Examining the (weird) science of communication presentations

Whether it is a field of scientific endeavour, a corporate communications challenge or an attempt to communicate the position of a government or government department, a diverse talent pool will eventually do a better job than a single demographic.
In the second half of his guest post, Mike Spear suggests 20 female speakers who specialize in “science communications” and who he believes, individually or collectively, can help conference organizers to achieve at least some of the above.

By Mike Spear

There was a serendipitous tweet moment when I was beginning to write on this topic, as this observation from Karen James (@kejames) hit my dedicated stream:

(James is a female speaker of note, particularly if you’re looking for a scientist or an USA astronaut candidate.)

And her sentiments pretty much sum up the main reason why this middle-aged, white male was asked to contribute observations on a weirdly skewed visage of science communications, at least when it comes to current practices regarding the recruitment of qualified presenters for conferences and workshops.

I attend or speak at a variety of conferences related to science or science communication; additionally, I have become a regular participant at several events on communications for government or non-profits…and my experience is similar to that of Karen James (@kejames) above.

Here is an observation that can’t be denied or glossed over: At almost every single conference, the line-up at the front of the room shows a highly skewed proportion of male speakers, mostly 40 plus in age and mainly Caucasian. This particular look and feel at science-related conferences is so prevalent that I’ve probably become infamous for my post-event feedback line that pleads, “Enough old white guys please.”

The typical “old white guys” who dominate the front of the room at many an event are there for a good reason. They are not by any means bad speakers or also-ran experts—so why does it matter? I’m of the firm belief that even if the current quality of speaking is good, the time is ripe to examine the issues and ramifications further.

Demographics under the microscope

For a start, the global population is pretty much a 50-50 gender split, meaning that as long as you can find an appropriate and competent content expert, there is no reason not to reflect the same gender diversity on stages and in smaller-room debates.

Additionally, many young people experience life in very different ways from my generation and cohort; they deserve equal attention. An older individual working on a novel way to use a smartphone as a tool to examine a person’s genome is going to have a very different approach than someone younger who has held an iPhone since teenage years. As it happens, mapping the human genome is new to everyone—yet it’s undeniable that the person most familiar with the computing capabilities of a hand-held device is going to have a fresher approach.

Older generations of communicators likely have deep experience in figuring out how government and citizens interact and they (including me!) have a lot of knowledge to share, but the younger people who have followed politics on their handheld devices for a decade also have valuable and often innovative insights.

In general, politics tends to be male-heavy at the elected and senior bureaucrat levels and that inevitably influences communication styles. This means we need to work harder to profile a greater variety of voices to ensure a well-rounded approach.

The Caucasian population, at least in North America, is becoming less of a majority. This demographic shift comes with national populations having different cultural perceptions of science, plus new approaches to solving science or communication challenges. A 60-year-old Caucasian male, for example, might be keen to set to sequence the genome of medicinal plant species from around the world to find new medicines or more nutritional foods.

Yet within any given country, aboriginal populations may examine the same objective in a markedly different way. Here is an example: Viewing native plants with the lens of traditional history and use, not just as a species waiting for exploitation by another nation, culture, or commercial enterprise.

Diversity key in communicating ideas

Innovation in any area—whether it is pure science, science communications, marketing, or public relations—does not simply spring out of the ether or get passed down to us on a stone tablet.

Nor should we think of experience, knowledge and creativity as being innate to one cohort group.

There is solid research to suggest that the diverse nature of a group will outshine the individual abilities. If you want to get all geeky about it, here is a link to a research-based paper to fire up the synapses in thinking about diversity.

Whether it is a field of scientific endeavour, a corporate communications challenge or an attempt to communicate the position of a government or government department, a diverse talent pool will eventually do a better job than a single demographic.

Conference and workshop organizers need to step outside their own clique for speakers, including taking a hard look at the conference event’s objectives.

Most objectives need a range of ideas, opinions and approaches to ensure the job gets done.

