• John
  • Felde
  • University of Maryland
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • James
  • Doherty
  • Open University
  • United Kingdom

Latest Posts

  • Flip
  • Tanedo
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Aidan
  • Randle-Conde
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Belgium

Latest Posts

  • Karen
  • Andeen
  • Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Latest Posts

  • Seth
  • Zenz
  • Imperial College London
  • UK

Latest Posts

  • Alexandre
  • Fauré

Latest Posts

  • Jim
  • Rohlf
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Emily
  • Thompson
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

Read Bio

Competing and Collaborating FAIRly

Friday, November 4th, 2011

- By Nigel Lockyer, Director of TRIUMF

I just returned from a trip to Darmstadt Germany where I attended the inaugural one-day meeting of the FAIR Science Council. FAIR (Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research) is an ambitious new one-million-plus euro nuclear and particle physics project—mostly nuclear—addressing the intensity frontier. It will be located right next to GSI, the large nuclear physics lab just outside Darmstadt. They are aiming to have the first science from FAIR by 2018. It is being formed as an international laboratory, and has been incorporated with the German designation of “GmbH”.  Presently there are six shareholders: Germany, Russia, Sweden, Finland, India, and Romania. A number of new partners are in detailed negotiations: firm commitments are expected soon from France, Poland, and Romania; and a large group, which includes Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Norway and several more, is exploring joining. Canada and the US are not members yet but that could change.  It is arguably the most ambitious project in nuclear physics in the world.

The main thrust of FAIR focuses on the structure and evolution of matter on both a microscopic and a cosmic scale. There are four scientific pillars: 1) atomic physics, plasma physics, and applications such as nuclear medicine; 2) Compressed Baryonic Matter; 3) Nuclear structure and nuclear astrophysics; 4) hadron structure and dynamics. I was intrigued with several science topics, but understanding the “vacuum” has always captured my interest.

When I looked into this in the past, it was far too murky for me as a particle physicist to make sense of quark and gluon condensates and spontaneous symmetry breaking of chiral symmetry. It is the energy associated with the vacuum that leads to the famous 120 orders of magnitude “wrong calculation” of the cosmological constant—one of theoretical physics biggest embarrassments, or so they say. FAIR thinks they will weigh in heavily on this subject. If they do, it will be a major scientific advance for quantum chromodynamics. Another area I found of interest was the plasma physics program. They will be able to make plasmas with heavy ions and thus could study inertial confinement with ions instead of lasers and light, as NIF does at Livermore. They will explore new territory in the temperature density plane and they plan to image the plasma using proton radiography, a technique I was introduced to when I first looked at proton therapy for cancer patients. To the best of my knowledge, Los Alamos has done the leading work in this area and are looking at mounting experiments at FAIR. That would be a powerful team.

I am on the committee because they have a rare isotope beam (RIB) program and TRIUMF is a major player in that field. FAIR will use a complimentary technique to TRIUMF, which in turn, will make us both competitors and collaborators.  I enjoyed meeting the committee members, many of whom I did not know, and especially interacting with an old friend from CDF days at Fermilab, now Director of Research at CERN, Sergio Bertolucci. Sergio provided a wealth of knowledge and advice for the FAIR project management team, as did the other committee members. Overall, it was a good first meeting for what will be a very exciting and important project for nuclear physics. I predict great things for them!




May the Best Team Win…But, First Let’s Help Each Other Out

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications

Seems like scientists travel a lot, going to and fro, traversing universities, laboratories, and countries around the world. Is this because scientists are wanderlusts and cannot be contained within one set of borders?

No, not really.

For instance, a chief reason scientists travel is to participate in peer-review committees of their fellow laboratories and research institutions. This isn’t the type of peer review that is used to hone and select papers for publication. This is a peer review where scientists and other experts gather to give tough love to a research project and its leadership.

I wrote this from a small hotel off the U.S. Route 1 in New Jersey, near Princeton University. What brought me here was an invitation to join a group of experts to hear about the progress and plans of the nearby U.S. DOE national laboratory and give shrewd advice about where they needed to straighten up and fly right—and where things are really humming. I came as a “subject-matter expert” in communications and strategic planning; others were international experts in plasma and fusion science; still others were seasoned veteran project leaders with decades of project management and budgeting experience. Perhaps most importantly, some of the people in the group hailed from the lab’s traditional “competitors” and its collaborators. In this way, the host lab got the toughest scrutiny.

