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When too much science communication is barely enough

Australia has a wealth of great science communicators, such as Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. But we need even more. Ruth Ellison/Flickr, CC BY-SA

When too much science communication is barely enough

Australia has a wealth of great science communicators, such as Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. But we need even more. Ruth Ellison/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The message about climate change still faces opposition in a few ideologically-driven quarters. Print media is struggling to support specialist science journalists. And surveys about science literacy repeatedly give alarming results.

But reports of the death of science communication have been greatly exaggerated.

The old statement that the former minister for science Barry Jones made that scientists are wimps, and the countless subsequent claims that scientists can’t or don’t try hard enough to communicate are not true. At least not any more.

The electronic and the remaining print media are simply buzzing with science communication, with many good initiatives spurred on by Barry’s words.

Voices of science

Here’s a partial list of just some important science outreach initiatives:

  • The Australian Academy of Science runs Science Pathways, a workshop for science communication for early/mid career researchers, and regular other events

  • The 3 minute thesis competitions, initiated by the University of Queensland and now adopted broadly across the sector, are hugely successful in instilling the importance of communication and in uncovering talent

  • National Science Week occurs each year with a range of events, involving research organisations, museums and universities

  • New technologies allow grass roots communication with many scientists on Twitter, such as IFLScience, Brian Cox, Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson

  • YouTube also hosts a wealth of great science, including Norman Wildberger and Chris Tisdell from my institution and UNSW TV, which is excellent at science

  • Facebook is also bursting with science. IFLS has nearly 20 million Likes, and Science Alert has more than 6 million

  • Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) cover every topic, but science is strongly represented. Hundreds of thousands of students enrol, and although only a small proportion finish, the total numbers are still impressive

  • Crowdsourcing for science, such as Thinkable and Pozible, are designed to gather many small donations for important projects but they also serve to communicate science

  • COSMOS, the Australian answer to New Scientist or Scientific American, and now supported by the Chancellor of Monash University, Alan Finkel, and Australasian Science provide material for the general public and for schools

  • The Conversation is particularly good on in-depth science

  • The ABC produces in-depth programs such as the Science Show and Catalyst, and has featured influential science communicators such as Dr Karl, Adam Spencer and the astronomer Fred Watson

  • Other international science shows such as Mythbusters, first screened here on SBS, and even programs like QI are also popular

  • The Best of Australian Science Writing, by UNSW Press, and originally sponsored by the Australian Copyright Agency, is an annual collection of science writing, with the winner securing the UNSW Bragg Prize. UNSW also hosts the annual Scientia Lecture and UNSW Medal for Science Communication

  • The Australian Museum’s Eureka Prizes prominently celebrate a science communication prize sponsored by the Department of Industry and Science

  • The Australian Science Media Centre works behind the scenes and on March 4, 2015 it will publicly launch its new site, Scimex, to list breaking scientific news and help journalists connect with experts in the field

  • The Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), was founded in Adelaide and works nationally to promote the public understanding of science using a range of media including recently launching RiAus TV

  • CSIRO initiated the Scientists in Schools program to connect working scientists with school students and their teachers, CSIRO Publishing also produces excellent material for schools and the general public, including its magazine Scientriffic

  • Famelab and Fresh Science get young researchers and their stories out and into the media

  • Science and Technology Australia, previously called FASTS, runs Science Meets Policymakers (previously Science Meets Parliament) each year and many other events

  • The Australian Institute of Policy and Science runs the Tall Poppy Awards, which recognise top early career researchers who also contribute to science communication, and then gets the winners out to talk in schools

  • Questacon and other museums play major roles in science communication

Questacon in Canberra does a terrific job of engaging children of all ages. Questacon, Author provided
  • Open Access publishing is supported by both the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council, and ensures that publicly funded science is available to all

  • Open Innovation systems and Open Source Drug Discovery approaches engage many people as do citizen science projects and competitions

  • Globally, Wikipedia is constantly improving in its capacity to communicate science

  • We have never had a busier Chief Scientist in Canberra, and we also have Chief Scientists at the State level

  • The Climate Commission, whose mission was to communicate the evidence on climate science was abolished but was quickly reborn as the Climate Council and is supported by donations

  • Inspiring Australia, a Federal Government initiative, has taken a lead in supporting and coordinating a whole raft of events

  • Finally, ABC Radio National’s and UNSW’s new Top 5 under 40 event, selects five new science communicators to be mentored in producing material for Radio National’s Science Show or other programs.

Getting out there

Whichever way one looks at it, science is out there and the audiences are large. Ashley Hay, writing in the Best of Australian Science writing in 2014, told us that “science” is the most used search word on American Merriam-Webster Dictionary site.

The Twitter feeds and web metrics and TV ratings suggest there is a healthy appetite for science. Admittedly, some of the coverage is superficial, but much is deeper and overall the signs are good.

Most importantly, the grass root movement is growing. Historically there has been concern that serious academics shunned the popular media. It is said that the renowned physicist Carl Sagan was never elected to the US National Academy of Sciences because his colleagues resented his popularity.

My own experiences are not remotely comparable, but during my career as a molecular biologist I have never felt discouraged from publicly communicating science. The reason that I did not start communicating until recently is simply that previously I did not find many opportunities – or at least I was not successful in making opportunities.

I should have tried harder, but nowadays I am delighted that one does not have to try very hard at all. Anyone can start on Twitter or YouTube or blog sites, and it is great to see that many junior scientists regularly explain their work in The Conversation.

I sit on university promotions committees and we now specifically recognise both scholarly publishing and the public communication of science. Young scientists want to communicate and older scientists want them to.

The new initiative, Top 5 under 40, is designed to celebrate young scientists with a passion for communication, and is being launched on this Saturday’s ABC Radio National Science Show (from noon AEDT March 7, 2015). This is the first time this competition has been held and there were more than 250 entries.

Never enough

Up until now many of the initiatives I listed above have been driven by individuals in key positions, most notably by Robyn Williams at the ABC. In the future might we dream of discovering five new Robyns each year?

But sadly many of these initiatives are short term or fragile. Some are funded by governments, some by donations, and many on the basis of sponsorship and the sweat of dedicated workers.

Universities tend to be supportive as they are keen to promote their research in order to attract top students and staff. There are also many industries that depend on a rational and scientifically literate public aware and they are also happy to lend a hand.

So why is it not enough?

Why has the CSIRO been cut? Why are the opportunities for younger people at risk now the Future Fellowship scheme is threatened? Why is essential collaborative infrastructure in the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy still out on a limb? Why have the ABC and SBS again been hounded? And why have universities in Australia faced successive budget cuts from both sides of politics at a time when it is harder than ever to keep up with our neighbours in Asia?

I cannot say. But I am certain it would be worse without all this science communication. I would like to believe that it will get better when a scientific vision and a science strategy is adopted, and hopefully all the science communicators will support whichever politician articulates the vision.

Until then we will at least have fun doing science that is interesting and sharing our experiences with more and more people.