Living science and medicine in Vancouver

AAAS in Vancouver: BC shows off a bit

Universities in British Columbia

The universities in British Columbia. Map courtesy of Matthew Edwards

In case you needed another reason to check out the “Triple-A S” meeting in Vancouver, let me offer an entirely self-serving one: You’re certain to get a great preview of things to come on the Empirical City blog.

Presentations by local academics and researchers appear on every page of the meeting’s program, a ringing endorsement for the decision to come to Vancouver. However, I wonder whether the passport hurdles and travel budget-busting concerns that face visitors to the city have anything to do with the British Columbia-heavy agenda. The province does boast many world-class universities and medical schools—enough that I’ll never lack daily science and medicine events to blog about.

The area’s education and research resources factor large in the talk by science policy researcher J. Adam Holbrook. Vancouver’s primary high tech output is intellectual property, according to this Simon Fraser University scholar. He includes the motion picture industry among Vancouver’s high-tech portfolio, so expect to get some numbers to help understand the “Hollywood North” phenomenon. Also, in the news-you-can-use category, UBC’s David Flanders joins SFU’s John J. Clague in a session making predictions about the impact of sea level rises in the next few decades along the BC coast.

The meeting’s talks and sessions will showcase most of the University of British Columbia’s interdisciplinary research strengths (you can see the full line-up at the UBC Press Office’s mini-site on UBC at AAAS). Karen Bakker, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Political Ecology, gets a chance to talk at length on the science and politics of the world’s freshwater resources. By hitting the right UBC-affiliated talks, you can also put together a degree’s worth of information on global ocean resources, from fisheries to genetic-level marine biodiversity. Several sessions feature UBC’s work on world-wide environmental issues like climate change, and the scientists and physicians of UBC’s schools of medicine and public health offer a strong health sciences schedule at the meeting, too.

But two sessions led by BC scientists leapt out at me, proclaiming a new regional leadership in understanding ancient Earth and human history.

Mark Collard, of Simon Fraser University, called together a group of scientists to discuss periods of climate change in the last four or five million years. Collard seeks to trace the effects of those warming and cooling periods on the animals and plants essential to the survival of the early ancestors of modern humans. One big question to be addressed is whether changes in the paleo-climate led to the evolution of human bipedalism and large brains. Collard aims to link some of the climate data to major events in the history of modern humans, including the spread of Homo sapiens sapiens across the globe.

UBC archaeologist Mimi E. Lam, hopes to illuminate the evolved human traits that enabled modern humans to survive and thrive in almost any ecological setting they came across. Her session brings together scientists who use the interdisciplinary theory of niche-construction to understand the unusual ability of humans to so radically transform environments to suit us. Niche construction theory states that all organisms modify their local environments, actions that in turn influence that species’ future evolution. Humans have made themselves into “super-constructors,” in this view, but this successful strategy could be our downfall as our once adaptive abilities now impact the life support systems of the planet. UBC biologist William Rees will drive this point home with his talk: “Nature, Nurture, and Humanity’s Self-Destructive Niche.”


AAAS in Vancouver: Scientists and journalists gather for an awkward family dinner

Science communication at AAAS: The elephant in the interview

The elephant in the convention centre at AAAS: What (some) scientists think about science journalists. Collage Illustration by Keith Rozendal

It’s close enough to the start of AAAS for some early local buzz to emerge. The professional communicators working for the Association have released their press program (.pdf), featuring a long parade of briefings meant to attract the interest of the hundreds of print, broadcast, and online science reporters headed to Vancouver.

Building on a recent AAAS trend, science communicators and their work command big portions of the conference agenda. The AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards honour the best reporting of the year with cash, an awards luncheon, and a cocktail party at Science World.

But, like a family holiday dinner, the warm embraces and pleasantries passing between the journalists and their scientist sources will eventually give way to the more ambiguous realities of many close relationships.

The attitudes of the science and journalism camps towards one another run both hot and cold—a point driven home by the symposium entitled “Perspectives from science media centres: Should scientists bother with the media?” If you thought the question was a straw man, consider that Fiona Fox from London’s Science Media Centre, brings this question to the table: “What’s the mainstream media ever done for us?”

Prepare to hear some specific and scathing critiques of the coverage allotted to key science stories from the last year, as well.

In a recurring sub-theme at AAAS meetings, climate change reporting draws the focus of a few sessions.

UPDATE: Session has been removed from the AAAS program, alas.
The most intriguing brings together Susan Hassol of the advocacy group Climate Communication with Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. In a true one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other moment, David Gustafson from Monsanto joins them. I can’t wait to hear what he recommends for “Communicating climate change to the business community.”

Is the media guilty of “Misreporting Fukushima?” Is it “A failure of science journalism with global repercussions?” Feeling a bit defensive upon reading these charges, I immediately did a bit of muck-raking on this panel. Is it just my hurt feelings leading me to prematurely dismiss presenter Ramesch Sadhanka from the Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. as nuclear energy apologist? My suspicions grew after being led down an Internet rabbit-hole chasing the session organizers, a non-governmental organization called Sense About Science.  I haven’t had time to wade into all the suspicion and red-baiting raised about this organization by George Monbiot and other UK media, but I know you can count on controversy at this session.

Reporters get a chance to air their grievances, too. On this front, be sure to sit in with the New York Times’ Cornelia Dean as she explores the “Disconnnect: The gap between researchers and journalists.” And, as mentioned previously, Frank Sesno’s plenary panel of veteran science journalists will explain why “Science is not enough” to inform public opinion and policy about the global issues set at the centre of this year’s meeting.

