From knowing what a molecule is to endorsing government support for basic research, Canadians as a whole display a clearer understanding of and a more positive attitude toward science than people in most other developed countries.

A new report, to be released on Thursday by the Council of Canadian Academies, offers the most comprehensive portrait of the country’s science culture in a quarter century. It comes at a time when economic competition abroad and complex policy questions at home surrounding issues such as climate change increasingly require decision makers and the public to have a basic level of fluency and comfort with scientific thinking.

Overall, the report’s message is a positive one for Canada. “Canadians rank quite highly when it comes to science knowledge, attitudes and engagement in comparison with other countries in the world,” said Arthur Carty, chair of the panel that produced the report and a former national science adviser.

But despite high levels of interest, the report also reveals that in practical terms, most Canadians have an arm’s-length relationship with science. Only 20 per cent of first university degrees in Canada are awarded in science and engineering fields and only 30 per cent of employed Canadians work at science and technology related jobs – fewer than in the majority of other countries with a comparable standard of living.

In producing the report, the panel commissioned a nationwide survey of how Canadians relate to science and compared the results to similar, recent surveys in other countries. More than 2,000 people were interviewed for the survey, conducted in 2013 by EKOS Research Associates.

Among the most striking results from the survey is that Canada ranks first in science literacy, with 42 per cent of Canadians able to read and understand newspaper stories detailing scientific findings.

Canadians also expressed the lowest level of reservation about science and its impacts. Compared with the U.S., Europe and Japan, far fewer Canadians said that they thought science is making our way of life change too fast.

In another contrast, more than half of those who responded to a U.S. survey agreed with the statement that society has come to depend too much on science and not enough on faith. Across Canada, only a quarter of those surveyed agreed.

The comparatively high interest in science that Canadians express suggests they may be doing better than most at keeping up with the discoveries that have come along since their formal education ended. An emphasis on lifelong learning is important for cultivating a national science culture, the report’s authors say, because the leading edge of research is driven by knowledge that was not available 10 or 20 years ago.

“It’s not something that you learn in school and put behind you,” said Jon Miller, a panel member and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan. “Canada has been particularly adept at responding to that notion.”

But ongoing research by Dr. Miller and others suggest that science literacy is on the rise everywhere, and therefore Canada’s high ranking could also be a function of how recently it was surveyed relative to other countries. Whatever the reason, the report’s numbers suggest there is more to be learned about precisely how Canadians are relating to science and how that is changing, says broadcaster and author Jay Ingram, who was also on the panel.

“What I’d like to see in the future is a further exploration of why, in a relatively rapid way, [science] literacy seems to have spread through the population,” Mr. Ingram said.

The report was commissioned by the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

Maurice Bitran, the newly appointed chief executive officer of the Ontario Science Centre, Canada’s largest interactive science museum, praised the report but cautioned it would be a mistake to assume that science holds an exalted position in Canadian society.

“We don’t have a science culture in the sense that we have a hockey culture,” Dr. Bitran said.

One insight the report offers is that, unlike hockey, the nation’s passion for science is at least partially imported, with immigrants making up over half of science PhDs in Canada. (In this story alone, Dr. Carty and Dr. Bitran are both examples).

In that sense, Canada’s immigration policies have likely helped accelerate the nation’s engagement with science. Relative to other nations, Canada also does well in the number of women who earn science degrees.

But a key question is whether enthusiasm for science in the Canadian population can translate into future high performance in research, from earning Nobel Prizes to making discoveries that translate into viable industries.

“In this case, I think co-ordination and leadership on a vision for science culture is important,” Dr. Carty said. “Other countries are doing this … but we haven’t had that kind of national vision.”

Ivan Semeniuk
The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Aug. 28 2014, 7:00 AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Aug. 28 2014, 7:00 AM EDT