That’s the amazing thing. As competitive as scientists are with each other, with one another’s collaborations and experiments, we all know that it’s better if it’s a “fair fight” and a level playing field. The only “losses” should be on the scientific playing field, not because of poor management, accidents, or design flaws. So scientists, especially particle physicists, have a great tradition of inviting groups of their expert colleagues over to review their programs and plans with a fine-toothed comb. Some of the committee members can be quite gruff, but it’s like preparing for a test: you want the hardest questions in advance so that you are totally prepared and totally ready for an official government review. Not only does the laboratory get crucial advice about what is working and what isn’t, but the visiting experts get a chance to get updated on the capabilities and plans of the laboratory. Everybody wins, because everybody contributes something and everybody gets contributed to.

There’s another feature of these reviews that is neat. Not all review committees do it this way because of their specific tasks or mandates, but there is one style of the review and the report that is especially common—based on the so-called “Lehman review” format named after Danny Lehman of the U.S. DOE’s Office of Engineering and Construction Management. (See this article in ITER Newsline to learn more about it.) A Lehman review is considered one of the most grueling and investigative reviews in the business. The report of the review committee is designed to be short and sweet; no time to waste on pleasantries. The report is organized into three sections on the major topics: findings, comments, and recommendations. Findings capture the essential facts that the visiting committee learned during the review. Findings are meant to be just observations and “what’s so.” It forms the basis of the next two sections of the report. A “comment” is exactly that; it is a reasoned judgment or assessment of the review committee based on their substantial experience. A comment might state that a certain finding is a good technique for getting the work done or it might state that a certain finding has inherent risks for achieving the overall project goals. Finally, recommendations are the specific pieces of hard-hitting, specific advice. Recommendations are intended to be very clear: who should do what by when? A recommendation that says, “Somebody should think hard about that situation and then maybe do something,” is rejected. A recommendation is meant to a homework assignment that the host laboratory could understand, complete, and then report back on how it went.

In any event, the peer review I participated in for the Princeton laboratory was phenomenal. The laboratory has come along way over the past decade and they are taking a real leadership position for the future of plasma science and technology in the U.S.

Thank you for sharing the lab with us, and we’ll back in 6 months to check on your “homework!”


Working with TR13

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

– By Kiel Strang, TRIUMF High School Fellowship Student

For the past 6 weeks I’ve been working for Dr. Conny Hoehr and TRIUMF’s Nuclear Medicine group.  The main project I’ve been working on involves a new process for producing Technetium-94m (94mTc) with the TR13 cyclotron.

Kiel and the TR13 Cyclotron

94mTc is a radioisotope used in PET imaging and has some properties that make it an attractive replacement for 99mTc, a commonly used imaging isotope that is now in short supply.  When the positron emitted by 94mTc annihilates with an electron, it emits 2 gamma rays in opposite directions.

Detecting these in coincidence allows the position of the tracer molecule to be determined more precisely than is possible with the single gamma emitted by 99mTc, producing better image quality.

94mTc has been previously produced using solid molybdenum trioxide-94 (94MoO3) targets.  Dr. Hoehr and her team are developing an alternate method of producing 94mTc using a liquid target filled with a solution of 94MoO3, ammonium hydroxide (NH4OH), hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and water.

My role in this project was developing the software to control and automate handling of the target solution.

Using NI Lookout (http://sine.ni.com/nips/cds/view/p/lang/en/nid/12511), I developed a control interface for the process and automated the expected sequence of operations.  I tried to make the interface easy to understand and operate, and flexible enough to allow for easy adjustment as the procedures are finalized.

As this is an experimental system, I tried to leave the operator lots of flexibility.  In addition to the automated stages, the interface allows manual control of all the valves.

One of the most interesting challenges in developing the interface was controlling the syringe pump used to push solutions into the system.  This pump has an integrated microcontroller that can be programmed with quite complex tasks, but the interface between the pump controller and the Lookout control software is very limited.  There are 2 programmable input pins available and 1 pin, which starts or pauses the pump program.

The Lookout control program needs to be able to select any of 3 preset dispensing volumes (for filling the target, dispensing products, and purging the system).  I did this using timing on one of the input pins – when the pump program is started, it will select a volume based on the length of time the pin is powered.  The other programmable pin is used as an emergency stop signal.

