President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the President’s update.


Did you survive (and thrive) during National Science Week?

I feel that I’ve just recovered—a week later—from National Science Week. It was a rather impressive spread of activities going on around the country. I was very lucky to participate in Adelaide with a packed house who came to both learn and give their views on the future of food. Professor Rachel Ankeny, Dr Heather Bray and and Peta Callaghan put together quite an impressive evening of experts—and gourmet samples. The experts gave overviews of the issues arising with native foods (small acreage growers, unknown potential for over 6000 varieties from Davidson plum to pepper berry), with functional foods (do we want to invest in making food less allergenic, have more vitamins, include vaccines?), with GM (the GM banana went over quite well!); and what about these new ‘old’ varieties of grains where, in some cases like chia and freekeh, demand far outstrips to supply? In addition to discussion, the SA team did a bit of research using ‘keepads’ to poll the audience as they tried each new food. I look forward to seeing more of the results but, for me, this was a great evening of science communication as well as research…and I did eat a lot of freekeh salad.
We’d love to hear more about your involvement with National Science Week and are happy to dedicate some Scope space next month to reports from colleagues around Australia as we all digest what just happened!

Proactionary or Precautionary?
When I wrote for the July issue of Scope, I was just headed for a conference where a key topic was ‘Should the precautionary principle be overthrown by a proactionary imperative?” The precautionary approach has been a guiding principle for much science and technology innovation—and has impacted science communication as well. Historically, the principle comes out of environmental law; the Rio Declaration put it like this, “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.” But, the usual interpretation of the precautionary principle focuses more on caution in the face of uncertain science, a kind of ‘ounce of prevention’ or ‘look before your leap’ response to scientific risk. There has been a lot of credence given to this approach by science communicators who have (quite rightly in my view) wanted to carefully weigh scientific evidence and risk before communicating it to others.  But, if we go back to the Rio Declaration, the emphasis is a bit different.  Basically, in the face of uncertain science, you may still have to ACT to avoid calamity in the future. The Proactionary imperative takes this a few steps further. It argues we shouldn’t be afraid of scientific uncertainty or risk.  We should be ready to innovate and even push boundaries. Proponents (Steve Fuller is one) argue that this will lead to some failures, but also serious innovation. However, they argue that the ‘check’ on this boundary-pushing should be the capacity for the risk-takers to compensate for any damages their failures cause.
Now, I’m still not sure where I sit on this debate, but I don’t think this is going to go away. It’s an important notion that guides our practice—are we communicating how to be safe from science or are we communicating to advance science (and do these have to be exclusive?). That’s a lot to think about, but it’s a debate that has gotten my attention.   I’m going to follow this up on 2 October for a Science Communication Roundtable: Communicating Humanity 2.0. It’s part of the International Communication Association Asia-Pacific meetings in Brisbane. I’d love to see colleagues there.