph as a place to state a research problem (e.g., the need for more engaged learners in authentic science) that your research will address – a kind of overview of why you are doing the study. It then orients readers to a societal concern you will address. Increasingly, this has become important and it helps you to map your project on to a knowledge mobilization strategy. I tend to put a central question to be answered by the research right up front. So, you may want to conclude paragraph 1 with such a question.

Vince (a biochemist, and in some respects an outsider looking in) brought up the same issue. In his case, however, it was interesting to see how he framed it around the idea of presenting hypotheses, which to be upfront was how I also first interpreted the issue (see my response to Vince):

For this agency, do you need a specific statement of the hypothesis? I mean your implicit hypotheses are rather clear, but some of the US agencies will really pound you for not having a “we hypothesize that the A experimental group will have the highest SSRIQ scores” or something like that…

What we had here was essentially a shared idea: that we needed to work more on clarifying the goals of the research, and in doing so, it helps streamline all the different pieces that are in our query (again the bit about the elements on education, on identity, on etc…). Still, it should be noted to see that these goals tended to be expressed differently depending on the background of the academic reviewing it – in our instance, summarized as a case of “stating objectives/problems” versus “testing hypotheses.” I found this curious, and I’m wondering whether nuances such as this two culture remnant will become an interesting facet of this project, which at the end of the day, is exploring a social science problem, where input from the scientific community may be a significant factor.

Anyway, talking to Samson and Marie-Claire about this further made it pretty clear what the best way forward would be – essentially, it was decided that for a SSRHC grant, we needed to present a discourse that worked best with the social science set. In other words, to pursue the idea of framing things around “objectives” and “problems” as opposed to focused “hypotheses” since this tact will give us a little more wiggle room – wiggle room that is often needed when exploring the boundaries of human behaviour and perspective, more so with our attempt to explore authentic science and creativity concepts.


The irony of this whole thing, of course, is that we are playing this grant write up rather strategically based on the difference of academic cultures, and yet the research project itself is partly about seeing whether these boundaries need to broken down. That’s kind of a delicious thought actually…

On Inflatable Pools, #scio13, and the Messy Business of Preaching Science Outside the Choir.

Note that this essay is in regards to this.


The session began with a bit about inflatable pools: although here, a little context might help.

In the summer of 2009, my hometown of Vancouver experienced a small heat wave. It got very hot and humid, unbearable even, and not surprisingly my two young kids (Hannah and Ben) were quite miserable. Consequently, to led to the very popular idea of getting an inflatable pool for our backyard, which to all intents and purposes, appeared to be a genius move. And so before we knew it, we were suddenly on the hunt.

This naturally led us to a local toy store, where lo and behold, marketing geniuses that they are, the store had conveniently placed all of their pools front and centre. Here, we were confronted with the pool that you see in the picture above (on the left).

It looked, quite frankly, awesome, and, if you can believe it, it was also priced at only thirty dollars. Needless to say, we bought it immediately and full of excitement, took it home to set up. It was here that something odd happened. In essence, when the pool was inflated, it looked a little different from the box (see image on right).

Of course, being a scientist and all, my rational mind was racing and trying its hardest to come up with hypotheses that could explain what was going on. Why did the pool look so tiny?

Did I not blow hard enough and inflate it properly?

Was the photograph on the box taken in a land of small hobbit-like people?

Were my children, unbeknownst to me, massive?

It was all very bizarre, but at the end of the day, the explanation was quite simple. Apparently, in the world of advertising, it is permissible to use misleading images so long as there was some presence of text that exposed the reality of the product. For instance, the object’s dimensions are clearly printed on the box, or a statement such as “object in box may not be as appears” is included.

For our session at Science Online 2013, this silly anecdote served as a sort of meta-example of what we were hoping to talk about: That is, how do we talk science to folks who don’t necessarily care about science? How do we preach outside the proverbial choir, or go “beyond the choir,” or delve into things that are praeterchoral if you will. And perhaps more importantly, what are the tensions associated with trying to do this? Should there be important things to consider, say for the public good? And do such things even work (or how would we even know)? In effect, the two images represent the “truth,” and how the “truth” might come across when communicated. They are meant to represent a literate form of science communication, and a form that is not quite accurate but might be easier for the general public to engage in. In other words, we were wondering whether there is a cost to translating science in this way.