Scientists—mostly unfairly tarred with the “socially-awkward” and “incomprehensibly jargon-besotted” brushes—can drink from a firehose of communications advice offered at a series of how-to science popularization sessions. “Bad presenter bingo” promises to be a fun one. Not to be outdone, UBC’s Andy Torr promises to share the “Secrets of a science communicator,” and communications consultant Dennis Meredit will put you to work “Mastering the ‘foreign’ language of lay communications.”

The greatest secret science communications weapon may be revealed in the three talks on “Using pop-culture icons to slip science into the mainstream.” How’s this for a line up of geek-bait: “Can superheros save the (science) day?” Or more specifically, “Can Batman and Iron Man teach neuroscience?” Add that to “The physics of Star Trek,” and I know you can sign me up! I hope Comic Book Guy is there to make a snarky comment.


AAAS in Vancouver: Western scientists meet indigenous empiricists

Squamish place names for Vancouver's central city. A display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

Squamish place names for Vancouver downtown landmarks. A display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

One of the special threads of this year’s AAAS meeting in Vancouver will present indigenous perspectives on science, medicine, and technology. It seems only fitting that the meeting will highlight these issues, since it will take place on land still claimed by several Coast Salish tribal groups. The Squamish First Nation calls the waters just off the Vancouver Convention Centre Lekleki (known to be good places to find salmon and octopus) and the shore was known for its kemkemály (maple trees).

That sort of local ecological knowledge, held collectively and preserved through oral transmission, provides an important database for scientists interested in environmental change. You can find out more at the Saturday morning panel of indigenous climate scientists along with other climate researchers who have “done their homework” in order to work respectfully within indigenous communities. In case you’re under the impression that it’s only polar bears on the front lines of Arctic climate change, you’ll get a chance to hear from the many human residents feeling the early impacts of global warming. With eyewitness evidence going back generations to correct just those sorts of common myths about the “disappeared” Indian, you’ll emerge with a new appreciation of aboriginal empirical methods.

A related project will help to deepen your study of indigenous earth sciences. At the Sunday poster session you can meet the University of Colorado team working on an archive of “local and traditional knowledge” for several indigenous communities of the Arctic. Not only will the project inform the work of Western earth scientists, the group plans to leave behind a resource of great value for the communities they are working with. It will be interesting to hear what the team has to say about creating mutually-beneficial relationships between outsider scientists who come to study the traditional knowledge and the communities that have preserved this rich information.

The Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) place names I introduced you to earlier bring into sharp relief the critical role that indigenous languages play in cultural survival and the ability of aboriginal communities to safeguard their local and traditional knowledge. However, the “storage media” used to shepherd the data across the generations — indigenous spoken languages — face a critical threat. Because native speakers of Native languages are dying off (and because the use and teaching of these languages were commonly disrupted by settler government policy) most indigenous languages have either been lost entirely or teeter precariously on the brink of extinction. Friday morning’s “Endangered and Minority Languages Crossing the Digital Divide” may bring a bit of hopeful news for anyone concerned about the knowledge and perspective lost to humanity when another language vanishes.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t direct you to the big address by Dr. Lillian Eva Dyck, a Canadian Senator, psychiatrist/neuroscientist, and First Nations/Chinese-Canadian woman. She’ll be delving deep into reconciling Western science and the pan-Indian concept of the medicine wheel, a holistic view of health and illness that guides the work of many who seek to create a culturally appropriate healthcare for indigenous people in North America.

AAAS in Vancouver: The mothership is landing


I've got AAAS on my mind!  Photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

I've got AAAS on my mind! Photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

Two years after the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver–almost to the day–a science Olympiad will touch down in our empirical city.

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science hits Vancouver’s impressive native plant-bedecked, harbourfront convention center on the 16th through the 20th of February. To attend, you must register, and it doesn’t come cheap.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the event ever since I received a bright-red set of Canadian mittens as promotional swag at last year’s “Triple A-S” (AAAS), in Washington, DC.

Count on it being the largest Vancouver gathering of Nobel laureates for years to come, and the year’s highlight for the many international fans who follow the meeting like Deadheads. My own tribe of science journalists dominate the crowd of groupies centred on the meeting’s newsroom. Watch out for us to make the scene at local night clubs and restaurants after filing two or three stories a day on the ground-breaking research on offer.

The overall theme for the meeting is a perfect fit for our cosmopolitan home: “Flattening the World: Building the Global Knowledge Society.” We should count on seeing many pioneering projects set to tackle the complex, interconnected challenges of the 21st century with science-based, international, multidisciplinary solutions.

Here’s just a few highlights from the plenary sessions to get us started:

  • Science journalists and high-profile educators get their own plenary, with the 007-worthy title “Science Is Not Enough.” Featuring climate scientist James Hansen (NASA/Columbia University), evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson (NY Times/Imperial College London), and global health data visualization guru Hans Rosling (Gapminder/Karolinska Institute).  Moderated by Emmy award-winner Frank Sesno (ex-CNN/George Washington Univ).
  • Did you know that humanity is recreating a New Library of Alexandria? It’s director and champion of the Arab and Muslim science tradition, Ismail Serageldin, gets an hour to speak on “Science and Democracy.” I’ll bet this  proud Egyptian champion of human rights and applying science to global problems will inspire.
  • Finally, get in touch with your inner chimpanzee with Frans B. M. de Waal of Emory Univeristy’s Yerkes Primate Center. He makes a great case for a positive view of human nature, rooted in a long evolutionary history of “Primate Social Instincts to Human Morality.” He does a nice impression of a laughing chimp, too.