Telling a science story: Industry and science engagement

Thank you to Julia Martin for preparing this piece.

Metaphor, visualisation and allegory are hardly the terms you’d expect business people to use when talking about science. But according to the industry insiders, imagination and story-telling are invaluable tools for anyone serious about communicating scientific knowledge to the public, employees and potential investors.

Recent reports from the Royal Academy of Engineers in the United Kingdom and the Australian Department of Industry’s Inspiring Australia Science Engagement Strategy describe the science outreach needs of business and industry. The surprise is that even in science-based enterprises like mining, industry insiders report that inspiration is as important as information when talking about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Business sees the value of science engagement in terms of corporate social responsibility, employee satisfaction and positive local relationships, as well as brand awareness. And while some may be cynical about such motivations, the pressures on businesses to mitigate risk mean that science engagement is often less about spin and more about building a positive operating environment.  As one industry leader commented, not doing science engagement can have far higher costs to a business than working openly and long-term with the community.

Relationships and networks, especially individual relationships, carry great weight in the communication of science in business settings. In Inspiring Industry to Inspire Australia: Business and Science Outreach, Peter Bury of the Australian Plastics and Chemicals Association points out that PACIA has been able to progress industry initiatives faster than in some countries with larger economies. He cites industry peaks as being an ideal way to translate the latest research into best practice, with members looking to their representative body for reliable scientific advice.

Personal links allow business to ‘put faces to the science’, and these links can endure for decades. Some of the most long-standing industry-science communication partnerships in Australia, such as the Shell Questacon Science Circus, rely on partnerships forged by individuals as far back as the early 1980s. In representative bodies like the University of New South Wales Science Advisory Council, industry members place high value on meeting scientists directly and sharing knowledge. For business, learning how scientists think lays important foundations for future partnerships, and ideally, a more science-friendly business world.

A panel of industry experts will be discussing these themes and their own experiences of business and industry-driven science engagement in the session Business and industry communities and controversy what role does science communication play in public engagement? at the Australian Science Communicators National Conference in Brisbane, on 3 February, 2014.

Please comment below, or email claireharris.oz [at] gmail.com or use #ASC14 on Twitter if you have a question for our panel: Suzanne Miller (Chief Executive Officer and Director, Queensland Museum Network), Kurt Heidecker (CEO of the Gladstone Industry Leadership Group), Geoff Brooke (Co-founder and Managing Partner of GBS Venture Partners), Jacqui McGill (Asset President of BHP Billiton Mitsui Coal) and Jason Prior (Research Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney). (The session will be facilitated by Julia Martin and is co-produced by Claire Harris and Julia Martin.)