Because this system is not expected to be assembled and run until the fall, I had to test each component individually.  For the Lookout software, I created simulated inputs and indicators for the state of the outputs.  I also tested the pump by manually connecting power to its input pins.  These methods allowed me to verify that each component works as intended before the entire system is assembled.

I’ve been debating between studying Physics or Engineering Physics for a couple of years, but working at TRIUMF has shown me that an engineering education could be very valuable even if I eventually decide to pursue a career in physics.


From High School Graduate to Particle Physicist

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

– By Adam DeAbreu, TRIUMF High School Fellowship Student

“Oh my god”, “it was so crazy”, “it was nuts” – that’s about all I was able to say during my interview with the North Shore News after I found out I had won the TRIUMF Fellowship. Even now [at the end of the work-term], those same emotions still stand – I’m still amazed that I was able to work at TRIUMF, work with particle physicists, work with data from the ATLAS detector – that after reading the sign saying, “TRIUMF employees only past this point”, I could walk right past it.

Before I even knew what happened my first day had come, I arrived at TRIUMF and sat down in the lobby and just about died from anticipation and anxiousness. That first day I knew I was working with Dr. Oliver Stelzer-Chilton and the ATLAS group, but I didn’t have a clue as to what my project was going to be. The constant whirlwind of butterflies in my stomach calmed as Oliver and I talked about possible projects, areas of research, and tools that I would be using.  The decision came down to working with data from the ATLAS detector or using the program Pythia to simulate collisions of particles. The answer came easy to me – if I had the chance to work with data from ATLAS, from the LHC, from CERN, then there wouldn’t be much that would persuade me to choose otherwise.

And so my learning/research project/adventure began. All the data was of sets of two muons that ATLAS had detected and that had decayed from a Z boson. The simulated data is run through a detector resolution smearing equation because there are thousands of events that have to be sorted depending on where in the detector the muons went. This equation uses two parameters, S1 and S2, with ranges that the program incrementally goes through to create templates with a range of resolutions; from very high, being a very skinny histogram, to low, being a wider histogram. These templates are then used as a structure to fit the data from ATLAS.

The first part of my project was to rewrite the code with only one resolution parameter, S1, and have the second resolution parameter, S2, that had a different momentum dependence fixed. By doing this and removing the S2 variable, we could see how much additional scaling was needed for the fits. As well, we were able to measure the Z boson mass and compare it to the world’s average value of 91.187 +-0.002 GeV.

I’d like to say that I just jumped right into the project and finished it within a day. However, when I looked at Oliver’s code it looked as though it was in a completely different language and to an extent, it was. I had to learn the C++ it was written in and the usage of the program ROOT, which created and manipulated all the histograms and data. I am not the most tech savvy person and getting my head into the programing was hard; however, it helped that I had a goal – that my programing was helping Oliver with his report: “Search for High-Mass Dilepton Resonances in pp Collisions at √(s) = 7 TeV”. Just knowing that was what my work was related to would have kept me going for months. As well, I took solace in something Oliver had said during the first days of my fellowship, “Use the code, and the programs and the language as tools. I became a physicist and if I’m not careful with all the coding around me I may end up a computer scientist.”

Finally I began what would inevitably be my last project during my fellowship. I had to create another program that would take the same data set, but include the second resolution term S2 and produce templates with one dimensionality higher. We split the data and simulation depending on the muon’s momentum. In the equation used for the resolution of the detector, the S1 and S2 terms have a different dependence on the momentum value, so it’s important to split the data in this fashion. With the Z boson mass distribution split according to momentum the motivation was that we would be able to simultaneously constrain S1 and S2. If both could be constrained, this would allow for an independent measure of S2 that currently can only be obtained from an external input. As well, this would allow both resolution parameters to be measured from the Z boson sample, which is an important calibration sample when searching for new particles at high mass.

Despite really enjoying all that I was learning, I was still thankful that the entirety of the six weeks wasn’t constant coding and compiling. No, there was a lot more to the six weeks than just that; I met great people, attended lectures, seminars and workshops. There’s a very strange feeling I got when, after hearing all these people talk about their work during lectures or in the lunchroom or the office with such passion and insight and knowledge, and to know that not long ago they were in my position – gearing up to take the first step in an education of physics. In just the six short weeks I’ve been at TRIUMF my comprehension of everything particle physics related has grown so much. And it was a great feeling when I saw that it wouldn’t be long before I would be neck deep in the physics.