To assist this blog’s readership in gathering a better range of views and ideas, I’ve devised my Spear’s recommended list that is…well, not overly diverse in the conventional wisdom sense…due to the simple fact that it is all female. However, when one shift’s focus to half of the population that was historically under-represented, an event automatically becomes more diverse in its mindful applicability and authority.

Think outside the conference tick-box of topics and speakers

A recommendation to note the following before skipping over a speaker’s name that appears unrelated to your immediate needs or knowledge and experience:

1.  An expert in government communications can add something to the conversation about science communications.

2.  A science communicator can open your eyes to a new set of challenges you never thought about in your corporate communications role.

3.  Ethics experts in science or public relations have many interchangeable ideas and see the “public” through different lenses.

It is all about the range of experience and breadth of knowledge seldom found in a single speaker.

A Spear skewing-female-speakers list for science communications conferences

I’ve experienced all of the following women presenting to a North American audience—some in smaller sessions, others for a large plenary session group. Inevitably, there will be many knowledgeable and engaging women missed on this list. Please remember I’m one of those “old white guys” and can’t remember every presenter—or her name, at least—I’ve seen.

To ensure no one thinks I’m ranking this eclectic mix of science, government relations and communications pros on a subjective basis of ability, I present them in alphabetical order.

Based in British Columbia, Carin Anne Bondar has good ideas on how to communicate science while remaining a scientist in her own right. She describes herself as a “PhD biologist with a twist. Ex-ballerina, TED talker, TV host (Discovery, Science Channel, NatGeo), Web host (Discovery Digital, Wild Sex, Scientific American).” Find her on Facebook and in many other places.

I would deem Danielle Brigida an early adopter of social media and online technology in the non-profit sector. She uses it to tell stories that make people take notice of her organization. Brigida has had a role in many digital initiatives that get an audience thinking about how to reach their own stakeholders in new ways. I’ve listened to her speak and was part of a panel with her at the National Association of Science Writers’ annual conference and AGM at Yale, so I’ve observed her from both sides of the podium. Brigida is with the National Wildlife Federation based in Virginia but you’ll find her influence in many other places as well.

The realm of expertise of Tania Bubela is how new medical technology, such as genetic testing and gene therapy, fit into public policy and the current regulatory framework. We at Genome Alberta are providing funding for her PACEomics project, which is looking at how genomics-based technology is (or will be) incorporated into our current health care system.

Elizabeth Cannon is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary. She is one of the few on this list who provides highly political and sometimes well “messaged” presentations that you’d expect from the highly competitive Canadian university culture. That does not stop her from having opinions, though. I would add that her role and background offers a lot of insight into what makes academia and politics tick—and not always talk.

Christyn Cianfarani is president of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries. I think she’s the only one on my list who is a graduate of the Royal Military College, meaning that Cianfarani has a strong background in government procurement with—needless to say—an emphasis on the military. More importantly, Cianfarani speaks her mind on policy matters and has experience fixing things in public/private sector relationships. Moreover, in keeping with the rationale behind the writing of this post note that she reports to an all-male board at CADSI-AICDS.

Alexandra Figueroa is chief of the web and social media branch of the US Census Bureau. When we were both presenters at a government communications event in Washington, DC, she was working on the government’s Digital Transformation project. She was also heavily involved in the redesign of the US Government’s Census site and in developing mobile apps using census data. She gave such a good presentation that I even downloaded a US Census Bureau app. (Note: I find Canadians to be a bit hesitant about sharing government information across many areas, but Figueroa aids understanding on how important it is to have open access. She brought home to me how embarrassingly “closed” we tend to be in Canada.)

Maggie Fox was founder and CEO of Social Media Group and is now global senior vice president of digital marketing with SAP. She’s all about strategy. Better yet, Fox uses a pragmatic Canadian sense of humour to help get across her many pertinent points.

Katie Gibbs is executive director of Evidence for Democracy, an organization pushing for the better use of science and evidence in public policy and government decisions. She has a PhD in biology and cuts across the science, science communications, public policy, government relations and lobbying sectors. This means there is no chance you’ll pigeon hole her on a conference agenda.

