Minding the gap

Minding the gap

September 1, 2005

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about the Superstars of Innovation writer’s award is that it attempts, modestly, to address the growing gap in capacity between two of Canada’s most important institutions: our research labs and our newsrooms.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to plead for sympathy or anything. But the fact is that in the last half-decade or so the labs have had a better time of it. And unless the newsrooms adapt to new realities, they’re going to miss some big stories and we’ll wind up doing our readers an even greater disservice than we otherwise would.

Let me explain. The Canada Foundation for Innovation exists to leverage taxpayer dollars into scientific equipment and laboratory floor space, and the CFI hasn’t exactly been lying down on the job. If you look only at life sciences, a very partial list of immense new buildings recently completed or soon to be would include two new research hospitals in Montreal; three buildings at the University of Toronto; two each in Edmonton and Calgary; and eight—eight!—at the University of British Columbia. That’s just off the top of my head, and I haven’t even mentioned Guelph and UQAM and the various physics and chemistry and engineering buildings, plus additions and extensions to existing facilities.

I could add the sometimes-formidable contributions from provincial governments and the historic spike in philanthropy aimed at universities from the Schulichs and the Lazaridises of this world. But you get the idea: a massive increase in Canada’s ability to do good science.

But it’s not necessarily our readers’ and listeners’ fault if they’ve missed that story. As Christopher Waddell, a Carleton University journalism professor, testified last winter before a Senate committee investigating the parlous state of Canadian journalism, the nation’s newsrooms have lately been strip-mined of journalism talent.

The Ottawa bureaus of CBC and CTV news are about half as big as they were 15 years ago—even though both companies have launched 24-hour news networks in the interim. Bigger holes, fewer shovels. The once-mighty Southam News is gone, replaced by the incredible shrinking Canwest News Service. Across the country, full-time police and courtroom reporters are a luxury more and more local newsrooms have persuaded themselves they can’t afford. I was once, briefly, the full-time environmental-issues reporter for The Gazette in Montreal. Today the very idea seems quaint in its extravagance.

Which brings me back—by the scenic route; sorry I took so long—to the utility of the Superstars of Innovation writer`s award. At a time when too many newsrooms are understaffed refuges for harried generalists, it’s as important to remind ourselves as it is to remind our audiences that something big is happening in Canadian science; that it’s happening in a punishingly competitive global context, but that its manifestations are as close as the nearest campus; that it’s worth telling—and that it’s not impenetrable to the most timeless tools of good reporting.

That’s what I noticed right away when, as Chair of our little jury, I started wading through the entries for this year’s inaugural competition. The stories that stood out were the ones that worked as stories, not as technical journalism or happy-face proselytizing.

The best science stories are the work of reporters who use old-fashioned tools that can never go out of style : put down the phone, get out of the newsroom, and go look at what you’re writing about. Ask a lot of questions, especially the ones that might sound dumb—it’s better to get “dumb” out of your system before you start writing. Take careful note of the answers. And bring human empathy to bear in understanding and describing the human impulses that have always driven innovation and the search for knowledge. Impulses like curiosity, compassion, pride, rivalry, the profit motive, a love of beauty, what have you. These are human stories.

Our little jury learned, from one entry, about the endless resourcefulness and good humour some patients bring to their struggle with memory loss. From another we learned that the rocks and shoals of Newfoundland offer secrets even older than what meets the eye. From another—the lengthiest entry and, after long debate because we wanted to make sure we weren’t simply rewarding bulk, the winner—we learned the personal stories behind the big brains at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

I still think the gap between Canada’s growing science capacity and its shrinking journalistic capacity is a problem. But it’s not a life sentence. Journalism has never been exclusively about workplace statistics. Individual acts of journalistic enterprise, properly encouraged and sometimes even rewarded, can help keep our readers and listeners up to speed—even as the pace of discovery accelerates.

Paul Wells is a Senior Political Columnist, Maclean`s magazine.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.