How to talk about the science coming out of your organisation when your organisation is not producing any science

Behind all of the biggest scientific discoveries, there’s the infrastructure that lets it happen. We’ve all heard of the Large Hadron Collider, maybe the most famous bit of research infrastructure in the world. Unfortunately, most other research infrastructure is much more anonymous.

In Australia, one of those is the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI), home to our fastest supercomputer. Computational research of any kind – climate modelling, molecular design, fundamental physics, genomics, satellite imagery – requires a facility like NCI to function. Working in Communications at NCI, I try to tell stories about the kinds of groundbreaking and life changing research that gets done using this machine.

A bank of dark computers fills a room, glowing with many green LED lights.

NCI’s Raijin supercomputer, the fastest in the Southern Hemisphere. Click to enlarge.

But here’s the issue: what do you do when the research stories you’re trying to tell don’t belong to you? We aren’t the ones doing the research, we’re providing the platform for it to happen. The research belongs to the researchers and all of their different universities and research organisations around the country.

We cover the research outcomes that come about from the use of our supercomputer because the findings are often hugely significant. But detailing the scientific findings is not always our primary focus. It serves us well, but sometimes it’s better to leave that to those researchers’ media teams. For NCI, we need to go beyond only reporting on the successes of other researchers, no matter how noteworthy. We need to tell our own stories, not rely on those of others as a proxy for our own.

Australia’s national science infrastructure is hugely important to the progress of Australian science, and provides a backbone for millions of dollars of research and economic benefits each year. It is valuable in and of itself, and the challenge as communicators is to find ways to make that clear.

For one thing, there’s real scientific and technical achievements being made to keep our supercomputer operating at maximum capacity, and those are already stories worth telling. We also play a central role in a whole range of national advances, from improved weather forecasts to the development of national genetic databases, so let’s focus on those too!

Now, we angle our research stories, Annual Report and web content to focus more on our strength and value as a key cog in the scientific machine, which hopefully will give us a clearer voice and a more consistent platform. The lesson for us is to keep in mind the aims of our communication activities. We want to reach out to people and show them all the ways that national supercomputing infrastructure improves their lives: if the stories and videos we produce point us in that direction, we’re probably doing ok.

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