The McGill Office for Science and Society (OSS) is a unique venture dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking, science communication, and the presentation of scientific information to the public, educators, and students in an accurate and responsible fashion. With a mandate to demystify science for the public and separate sense from nonsense, the Office has a history of tackling fake news in the world of science well before the term “fake news” even existed.
The OSS is often called upon by the media to comment on a variety of science-related issues. Public lectures relating to health, science, pseudoscience, and science communication are also a large component of the work of the OSS, as is undertaking the investigation of potentially fraudulent products and therapies. Answering science-related questions via "ask us" on the OSS website or through social media also makes up a large part of our work. The OSS' online newsletter - the Weekly Digest - provides insight into the science of everyday life and is available free of charge.
The OSS also oversees a number of courses dedicated to understanding the scientific basis of everyday life. The Chemistry of Food and Chemistry of Drug courses are some of McGill University's most popular with approx 2,000 students registered for both classes per semester.
The Trottier Public Science Symposium, hosted by the OSS, is one of McGill's largest annual free public events that focuses on science-related topics of current public interest, featuring presentations by renowned speakers and experts.
The OSS is responsible for its public affairs and communications and also has a number of interns to assist with the writing and dissemination of material.
The OSS does not accept funding from any vested interest. Our work is supported by McGill University and the Trottier Family Foundation.
In 1982, Professor David Harpp, a long-time member of the Faculty of Science’s Department of Chemistry, was instrumental in bringing Drs. Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster to the department on a part-time basis. There, they taught a variety of different chemistry courses. Outstanding among these offerings, they spearheaded the new and innovative “World of Chemistry” courses, which were designed to teach McGill students from any faculty about the science of everyday life. They eventually created four courses, under the titles of Food, Drugs, The Environment, and Technology. Since the start of these offerings, they have had over 44 000 students in these classes.
These lectures soon became known to not only make science palatable, but also do so in a pleasurable, entertaining, and easy-to-understand fashion. It did not take very long for their courses to become among of the most popular at McGill, routinely attracting, in the case of the Food course, over 1 600 students in the format of a former Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that is now fully operational at McGill.
In an effort to better formalize these important science communication efforts, in 1999, the Office for Chemistry and Society was established (coordinated by Professor David Harpp), with Dr. Joe Schwarcz as Director and Dr. Ariel Fenster as Associate Director, by bringing them full-time at McGill. Recognizing that the word “chemistry” limited the scope of this work, shortly thereafter, the Office broadened its name to the “McGill Office for Science and Society” (OSS). Through its various platforms, the OSS promotes critical thinking, breaks down science in an easy to understand fashion, and as per its mandate, “separates sense from nonsense” on the scientific stage.