President’s Update May 2018

Dr Craig Cormick

PCST Summary
For those members not fortunate enough to have attended the recent Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) conference in Dunedin, in New Zealand (or those who attended and got distracted by the local sites), I want to share some of the highlights and my thoughts.

In 50 words or less: the conference was four days of reflection on the arcane art of science communication in a time of growing disruption and fracturing of media, while needing to better address diversity, biases, exclusions, political interference, pseudoscience and echo chambers, in the post-truth, post-trust, post-expertise world we now live in.

In addition to the many case studies and research study findings, many sessions dwelt on our identity crisis, articulated in questions like:

– What is science communications exactly?
– Why should we even do science communications?
– How should we best (re)consider what science communications actually is?

Another key question, asked both in sessions and in the corridors, was:

– Does scholarly research meet the needs of scholars over the needs of practitioners?

That might hint at some of the tensions that emerged in the panel discussions, between sci-comms researchers and sci-comms practitioners (despite many people being both), or between scientists and sci-comms researchers (despite many people being both).

Though to be honest I heard much more concern from science communication practitioners about the lack of sessions dealing with practice than I heard from science communication scholars about the lack of sessions dealing with scholarship (though there were certainly both included in the program).

But if you want a really strong focus on practice you come to the ASC conferences, right!

There were also no clear answers to any of the many introspective questions that were raised, as there haven’t been any at previous PCST conferences, and there undoubtedly won’t be at any future conferences where the questions continued to be asked. For we are a very broad amalgam of disciplines, after all, and our first allegiances are often to other disciplines or agencies or professions in which we work, which collectively makes it difficult to clearly define what a science communicator is and isn’t.

But this can be a strength as well – allowing for more inclusiveness and cross-disciplinary work. People have come to science communications from philosophy and the sciences and social science and media studies and journalism and other areas, bringing those expertises with them, all broadening the field.

So rather than ask the same questions about what is science communications, I would rather ask a broader question: We are very good at talking about the relationships between our own conflicting values and motives and needs, and we are not bad at talking about the values and motives and needs of scientists – but why are we so piss-weak poor at talking about the values, motives and needs of the public when at conferences like this?
They seem to me to be the main missing audience at such conferences. There is a lot of talk about the public, but really no representation from them to take part in discussions about the impacts on them of the communication of science and technologies.

Maybe that is something that will be taken up at the next PCST in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 2020!

Also, a post-conference highlight for the ASC was the Australian ASC team defeating the New Zealand SCANZ team in the inaugural Great Trans-Tasman Science Communication Challenge. Thank you to Tara Roberson, Claire Farrugia, Larissa Fedunik, and Lisa Bailey/Jarvis for joining the team and proving we can win (without using sandpaper).

And finally, a short summary of conference tweets to give you some of the flavour of the Twitteratti:

Christine O’Connell‏ @CocoNell2 Apr 3
Real communication is more about listening than talking. Ask questions, involve your audience, be open, and listen – some of the core points whenever I teach #scicomm. Totally agree on the importance of teaching listening @JohnBesley #PCST2018

Brooke Smith‏ @brookesimler Apr 5
Prof Maja Horst’s advice on controversial science issues: just keep talking about them; don’t shut down the conversation. #scicomm #scipolicy #PCST2018

Anusuya CHINSAMY-T‏ @palaeo_prof Apr 4
#PCST2018, NZ I absolutely love #Otagomuseum Otago Museum’s ‘Lab in a box’. Such a simple, inexpensive, and yet effective concept… converting a container into a Lab that can be easily closed, packed and moved to different locations!

Merryn McKinnon‏ @MezMcK Apr 5
.@PeterGluckman says that science, no matter how good it is, will not make a difference unless there are better national conversations. An international problem which is a call to arms for #scicomm people everywhere. #PCST2018

Tamsin Laird‏ @TamsinLaird Apr 5
Most ‘liked’ question for the final plenary session @PCSTNetwork : is it beer o’clock yet? Panel confirms diversity IS more important than beer  #scicomm #PCST2018