The (simple) science of storytelling

Machine mapping. Seismicity study. Butternut defence.

Other than some creative alliteration and an odd squash-based naming convention, what do these three things have in common? They’re all scientific initiatives spearheaded by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).

If you’re confused by these names, you’re not alone. NRCan does a ton of scientific research that can often be difficult for the average person to understand (and if you’re me, twice as difficult). This is where Simply Science comes in to save the day.

It doesn’t have to be rocket science

Recently, my colleague (alias: not your average public servant) and I had the opportunity to sit down with Barbara Ustina and Joel Houle, Communications Advisors at NRCan and the brains behind Simply Science. Their goal? To make science accessible. Simple, right? Well, kind of. Science can be tricky. And sciency.

Simply Science is not all that different from Living Digital. As NRCan’s digital magazine, it promotes the department’s scientific work and the people behind it. But here’s the kicker: it’s been going on for a whole two years. And it has videos. and podcasts. My eyes widened and my jaw dropped at these revelations.

Turns out that Simply Science has been on this gravy train for some time and has been knocking it out of the park. I guess there’s a pretty big appetite for this type of communication.

“Simply Science is a platform for our scientists and experts to promote the important work they do in an evidence-based way” explained Joel. That last part was particularly emphasized as scientists are strictly focused on facts. But often, their work is only published in scientific papers or journals targeted to peers and academics - not necessarily to public servants or Canadians.

Simply Science provides a digital platform for NRCan scientists to share their work in a fun and engaging way. And it’s clearly working: as of this writing, the site boasts over 50 articles, close to 30 podcast episodes, and a handful of videos highlighting some of the amazing scientific work going on around the country. So, I was curious, how did they do it?

“We wanted to find new ways to explain the science we do here and how it affects Canadians’ daily lives.”

“It was a small idea that started out as a pilot project” explained Joel. “We wanted to find new ways to explain the science we do here and how it affects Canadians’ daily lives.” Launched in December 2017, the team started small with the goal of telling Canadians what NRCan scientists do and why they do it, in plain language. “We wanted to move away from a style of writing that was too technical,” explained Barbara. She was preaching to the choir on that one. “But more importantly, we want to demonstrate that science is at the foundation of NRCan and helps inform the department’s decision-making.”

The initiative was very well-received from the beginning. Since 2017, Simply Science has steadily grown and expanded - something my colleague and I were particularly excited about. Barbara explained that videos and podcasts were the natural next step: “Videos can help bring the public right to the location, alongside scientists as they’re doing their work. It’s a way to provide a voice and personality to their stories. Podcasts dive deep into a subject and can go into more detail than an article can.”

Barbara and Joel’s enthusiasm was obvious. And for me, seeing an initiative like this succeed to the point of expanding into other mediums was very exciting - and promising. It made me realize that there’s an appetite for more of this type of content and that certain topics are better suited for certain platforms.

Challenging the science quo

But all this progress hasn’t been without its share of challenges. From the very beginning, the team knew they needed buy-in from senior management for the initiative to take off. They were adamant that without that crucial support at the outset, the idea of Simply Science would’ve fizzled out very quickly.

“Science has a vocabulary of its own and sometimes we need to use some of that technical language to tell a story, with the understanding our readers will get it. ”

They also found that some scientists were initially a little anxious about their approach. “A lot of them didn’t know exactly what to expect and they didn’t want us changing the meaning of their research,” explained Barbara. A challenge they routinely face is turning scientific terminology into plain language for us common folk: “The truth is, we can’t always use plain language in our articles. Science has a vocabulary of its own and sometimes we need to use some of that technical language to tell a story, with the understanding our readers will get it.”

But they believe those challenges have made for a better product. They’ve worked closely with scientists to ensure articles are factual and unbiased, but still entertaining for the reader. And that effort is paying off: “We have a number of experts approaching us to be featured” said Joel. And because it’s a digital platform, they’ve been able to highlight the work being done across the country.

Joel and Barbara are rightfully proud of what they’ve accomplished, but they’re constantly looking ahead. Over the next 12 months, they want to harness the power of social media to its fullest and engage more with listeners and readers to make Simply Science a more digital source of communication. They want to keep pushing the boundaries and tell stories in new and unique ways.

For me, it was an eye-opening and encouraging example of a department telling their stories in a fun and engaging way - one that really connects with the average reader and tells an entertaining story. I think it also speaks to the larger trend of departments telling the GC story to Canadians. Because at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team. And as a writer for Living Digital, that’s something I’m really proud to be a part of.

As Barbara noted, the goal of Simply Science is to provide Canadians with a better understanding of the science at NRCan and how it impacts their daily lives. After consuming a couple articles, videos, and podcasts, I’m no longer confused by how machine mapping, seismicity studies, and butternut defence affect our lives. And I didn’t even have to read a single research paper!


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