ASC SCOPE Interview: Paul Holper, Co-Director of Scientell

Why did you choose to study science?

I liked the precision of science and the logic that underpins everything. At university I discovered that chemistry was particularly enjoyable, so that’s what I majored in.

I naively decided that as I liked demonstrating to university students, I should become a teacher. I spent 10 years in the classroom; teaching can be a brilliant profession when students are motivated but, sadly, too few students are.

I anguished about what other career options might be available, so I started looking at job advertisements. The then CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research in Melbourne needed an ‘Information Officer’. I applied, was interviewed and they offered me the position, which I nervously accepted. Apart from leaving the security of teaching, we were about to have our first child, and here I was foregoing 16 – yes, 16 – weeks of paid annual leave for just 4.

But I soon realised that, without the high stress of teaching, for the first time I loved my job. I was working with brilliant, world-renowned researchers in an organisation that was trying to better understand and preserve the environment.

A huge advantage of working for CSIRO was the camaraderie and teamwork among the communication staff. I learnt so much from communication luminaries like Wendy Parsons, Marg Bryant, Niall Byrne, Toss Gascoigne and Jenni Metcalfe. A few years later, one of Australia’s leading science journalists, Julian Cribb, joined CSIRO. He was a passionate, powerful advocate for communication.

Looking back now, what has been the best part of your career in scicomm?

The very best part of scicomm is the process of exploring and coming to grips with particular scientific concepts and then trying to solve the problem of how best to communicate them in a logical and compelling way. Every day, scicomm brings another puzzle to be solved.

The part of scicomm that gave me the greatest pleasure was when I was able to identify and promote a research story and ultimately see it in the newspaper or on TV.

Where has your career led you?

Looking back, there were skills that I developed at uni and in teaching that I was able to apply further in a research environment.

I spent 25 years at CSIRO, becoming a communication manager and then moving into business development and ultimately managing a large national climate change science research program. With an astute CSIRO colleague, Mandy Hopkins, I re-established the national ‘GREENHOUSE’ climate change conferences, convening five biennial events across Australia.

What excites you most about your work?

Society is founded on the effective application of scientific advances. Helping to convey the value and implementation of science is extraordinarily rewarding.

Scicomm has had many successes, but we’ve had major failures. I thought that we had successfully convinced society of the need to address climate change early in my CSIRO days. Hah! I’m still bemused that people who refuse to believe in the straightforward science of climate change will happily entrust their lives to the far more complex science of flight and gravity every time they board a plane.

 

The scicomm experience told us long ago that far more than communication of facts is needed to effect change.

What advice do you have for anyone considering a career in SciComm?

Scicomm offers a rewarding combination of science and communication, where the latter can take so many different forms. There will always be challenges to be overcome, problems to be solved and new ways of encouraging the application of science in ways that help.

What are some of the greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your SciComm career?

There are two that stand out. One is escaping from teaching; the second, which gives me much satisfaction, has been establishing Scientell with Simon Torok, a business that has now completed more than 150 fascinating scicomm projects.