Past President and Life Member Profile: Toss Gascoigne

Toss Gascoigne has been part of ASC since it began in 1994.

He helped convene the historic first meeting at the National Press Club in February that year.  The leading lights in science communication met to discuss the formation of a new national association to provide a forum for science communicators.

Alison Leigh, the executive Producer of Quantum chaired the meeting, and the biggest debate was over membership.  Should membership be limited to science writers and journalists, or to anyone with an interest in the area and willing to pay the membership fee?

The latter view prevailed.  Julian Cribb was elected chair of a small committee to turn an idea into reality, and within a few months 375 people had signed on as Foundation Members at a cost of $25.  This gave the committee the impetus to draw up a draft constitution, put it to an inaugural general meeting in the course of the 1994 ANZAAS Conference in Geelong, and see the election of the first national executive.

The meeting approved, the constitution was endorsed, and Julian was elected President.  Toss became secretary.

That began a continuous ten year period on the ASC Executive, culminating in Toss being elected President in 2003-04.  It was a time of vigorous debates, teething problems and drama: the time when the part-time secretariat absconded with all ASC funds (they were paid back the next week, a brown paper bag of one thousand $10 notes).  Toss was elected a Life Member at the AGM in 2004.

Over this period he had worked for CSIRO, both on the Black Mountain site in the Pye Laboratory and in the national headquarters in the media unit.  He took over the position of scientific editor from Will Steffen, of climate change fame.

In 1995 he was invited to take up the position of Executive Director of FASTS, a struggling science lobby group founded in 1985 on the back of Barry Jones’ judgment of scientists.  They’re wimps, Barry declared, and if they don’t develop some backbone, scientists will never get a decent budgetary allocation.

FASTS pulled back from the brink, achieved stability, and later blossomed when “Science meets Parliament” was adopted in 1999.  Toss organised this event, and brought 160 scientists into Canberra for one-on-one meetings with members of Federal Parliament.  The event was a political and financial success, and was adopted as an annual event.  It won a Eureka Prize and an assured future for FASTS.

In 2004 Toss moved on.  He was instrumental in the establishment of a similar lobby group for the humanities, arts and social sciences (CHASS), and held the position as inaugural Executive Director for nearly five years.

There were other strands in his work as well: with Jenni Metcalfe he conceived and organised training workshops in media and presentation skills for scientists, and has run about 800 of these across Australia.  That’s about 8000 scientists with a new appreciation of what’s required to communicate.

Toss has also been involved in the international science communication scene, as a member of the scientific committee of the PCST Network (Public Communication of Science and Technology) since 1996.  He has encouraged many Australians to attend the biennial conferences (next one in Florence in April 2012), and was elected inaugural President in 2006.

Now he has stepped down from a fulltime job, and works on a consultancy basis with CRCs, government departments and academic groups on a variety of projects: reviews, events, strategic planning, writing articles and scripts.  There’s been a growing demand from international groups for the workshops he and Jenni Metcalfe devised, and in the next few months they will be running workshops in the Philippines, Thailand and New Caledonia.

Two books are in the pipeline.  Toss is editing a book on science communication in the countries of the Asia-Pacific Rim, and co-writing a chapter on the emergence of research on science communication in Australia, for an international review to be published by Springer.

It all began with CSIRO and ASC, nearly 20 years ago; and Toss is very grateful for the friends and the partnerships that ASC has provided.

(This is another new section we are trialing for SCOPE. It aims to put a spotlight on the people who have historically contributed to what ASC is today. We want to celebrate service to the organisation and introduce new members to these key people.)