Then there was the BBQ, I won’t say that I’m surprised but I was definitely pleased to see so many physicists being able to put their work aside to relax and have a great time. To see someone, one day talking about the applications of particle physics, now desperately trying to bite a hanging donut from a string, was definitely a great way to take a break, laugh and relax.

In the end I went from being completely overwhelmed by just the thought of working at TRIUMF – nevertheless actually working with particle physicists and using the same tools and data that they use – to having a handle on ROOT, C ++, and the manipulation of data and histograms. This fellowship has jump-started my learning, and my career. One last quote from Oliver: “there’s so much out there, at a certain point you go from learning it all, as in elementary and high school, to having to narrow your scope – to choose what it is you want to learn”. I’ve narrowed my scope to physics and this fellowship has given me a great experience of what it means to be a particle physicist and will undoubtedly help me when it comes time for me to narrow my scope for the next step. Until then my horizon holds all the possibilities that university physics brings with it, all rushing towards me – and I can hardly wait another minute.


“The life of a scientist: have you been disillusioned yet?”

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

– By Saige McVea, TRIUMF High School Fellowship Student

I was asked this question by Dave Ottewell, a veteran physicist who has worked with both the TITAN and DRAGON groups during his 37 year long career at TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics. It was during my second week participating in the TRIUMF High School Fellowship, and I must admit that since then, I have been completely and utterly disillusioned.

The first few days of my six week internship were spent in a haze; not only is the TRIUMF lab massive and labyrinthine to a newcomer with a poor sense of direction, but the individuals who work there (though they appear ordinary) speak a dialect of English rich in acronyms and scientific jargon. Quite simply, I was lost. However, I was also fortunate enough to be placed under the supervision of Jennifer Fallis, a post-doctorate research associate, and Chris Ruiz, the group leader with whom I have been working on the DRAGON experiment.

Once somewhat familiar with my new environment and the language being spoken, I was given a small project. I was to design a platform to which a pinhole camera, an LED light, and an alpha source could be mounted so that the deterioration of ultra-thin carbon foils could be observed within the MCP chamber. This seemed incredibly simple at first when compared to what I had previously been trying to understand, but in reality, it proved to be rather problematic.

Saige with her work for DRAGON

Acquiring the camera from a spy shop with Lars Martin, Jennifer, and Gabriel (a student participating in the Emerging Aboriginal Scholars Summer Camp) began the job on a comical note. However, every necessary step after that point was time consuming and rather frustrating. Parts needed to be located so that the camera could be tested in a vacuum chamber, LED light configurations needed to be explored so a quality image could be obtained, and the dimensions of the existing components of the alpha source platform needed to be verified. When I finally had my sketch of the platform completed, I decided to double check that it would not protrude into the oncoming beam-line, and was again exasperated. The current extendable arm could not sufficiently withdraw; therefore, the new platform would most likely interfere with the radioactive beam. This would be an easy fix if the extendable arm required (SBLM-275-6) to correct this issue did not cost $1100 and take 35 days to be delivered – a duration exceeding the length of my stay.

The collapse of the camera installation, however, allowed me to take on other projects during my time at TRIUMF. I was taught how to do some very basic data analysis of the Magnesium-24 run using a root terminal and elementary C++ programming. By using MCP time of flight to select BGO (Bismuth Germanate) detector data for the E0 spectrum, centroid positions and resonance energies could be determined. My data analysis was compared to that of Dave Hutcheon, who used the separator time of flight (time between detection of a gamma ray and a heavy ion arriving at the DSSSD) instead of MCP time of flight, and fortunately, our results were in agreement.

Other slices of my working hours were spent attending student lectures and seminars. While at the ARIEL workshop, I made “tweets” concerning the speakers’ presentations. Although there was an abundance of things very much beyond me, I was forced to focus on the scraps of information that I did understand. I also learned during these seminars that scientists can get extremely passionate about their beliefs in theoretical physics. Whether the Higgs exists, dark energy is real, or supersymmetry is valid, I cannot say; but I am very glad that much still remains unknown. Most recently, I have been updating DRAGON’s astro website, and will perhaps continue to do so after my work term has ended.