I heard Catherine Keill speak when she was Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada leader of its Alberta public affairs team. It appears she is now director, caucus and community outreach for the Premier of Alberta. She can crack the government relations code, which means Keill can probably help you cut through a lot of…umm…stuff in the field of government relations, lobbying and communication strategy. You can get a sense of her knowledge and style in this blog post: Premier Prentice and PC politics in Alberta.

Probably Valeria Maltoni is best known for her long-time Conversation Age blog. Maltoni is all about collaboration and lays claim to the distinction that she is “fluent in several cultures,” so fits into this list in many ways.

Kathy Ohlhaber is senior associate content strategist at Sapient Government Services. She tells great stories about her work and has plenty of experience in digital and multi-media content development. It probably helps that she has a background in theatre and creative writing, which is a perfect example of how a broader range of experience can help pull things together. She has done some amazing work on the (American) National Cancer Institute site—which leaves me feeling like a mere web hack. Ohlhaber understands that science, government and our personal lives collide when it comes to cancer.

Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer and a science blogger with Scientific American and has been on TV programs such as The Agenda on TVO. Not only is she enthusiastic about telling science stories, Ouellette tells them very well.

Vardit Ravitsky is associate professor with the bioethics programs within the department of social and preventive medicine at the School of Public Health, University of Montreal. She also is well travelled. Her experience is particularly relevant for presentation on health care policy or reproductive ethics, which means she’s well-versed and comfortable speaking at a science event, a women’s event, or a public policy event. Not a bad cross-pollination of ideas, methinks….

Chantal Rondeau is a reporter and news anchor, writer and blogger of First Nations descent. If you can’t figure out why she’s an important addition to discussions about telling stories, the nature of media or the need for diversity, then my post has been a lost cause.

Kelly Rusk is communications director and partner at the Banfield Agency. I first met Rusk when she was attending a communications workshop. I admire how she now leads similar workshops. I guarantee she will help you get deeper into social media as a PR or marketing tool.

Karin Schmid is a beef production specialist with Alberta Beef Producers, has a master’s degree in agriculture and is a real farmer. At Genome Alberta, we do a lot of agriculture-related genetics research, meaning I’ve seen Schmid talk about animal welfare issues and environmental stewardship to farmers and academics alike. She is fluent in two very important languages: consumer and producer. It’s my opinion that one can’t present to and on related marketing sectors without having knowledge in both of these perspectives.

Bonnie Schmidt is president and founder of the national science outreach organization, Let’s Talk Science. Where do I think she can deliver the goods? I’d suggest conferences focusing on how to get young people involved in science, why science is important to society and broader questions on science communications. Genome Alberta’s DNA Day project is done in conjunction with Let’s Talk Science and there is no question that Schmidt is as comfortable in a small workshop as she is in front of a large room of participants, let alone during a media interview.

Currently, Shauna Selig is communications manager at Sobeys. She has also worked in the not-for-profit sector. Selig likely covers a lot of ground when it comes to communication, but I’ve listened to her in focused presentations on using social media as an internal communications tool. She also says she is a “fighter of poor grammar, boring meetings and people who say things are impossible.”

Jennifer Stadnyk is a public affairs operations officer with the Canadian Armed Forces. She has an extensive background in the military and is responsible for much of the online activity of the Canadian Joint Operations Command. If you thought that social media, communication and the military could never co-exist, she’ll straighten out your thinking. You’ll see some of her influence on Twitter, both as @JCStadnyk and as the main contributor to @NoradNorthcom.

Based in rural Alberta, Jackie Wepruk is general manager of the National Farm Animal Care Council in Canada. Like Karin Schmid on this list, Jackie bridges the communication gap witnessed so often see between academics, regulators, consumers and ranchers.

* * *

That’s a wrap on my list to help diversify the podium or panel, particularly at your next science or communications-related event. I reiterate this isn’t a complete list by any means, particularly by nationality or ethnicity. It is based on my personal knowledge and experiences, and I had to dig into my notes and event agendas to refresh my memory.