Looking at the two inflatable pool images, I can think of a number of potential problems. For instance, when using more creative methods, perhaps one will inadvertently dilute, distort, or even get the “truth” or the science wrong. Or maybe it’s not even a case of being scientifically sloppy, but rather one paints a slanted version of science culture by consistently focusing on the stuff that is deem interesting, strange, entertaining, or dramatic – we leave out the boring bits, which arguably present a more accurate portrait of science. As well, a lot of the science used to capture interest, might not be the sort of science that is quote-unquote “important,” or at least important in terms of civics and public good (yes, a narrative about an inflatable pool is charming, but shouldn’t we talk about climate change or gun control for instance?) Even worse, maybe in my zeal to be entertaining, funny, and/or quirky (never mind finding a way to show off my kids), I actually created a situation where clarity was lost in the discussion.

All to say that the act of preaching outside the choir has many nuances. Certainly enough to warrant an extensive list of things to think about: a list that Gertrude Stein might even approve of. Which was why Tom (@TomLevenson) provided a tour of such a list of considerations, prefaced by the dying words of Stein and made all the more pertinent because it was quite likely that the inflatable pool meta-example had failed (which you could say was sneakily deliberate – a meta-meta-example? – or a consequence of my not getting enough sleep and perhaps being too glib and overconfident in my ad-libbing speaking skills*)

In any event, this list (which can be seen in full here) was aimed at provoking the audience and included important questions such as: “Should we first ask: why do we want to engage such audiences (the uninterested)?”, “Where do notions of Civic Duty/Need (Proselytizing!) and/or Self-interest fit in?”, and “Does entertainment even work?” And in the end, this dialogue culminated in three simple queries: WHY, WHOand HOW?

Which worked well, because the audience took to the list and responded in wonderful and thoughtful ways. In particular, the discussion appeared to categorize itself into three particular trends.

Firstly, many of the comments showcased intriguing examples that took advantage of an unconventional pairing – for instance, the case presented by Chad Orzel (@orzelc) of connecting a narrative between the National Football League and the neuroscience of concussion effects. Along similar lines, there were also many examples where some facet of art was combined with the act of translating science. This included discussions around the use of aesthetics in artwork, comics, animation, video, or the importance of theatrical elements or story telling as a form of engaging narrative (@Indrevis,@BenLillie@Beatricebiology). In particular, I remember Jennifer Ouellette (@JenLucPiquant) describing some of the mandates around her role as Director of The Science and Entertainment Exchange. This was great stuff, and really this should all be archived somewhere someday (maybe here even?).

As well, there was a category of stirring conversations which tended to be the ones that considered the motivations involved – as in, why do the people in the room do what they do. Here, we heard many comments around the simple idea of sharing one’s passion, and to hope that in doing this, one will engage someone to look a little deeper. Or better yet, a science communicator who wants to move outside the classroom mentality is doing this because they are, in effect, saying that “this is my view of science culture and I think that you might find it interesting too…” In other words, it’s not necessarily about being strategic or attempting to fix science literacy issues en mass but simply doing your part, in the context of whatever reach you can muster. I quite like this sentiment, especially when expressed with eloquence and passion by individuals like Danielle Lee (@DNLee5) and Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen). It feels right and, if I can be honest, it’s also downright inspiring.

Except that none of it feels very scientific, which presents a delicious sort of irony and also our third and final stream of commentary. More to the point, this discussion addressed whether any of our preaching outside the choir was actually working. Are our efforts for naught, or are we, as a roomful of passionate science communicators, actually changing societal impressions, views, and opinions around science? Anecdotally, yes, but can we call ourselves successful when applying a more rigorous scientific rubric.

This, to me, is an important question, but it’s also a question that might not have easy answers. In fact, Ben Lillie (@BenLillie) very nicely expressed this conundrum, so much so as to suggest that maybe it’s not something that can be measured – and I think there’s some merit to this train of thought. How do we evaluate such things, this talking science to the uninterested, and in any case, how confident would we be with this evaluation, knowing that it is likely a caveat laden process? It reminds me a little of a recent chat I had with a theatre academic – he told me his colleagues were constantly wrestling with the following question – “how exactly does one measure the value of art?

Still, that doesn’t make it a pointless question, and certainly not one that shouldn’t be explored. Indeed, Science Online was wonderful because others were interested in this challenge, and I’ve even managed to embark upon a research initiative with Marie-Claire Shannahan** (@mcshanahan) to hopefully capture a glimpse of what an answer might look like. It’s funny: This science communication business is all a little mysterious when you think about it, but upon reflection, I find it comforting to realize that this isn’t so different from the awesomeness of science itself.

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* It was the latter by the way. This is why theatre is always workshopped, and I should’ve known better!

** More on this later. For now, we have both agreed to present this research process in a completely open manner. Right now, we’re stuck on the name of the blog where we would real-time share our discussions, processes and results.