So, returning to my complete and utter disillusionment, a career in physics is nothing like I would have expected. It does not entail familiar procedures or strategized experiments with flawless results obtained in pristine laboratories that yield clear and obvious conclusions. From what I have seen, a career in physics it is about dedication, incessant learning, collaboration with peers, and the prevalent mentality that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

I would like to give a huge thanks to the TRIUMF High School Fellowship Committee for giving me this wonderful opportunity, all members of the DRAGON team for patiently instructing me over these past six weeks, and the 2011 summer co-ops for being a fantastic group of people. I wish you all the best!



Gabriel’s Notebook: The Last Week

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

- By Gabriel Stewart, visiting PIMS student

Day 1

The beginning of the week was a Tuesday because of BC day. I love those holidays but it took one day out of my blog >:(  Anyways… on Tuesday, I met the boss LeRoss (aka Theresa LeRoss, a cool 20-year-old). She took me on a tour of the M20 beam line where they’re re-building a beam line. The beam lines all over the lab bring particles from the cyclotron to the experiments. She explained how the beam lines are laid out and aligned, then we set up a level and theodolite in ISAC-I.

Gabriel with "the boss LeRoss" and the M20 beam line

Day 2

This week was short and it’s my last week here. In memory that I was here, I helped lay out a grid with chalk. We were checking how level the floor is for some equipment they’ll put there. I also scraped off rust steel door frames.  Hahahaha boss Leross, don’t worry I had fun and I don’t mind doing that stuff for my last week. It was fun spending time with a laid back type of girl…..woman….girl that can get her stuff done easily. Even if she doesn’t think she is an adult, I think she is very mature in a good way, so that makes you an adult boss Leross :). Well that’s it; I’m done here. This is Gabe signing off—hopefully I’ll be back next year! And I still say it beats staying home and doing nothing on the computer.  :) Bye!


Gabriel’s Notebook: Building masks for physics

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

- By Gabriel Stewart, visiting PIMS student

Day 1

Today was the first day with TIGRESS. Greg came by to meet me last week, but he was so busy he forgot about me on Monday! He made time for me to help out – I made a “mask” for the detectors. I made a right angle triangle with a dremel tool and they were putting it on as I left for home.

Day 2

Today a group from the PIMS summer camp came in to film me at TRIUMF. I missed my bus stop, but even though I arrived 30 minutes late and a little sweaty, they got some pictures and videos of me at the TIGRESS machine. After that, we sat in front of a computer until 4:00 waiting for the data to come in. Once we saw the triangle-shaped data, we took out the “mask.”


Gabriel shows off the mask he made to fit into TIGRESS.

Day 3

Today was my last day with TIGRESS.  It’s been a good week. Greg went to the dentist that day. I made another mask to calibrate the silicon detector(s) (I don’t know if it is one or more). When I was finished, Mr. Wu ,Elaine, and I talk for a while. They are researchers that are visiting TRIUMF and working with TIGRESS right now—they are good people :). Next week is my last. Man, this beats staying at home and doing nothing.


Gabriel and Greg Hackman in front of TIGRESS


Gabriel’s Notebook: Fixing an ion source

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

- By Gabriel Stewart, visiting PIMS student

Day 1

Today I saw a model of the cyclotron and got a brief science lesson from the supervisor, Keerthi Jayamanna.

Day 2

When I arrived the second day, Keerthi and Kasia Tokarska explained to me how the power source works because I was working with OLIS (Off Line Ion Source). It is the one and only supplier of the stable atomic elements into the experiments — without them, DRAGON and TIGRESS wouldn’t really work, so this is where DRAGON and OLIS and TIGRESS coincide. The other thing I did was look at the beam line and try to understand it.


Gabriel (left) and Kasia in the ISAC-I Control room.

Day 3

This was my last day with OLIS. Today was interesting—there was something wrong with the wave emitter so they were fixing it when I got there. I got to help fix a wave emitter. I also saw Jennifer Fallis, the person I worked with from DRAGON. And at the very end of the day I got to meet the person I will be working with from TIGRESS next week. He showed me the gamma radiation detector. He explained that it’s the thing from Hulk the movie made in 2000, but in that movie it was a gamma emitter that turned the character into the hulk. That was pretty much my week. I still say it beats staying at home…


Kasia (left), Gabriel near OLIS as Keerthi works on fixing the equipment.



