POLITICS
08/28/2011 11:04 EDT | Updated 10/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Curious minds want to know, and government scientists want to help

OTTAWA - Is chocolate part of a food group? The natural tendency these days when faced with such a question is to turn to the Internet.

A group of scientists connected with the federal government is hoping that the searches lead to them.

"These days, you don't necessarily have to ask an expert because you can probably find your answer by Googling," said Pauline Barmby, a professor at the University of Western Ontario who specializes in galaxies and star clusters.

"But on the other hand, what you find by Googling may or may not be right."

Barmby is one of 20 scientists who volunteer to answer questions submitted via the government's online ask-a-scientist program.

Some work directly with the government, others on research projects which receive government funding.

There are experts available in everything from missile defence to volcanoes.

Whether chocolate is a food a group is one of 68 questions that have been submitted to the program since it began in 2009. Forty-nine have been answered so far and the remainder are on the way.

"Chocolate is yummy and makes such a nice treat occasionally," wrote Richard Hughson, a professor in the faculty of applied health sciences at the University of Waterloo.

"But, because it's high in fat and sugar, it isn't part of any food group. ..."

The program is part of the science.gc.ca website, a joint effort by 13 federal departments to connect more Canadians with science.

"We were noticing that people were just sending random emails and basically it became, well, we need to find a more formal way to open up the science community," said Martin Aube, director general of the strategic science and technology branch of Natural Resources Canada, which oversees the program.

Universities and hospitals also have similar programs designed to link scientists with the general public.

The cause of promoting science to children even received its own celebrity spokesperson earlier this year. Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am is championing a program designed to encourage kids to get involved in robotics. He produced a star-studded televised special featuring an international robotics competition.

The government's web portal was launched seven years ago and continues to grow slowly. It hosts video contests, games and activity books and acts as a general resource for all things science happening in government.

The most recent data made available says it received 2.5 million page views in 2009-2010. That same year, Statistics Canada recorded 116 million page views of its site.

But Aube says the fact departments continue to contribute to the program speaks to its success, though he acknowledged that the government is undergoing a massive spending review in order to shave billions in costs.

"We really don't know what's going to happen and we'll find out in March when the budget is tabled," he said of the program's future.

Jaymie Matthews, an astronomy professor at the University of British Columbia, said he looks upon being part of the program as part of his job.

"My research is funded by government funding and so in some sense, Canadian taxpayers are my employers," he said.

"Part of what they should be getting is to be able to sort of share in the excitement in the discoveries that we made with the resources they made possible."

The Harper government has come under sustained criticism for attempting to bury the work of its scientists whose research results don't jibe with the political message of the day.

But Matthews said that in his work as a public educator, he's never been told what he can or can't talk about.

"There aren't too many people trying to muzzle astrophysicists."

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On the web: www.science.gc.ca