Canadians are among the most scientifically literate people in the world, a new report reveals. But don't get too smug yet — in spite of that, fewer than half of us would be able to read and understand a newspaper article about a new scientific discovery.

A new report, Science Culture: Where Canada Stands, released today by the Canadian Council of Academies found that 42 per cent of Canadians have a basic level of scientific literacy necessary to understand media reports about science, putting Canada first among 35 countries with similar available data. The council is an independent non-profit group that puts together expert panels to conduct assessments for the federal government on a wide range of public policy issues ranging from policing to wind turbine noise.

The science literacy ranking was based on an April 2013 survey of 2,000 Canadians commissioned by the council from Ekos research. That data was then measured against the results for other countries for which comparable data are available. The weighted results are considered accurate within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

In order to gauge science literacy, respondents were asked questions such as:

  • Does the sun go around the earth or does the earth go around the sun?
  • Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals. True or false?
  • Electrons are smaller than atoms. True or false?

The council cautioned that Canada's high international ranking should be "interpreted carefully as Canadian data are more recent and science literacy has been improving over time in most countries."

In fact, Canadians' own science literacy has improved substantially since the survey was last conducted in 1989, when only around 15 per cent of Canadians were scientifically literate, said panel member Jay Ingram at a news conference hosted by the Science Media Centre of Canada.

Both Ingram and panel chair Arthur Carty expressed surprise at the high level of basic science literacy shown by the poll.

But Ingram, a science journalist and author who chairs the science communications program at the Banff Centre, noted that there is still lots of room for improvement.

"While 87 per cent knowing that the earth goes around the sun is pretty good, that still leaves 13 per cent of Canadians that haven't absorbed the scientific knowledge of several centuries ago," Ingram said.

Carty added that Canada's top international ranking on the measure reflects the fact that "everyone is doing poorly.

"In a sense," he said, "It's nothing to be proud of."

Carty is the executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. In a preface to the report, he suggested that science literacy has becoming increasingly important as "some understanding of science is now an integral part of being an informed citizen and almost every decision governments make has a scientific component."

Gender gap

While Canadians performed well overall, there is a gender gap in science literacy — just 32 per cent of women were science literate, compared to 53 per cent of men. The panel thought this might have to do with the fact that more men have higher degrees in science and engineering.

Regionally, people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, B.C. and the Territories, Alberta and the Atlantic provinces all scored above the national average, while those in Ontario had average scores and those in Quebec scored below average.

The report was commissioned by the minister of state for science and technology on behalf of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corp., National Resources Canada and Industry Canada. It aimed to assess science "culture" in Canada, including not just knowledge and literacy, but also attitudes and engagement.

"Overall, the evidence we gathered as a panel shows that Canada has a strong science culture with many Canadians interested and actively engaged in learning about science," said Carty.

Some other findings of the survey were that:

  • 93 per cent of the population reports being very interested or moderately interested about new scientific discoveries and technological developments, putting Canada first among 33 countries.
  • Canada's population has the lowest level of reservations toward science among 17 countries, as judged by respondents' views of whether we depend too much on science compared to faith, whether science has a negative impact on people's ability to distinguish right and wrong and whether it's important to know about science in daily life.
  • 32 per cent of the population has visited a science and technology museum at least once in the past year, putting Canada second out of 39 countries.
  • 23 per cent of the population regularly or occasionally signs petitions or joins street demonstrations about nuclear power, biotechnology or the environment, putting Canada third among 33 countries.
  • 14 per cent of the population regularly or occasionally participates in activities of a non-governmental organization dealing with science or technology related issues, putting Canada first among 33 countries.

Immigrants have more science skills

While Canadians are have some of the most positive attitudes toward science in the world, this isn't necessarily reflected in the populations' skills and work:

  • Canada ranked 10th in science and 13th in math out of 65 countries on the OECD's standardized international test for 15-year-olds, PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). 
  • 51 per cent of Canadians with degrees in science, technology, engineering or math are immigrants.
  • Only 30 per cent of Canadian employees are engaged in work related to science technology, compared to over 35 per cent in other developed nations such as the U.S., Germany and Australia.

The panel recommended that to strengthen its science culture, Canada should:

  • Boost informal learning opportunities so adults can maintain access through their lives.
  • Target underrepresented groups such as women and aboriginal communities via strategies such as providing mentorship or incorporating aspects of traditional knowledge.
  • Encourage scientists to communicate and the public to engage in science decision making.

Panel member Marc LePage, president and CEO of Génome Québec, added that it's important for governments show leadership and "to articulate an integrated vision."

Quebec has such a vision, which is unique within Canada, he added. He suggested that could be replicated at the federal level or in other provinces.

For now, Carty said there is "a real lack of leadership" when it comes to both formal and informal science education in Canada. He said Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. all have strategies and a vision for science culture. "And I think we need one in Canada," he added.

But Ingram said that in Australia, a science policy hasn't stopped its new government from reversing its previous policies to fight climate change.

"The fact is that when it comes to certain aspects of science that have policy implications each new government has a take on just how much of that science they want to promote and how much they don't," he said.

Meanwhile, with respect to Canada in the last two years, "where and when any government has issues with what scientists might be saying or want messages to be consistent, the actual net effect of that is to make the citizenry more interested in what's going on in science."

He added,  "I think it's important in a way to try and maintain a science culture regardless of what government happens to be in power."