Gabriel’s Notebook: Spy cameras for the DRAGON

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

- By Gabriel Stewart, with editorial notes from Jennifer Gagné

Grade 10 student Gabriel Stewart is visiting TRIUMF for the next 4 weeks. During his time here, he will spend three afternoons a week with different research groups around the lab. These posts are his notes from his experiences. During his first week, he spent time with the DRAGON experiment, installing a camera to see inside a vacuum tube.

Gabriel is at TRIUMF as part of the Emerging Aboriginal Scholars Summer Camp put on by the Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences and the First Nations House of Learning at the University of British Columbia. For the month of July, students from the camp are placed in research environments after their morning classes.  Gabriel is the second young aboriginal student to visit and work at TRIUMF, following in the footsteps of Dylon Martin from Thomson, Manitoba who visited the lab in 2009.


Lars Martin, Gabriel Stewart, and Jennifer Fallis working on the DRAGON experiment

Day 1

It was a very interesting week. On the first day, we bought a camera for inside a vacuum tube at the spy store.

Back at ISAC I, we tested it out (me, Jennifer, and Saige). After figuring out that we attached it wrong, we changed it to make it work, then we took apart the camera. That was pretty much my day.

Day 2

Right off the bat, I had to go to a meeting with the DRAGON scientists. If you weren’t raised on science, you didn’t have a chance to understand them. After the confusing meeting, Lars and Saige had a coffee break while I ate yummy cookies :)  Once they were all caffiened-up, we went to the building with the cyclotron and did some experiments with the test chamber.

Day 3

Day three my last day with the DRAGON program, and all I was thinking was “all I did was go to the spy store had one very confusing meeting and had a coffee break.” Today I watched Saige solder on LED lights onto a resistor, then put it into a box to see if the camera lighting was any better. After trying a couple of tactics to no avail, they decided to buy one of those LED flashlights from the dollar store. One of the things I learned is that physicists are very thrifty about the material they need, which is awesome :D. Well, that was pretty much my week and I have to say, it beats being bored at home!


Wherefore Science Communications?

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

– by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications

When I was growing up, a communicator was the device that Captain Kirk used to radio instructions to Chief Engineer Scott: “Beam me up, Scotty,” and then he’d turn into silver twinkles and that was that.  Times have changed as we now have two Spocks in the same movie at the same time—and there is an emerging class of trained professional individuals known as “communicators” who seem to be cropping up at major science laboratories all around the world.

The International Linear Collider has communicators (one from each region), laboratories and universities have dedicated science-communications teams, and the world-wide InterAction Collaboration was formed to bring the communications leaders of the world’s chief subatomic-physics laboratories together twice a year.  So, just what is science communications and what is its role in the world of research?

By definition, science communications means communication activities that share information about science and technology.  Scientists talk to one another about their research through journal papers, professional conferences, and yes, even by e-mail.  This level of “communicating about science” is typically not included in science-communications work although such “communication with the broader research community” is often quite crucial for the success of research.  And, of course, by science, we usually mean “science, technology, engineering, and medicine” (STEM).

Science communications also usually refers to the activities or individuals who work with intention, professionalism, and partnership.  Clipping a newspaper article about breakthroughs in medical-imaging technology and sending it to my grandmother is a form of communicating about science, but again, this type of activity is usually excluded from what we mean by “science communications.”  And then there’s “outreach.”  But let’s discuss that later in this article.

The Case for Science Communications

There is widespread discussion about the case for science communications.  Generally speaking, it is assumed that while science is not intrinsically “good” or “bad,” the advancement of science and human knowledge is important and has value.  In broad terms, the arguments of the proponents can be grouped into the following categories.

