Cited Podcast bring academia into the light

In two small offices of the Michael Smith Laboratories, among the controlled chaos of labs and data, a small team of industrious journalists record a radio show and podcast called Cited. Last month, their hard work was rewarded with one of British Columbia’s most prestigious awards for journalism: The Jack Webster Award in Feature and Enterprise Reporting, for their episode The Heroin Clinic.

 

Cited originally rose out of The UBC Terry Project. Founded by Dr. Dave Ng, science educator and director of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory at the MSL, and Dr. Allen Sens, a professor in UBC’s Political Science department, The Terry Project brought together both science and humanities training to help UBC students tackle global challenges with diverse tools and techniques.

 

Cited’s executive producers and co-hosts Sam Fenn and Gordon Katic took this idea of diverse people solving problems together, and ran with it. At its core, Cited is about discoveries. It investigates how academics are compelled to leave their ivory towers and interact directly with communities, governments, and media, in order to turn knowledge into action. Sam and Gordon’s stories combine scholarship across huge areas of expertise, with original investigative journalism. Regularly playing on CBC radio shows like The Doc Project, Cited had already won 3 national awards for campus and community radio before their latest recognition.

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Scientists are in the knowledge-production business. They go into the lab or into the field, perform their experiments, then publish their findings in highly specialised journals. However, if there is one consistent lesson to be learned from listening to Cited, it is that changing the world is not as easy as having new data with a great p-value. “We could chart the Titanic sinking while we drown” Sam says “but it wouldn’t do much good!”

 

The Heroin Clinic captures this tension through the lens of the epidemic of heroin addiction gripping Vancouver’s downtown eastside. In 2005, a controversial solution to this public health crisis was proposed: heroin users could be treated by giving access to free, safe heroin. As bold as this seemed, a trial was initiated, and addicts from the local area were recruited. 3 years later the results showed that this approach had real promise. However, the researchers overseeing the trial only collected their data and presented it to provincial and federal governments, and did not go beyond that to advocate for its importance. Predictably, governments baulked at the challenge of selling voters on a policy of giving drug addicts more drugs, and when the staid researchers refused to push back, the program fell apart. The story that follows in The Heroin Clinic is one of relapses and deaths, downtown eastside communities educating themselves on international human rights conventions, and academics learning to raise their voices. “It should be obvious to scholars that simply doing good work, and disseminating it, is not the answer to effecting change in the way people think and what governments fund,” says Gordon. Sam agrees “the moral of the story is that smart people are limited in what they can do alone”. But joining together with communities and interest groups can transform scientists’ data into real-world relevance.

 

Fortunately, Sam and Gordon credit Canadians with being open to academics’ opinions. People are increasingly looking for real solutions to old problems. “Actually, these days scientists are some of the most front-facing public intellectuals,” says Gordon. Sam continues “but be concerned about meaningless praise of science by governments which doesn’t follow through”. Scientists’ voices need to be a part of the conversation in any democracy. This is why Sam and Gordon see investigative media like Cited as so important, because they provide a way for academics to use narratives that include and inform people, so that their hard earned p-values can make an impact on the world.

 

 

Online Reference: Cited
http://citedpodcast.com/

Online Reference: Award acceptance speech http://www.jackwebster.com/dinner/video.php?id=859

Online Reference:  The Heroin Clinic podcast
http://citedpodcast.com/41-the-heroin-clinic/

 

This article is was also published on the Michael Smith Laboratories website: http://www.msl.ubc.ca/news/cited-podcast-wins-top-journalism-award

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The True Cost of an Ultimate Sacrifice (part 1)

This past Friday went by a lot of names: Armistice Day, in much of Europe; Veterans Day, in the US. Back home in Australia, and here in Canada, it was Remembrance Day. In every case, it marked 98 years since Europe descended into the madness of the Great War. It took much of the world and some 20 million lives with it.

Commemorating war is one of those essential things that a nation builds its cultural identity around. But most of us were privileged enough to born in a time and place where violent conflict is an abstract thing that happens to other people. So to try and make the tragedy of war hit home, we usually try and talk about it in terms of small-scale events. We talk about the sacrifice of the individuals who left, served, and died; kids who bravely made The Ultimate Sacrifice. We make war personal.

But this narrative of The Ultimate Sacrifice doesn’t work for me. By focussing on stories of the tragic heroes of our past, it assumes any one person would have made a difference in war, ignoring that almost all individuals died almost completely in vain. In this way, it is a myth that tries to make death meaningful after-the-fact.

In addition, celebrating our nations’ sacrificial lambs distracts us from the real cost of war: what we sacrificed. What we as a species strugglingtoday with enormous challenges requiring incredible solutions, gave up by sending a generation to hell in 1914; and what we lose every time we repeat that mistake.

We are told these people died for us. However, I think that their deaths held us back. And we’re still paying the price.

 

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The early 20th century was a time of brilliant innovation and scientific revolutions. The periodic table of elements had finally been completed, giving chemistry a launching-off point for bold new discoveries; quantum physics was revealing that solid matter and light were actually one-and-the-same; and we were about to realise that the re-discovery of the work of an obscure Austrian monk had just revealed the fundamental code of all life  –  the gene.

Scientific progress thrives in environments like this, where ideas and technologies continuously bounce and build off each other, and one discovery begets the next at an ever-increasing rate. But this perpetual-motion machine of innovation is also extremely fragile to the slightest malfunction. And when war broke out on July 27th, 1914, those who were to be the young innovators and leaders of a new century were now called on to serve and fight. It was like a record scratch across the culture.

This didn’t just put the pace of scientific discovery on hold for a few years. Braking the machine of innovation while it was still accelerating meant that the consequences would ripple out for decades to come. This is what I feel when I think of history’s great wars: what could have been if we didn’t periodically lose our minds and turn entire countries against each other? What would the world look like today if we hadn’t burned the books of some of the 20th century’s brightest minds?

Tomorrow, I’d like to look at one of these minds. They weren’t a world-striding genius, or the inventor of a brilliant new technology. They were just a very good scientist, like so many others. But it’s precisely their slightly-above-averageness which makes their story so interesting, and tragic, to me.

Until then.

 

|- J

– J