Apologies in advance to those I missed—please help to rectify any egregious omissions by highlighting worthy women who specialize in science communication—including some contact information—in the comments section.


Mike Spear

Mike Spear is currently director of corporate communications for Genome Alberta, a not-for-profit genetics research funding agency; he is also part of the national genomics and society bioethics group.  Prior to this role, he held a number of positions at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he produced everything from politics to music to Olympic coverage. He hung out in Croatia as a media trainer and was later communications manager for Canada’s largest ranching organization.

He is a frequent speaker and participant at science (and social media-oriented) conferences and workshops in Canada and the United States.

Spear was an early adopter of personal computing and has had the same cell phone number for 25 years. He is one of the founders of Canada’s only science blogging network Science Borealis and created DNA Day in Canada. He  wanders through Twitter as @mikesgene and you can track him down on LinkedIn or by email.

Although this is his first direct contribution to PR Conversations, he did agree to this earlier interview, Mike Spear: Evolving from journalism to PR.


About the image: Dark Race Horse — Jesse Owens is part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit, Now’s the Time, which runs from February 7 to May 10, 2015. (The photo was taken with permission during the media preview.) When he was eight, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street; his arm was broken and he suffered several internal injuries. While convalescing from these injuries (and a resulting operation), his mother brought him the Gray’s Anatomy book to keep him occupied. Basquiat devoured the book, with the result that it had profound impact and influence on much of his artwork, including this painting.

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12 Replies to “Examining the (weird) science of communication presentations

  1. Mike, I continue to disagree with you and many of the points above.

    Fiona Fox, I suggest, gets things right on her blog post titled “women scientists: don’t put them on air unless they’re the best”. She writes “positively discriminating in favour of a woman with less expertise is patronising to women”. And she suggests this approach (of putting up women speakers for the sake of diversity) underestimates the real challenges women face in science circles. And worse than that, she argues, it (positive discrimination) let’s those responsible (for women’s relative lack of achievement) off the hook by disguising the extent of the underlying problem:


    1. Paul – Why should we see the selection of women or any other non-white male as positive discrimination?

      That highlights what for me is the big problem i.e. that the default position is white male, even when they or their ideas may not be even half way interesting let alone the best. All too often we have to listen to the majority, if not the entirety, of a programme comprised of dull, old, uninspiring men commonly sharing their experience as if that is the ultimate in knowledge worth hearing.

      So let’s stand up for the rights of ‘others’ to be equally crap and still get the gig!

    2. It’s interesting that Jon White (also male and “seasoned”) suggested that same Fiona Fox be added to this list, Paul, whereas you only make use of her words to maintain the status quo….

  2. Thanks for the comment Paul and always good to see someone stick up for the old(er) guys, which includes me.

    I think I suggested in the post that this is still about ability and many of the usual suspects at the front of the room are there because they have expertise and knowledge.

    However there are always alternatives and in the interest of getting new ideas and perspectives, conference organizers should make an active attempt to mix up the podium. It isn’t about Plan B or settling for second best, but it is about stepping outside those usual suspects to find alternative ideas and the diversity of views you mention.

    My experience now as an attendee and speaker, and in the past as a journalist covering a variety of events from politics to science is that in general we don’t seek that diversity.


  3. So it falls to me to stick up for “50ish men in dark blazers, with white hair and almost all with glasses”. In the process I’ll stick up for the regiment of dead white men who get such a bad press today. Socrates advised us long ago not to look at who says something so much as what is said. In other words, we should be open minded. But the comments here are mostly as prejudiced as anybody who suggests blond blue eyed speakers have better ideas and more to contribute than red heads.

    It is diversity of ideas we require. Not of skin or hair colour or sex or race. Not all men with white hair wearing blue blazers in their 50s think alike, no more than women or Jews or Arabs or Asians do in general.