  • “To know is to love.”  If only the public understood science, they would like it more.  Often called the Public Understanding of Science school of thought, these proponents assert that when  the public knows and understands the content of scientific research, they will better appreciate it and therefore not only choose to increase public finances for it but also consider steering more young people into science.  In this vein, science communication seeks to expand the understanding and appreciation of science.  This is also sometimes called “popularization” of science.
  • “If science is for everyone, we have to share it with them—especially since they are paying for it.”  If public finances are one of the largest sources of funds for science, then the outcomes of scientific research should be paid back as “dividends” to the public.  And since the public is composed mostly of non-scientists, science communicators must “translate” the results of science into terms that the public can digest.  This line of reasoning is also connected to the “civic obligation” set of arguments.
  • “Sense of civic obligation.”  Just as great societies support and celebrate the work of artists, musicians, and poets as part of advancing the human condition, the knowledge and contexts derived from scientific research offer invaluable wisdom to the public.  Science communicators are then involved in the quest to share the majesty and wonder of science with the public as part of a moral commitment to the public good and well-being.
  • “Athenian ideals.”  A powerful and healthy democracy relies on the education and thoughtfulness of all its citizens.  As scientific research yields new understanding about how nature works and what is and is not possible, the citizens of a great society need to stay apprised of these fruits of knowledge so as to properly serve the country.  In some cases, proponents of the “Athenian ideals” will also point to the role of science communications in helping a society develop reasonable societal and ethical frameworks for dealing with breakthroughs in science and technology (e.g., weapons of mass destruction, stem-cell research, or human cloning).
  • “Inspiring the next generation.”  Science as a calling is not for everyone, but it offers inspiration and imagination to young people.  Communicators should focus on sharing the wonders and beauties revealed by science to inspire the next generation of leaders, scientists, and engineers.
  • “Corporate affairs, corporate identity.”  This argument has more texture than most as it suggests that the performers of science have a responsibility to represent their skills and abilities to the public, just like a corporation, charity, or popular music band.
  • “Looking good” or “Spin-doctoring.”  This rationale is more cynical than the others and simply asserts that as an enterprise, science needs marketing and public-relations activities to maintain public support (e.g., funding).  The public would never understand the true practice and important of science, so communicators are needed to “position” science and “make it look good.”

There is a wide spectrum of arguments supporting the case for science communications and this list has presumptuously identified the chief elements.  Of course, there is a corresponding set of opposing arguments that either criticize elements of above or that question the coherence and existence of science communications as an intentional, professional activity altogether.  For instance, one criticism argues that science communications implies a tight boundary around those who can articulate true, reliable knowledge.  By defining a deficient public as recipients of knowledge, scientists get to contrast their own identity as experts.  Understood in this way, science communication may explicitly exist to connect scientists with the rest of society, but its very existence only acts to emphasize the distance between them: as if the scientific community only invited the public to play in order to reinforce its most powerful boundary.

As the field matures and grows stronger (there are only a handful of formal academic programs of study in science communications in North America), the scope and character of the discipline will sharpen.

Science Outreach and the “Public”

Related to this existential discussion are the distinctions among science communications, outreach, and education.  Science education is typically related to pedagogical activities whose primary purpose is to achieve learning outcomes within the context of established curricula and teaching constructs established for students.  Also included would be activities designed to improve the knowledge, skills, and abilities of teachers.

The distinction between science communications and outreach is less clear; it hinges upon a word used glibly above: the public.  What is the general public?  Is it a monolithic black box containing “everyone who is not a scientist?”  In recent years, science communications practitioners and researchers have not only begun to distinguish different “audiences” within the public, but have also begun insisting on two-way participatory process where scientists and communicators listen to what non-scientists have to say.  This relatively new understandings have led to what is often called “strategic communications” in which communicators identify target audiences, key messages, and tactics to advance stated outcomes or objectives within those audiences.

Loosely speaking, then, science outreach seeks (a) to popularize and communicate science to broad audiences within the general public that are already pre-disposed to “like” science and/or (b) to achieve general understanding, interest, and affinity for specific elements of science.

A Measure of Success

Perhaps the greatest challenge in science communications is the lack of definitive metrics of success and impact.  In the media relations subfield, for instance, practitioners typically quote “number of readers/viewers” or “advertisement buy value” as measures of how successful a piece of coverage was.  But in the real world, it is hard to discern whether the attention of a body of readers of viewers actually changed anything—do they think differently, do they know more, have their views shifted?  Within stakeholder relations, the most popular statistic for measuring positive impact is simply, “Well, nothing bad happened yet: the government and/or the public haven’t closed us down.”

This lack of a definitive metric for success does hold back science communications to an extent.  It is hard to make the case for an activity whose outcomes are diffuse and unquantifiable.  And it can even be difficult to make the correct strategic choices about which activities to pursue without the guidance of clear, concrete predictions of impact.  However, as financial experts will agree, predictions of future performance are not always good indicators for what makes the most sense and has the most value.

In general, though, sharing about science seems like a good and virtuous endeavour and research institutions around the world are taking science communications forward as a necessary and serious part of their public mission.