    I support the call for diversity and breaking with tradition–but let’s do so at the level of ideas. So let’s load our platforms full of such diversity from where ever we can find such people with conflicted viewpoints and something to say worth listening to. But along the way let’s not indulge in narrow prejudice and tokenism (focused on dress sense, hair colour, age and skin colour) as we try to open up debate to more genuine diversity.

  4. I love this!

    Organizing a conference a few years back, a newly hired colleague was looking for one of the speakers. I had just seen him walk into the conference room and described him as “tall guy, thin, 50ish, white hair, glasses, navy blazer…”

    My colleague goes into the room, comes back out and says “that doesn’t help.” I went in with her and she was right. Almost all the speakers were 50ish men, in dark blazers, almost all with glasses.

    Diversity is a good thing!

  5. Interesting thought on the crisis communicators. Guess the next top speaker will be someone who has never had a PR crisis!

    I agree that some people attend conferences to find a solution to something Science probably less so but that is equally frustrating because we end up waffling around science policy, idea to stimulate innovation, and as the lights go down at the end of the event, we haven’t had a single ‘ah-ha’ moment.

    I’d like to see many conference formats shaken up right across the event day to get people to think a little differently about their profession or sector challenge.

    Thanks for the comment.

  6. Mike – thank you for this interesting post. It is something that I’m mindful of when putting together events but it is often difficult to persuade women to present, even when they are people I know. And, of course, one reason why we do look within our own networks, is that normally means people are more likely to accept an invitation.

    I do love the idea of pulling in different perspectives and also try to do that – again tends to rely on connections so that person is persuaded of why they should come along and talk with a group that is outside their field.

    One other issue I come across is that attendees are frequently looking for ‘the solution’ to whatever they see as their challenge and want a speaker to tell them what to do. I look for speakers to be illuminating and challenging, and get us to think differently and hence find our own solutions. Scientists in particular have a way of thinking that I find useful, plus their perspective is often different too.

    I think that PR is particularly guilty of the ‘been there, done it’ mode of presenter – especially in crisis management. This always bemuses me as when someone is speaking because they’ve been through a high profile crisis, this suggests to me that although they may have learned something from the experience, the fact they had the crisis shows they weren’t as prepared as they are now urging others to be. So the real challenge is to hear from those who avoided the mega-crisis – but of course they are harder to find and less of a draw than the ones who have the big disasters to talk about.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Sean.

    That “who we know” is certainly the biggest killer of a diverse line-up of speakers. In the case of conferences that touch on policy matters in any sector, the result is the “old boys network” ideas tend to prevail. I attend many events focused on science and innovation policy, and after you’ve seen the same people promote the same ideas you wonder how we ever manage to get a single new idea to rise to the top. Thank gawd for the hacker culture and crowd sourcing.

    As for a post on non-Caucasian speakers I think it is a good idea, but I don’t see enough diversity to come up with a good list. If someone wants to take on the challenge I’ll certainly add what I can to the exercise.

  8. Mike – very interesting post indeed. Those of us who toil on speaker committees for conferences should always have our “diversity!” hats firmly on heads… I try to seek out speakers I have never heard when attending conferences, and though I frequently am looking for internal/employee communications and/or PR/Social Measurement types, I tend to look for people in interesting jobs/industries/specialties just to broaden my view.

    That’s an issue, in my view — we tend to go with those we “know” when compiling the dais. Some of that is Fear – with a capital F… We are afraid the lesser “known” who hasn’t been high on the marquee will be a drag on the attendance. And frankly, it’s happened a couple of times that the new voice is programmed against a sexier topic or “name” presenter, and the result is poor attendance, and the realization of confirmation bias.

    We just programmed the PRSA Connect ’15 conference, and you’ll note that 2/3 keynotes are female, one of whom leads an agency that focuses on internal comms, the other from a large governmental… Our third keynote is @jwillie, who should bring some buzz with him. We found lots of session presenters who are women, but precious few who weren’t white of either gender ( I and maybe 2 others will bear the old white guy burden…)

    A big help is lists like yours – could we get a similar docket of nonwhite communicators?
    Thanks for your post.

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