by Abigail Goff, on behalf of the ASC2023 organising committee
With the ASC2023 national conference wrapped, it is time to reflect on the thoughts, themes, and topics discussed in the hindsight, insight, foresight -themed week.
Keynotes from the Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley, Prof. the Hon. Kim Carr, and Prof. Tom Calma addressed issues from Australia’s science communication climate, to the role of initiatives such as Inspiring Australia, and the role of science communication in Indigenous communities. These talks were thought provoking and led to deep discussions in following talks and panel sessions.
There were several keynote talks by speakers such as Jullian Cribb, the founding president of the ASC, speaking on the role of science communication in saving the planet from “man-made mega threats”; Dr John Cook, founder of Eureka prize-winning website Skeptical Science, spoke on the use of machine learning in understanding misinformation; and finally, cultural sensitivities in communication were also addressed by Prof. Chennupati Jagadish, president of the Australian Academy of Science in discussion with Dr Tom Carruthers, co-president of the ASC.
Panels allowed for open discussion and communication across a range of topics and fields of thought. ChatGPT unsurprisingly made an appearance in discussions, as did the communication of COVID-19 research, and Inspiring Australia.
Dr Simon Torok of Scientell opened with a call for topics in the panel session on “science communication; what are we talking about?”, allowing for discussion into relevant and timely topics such as tech and AI-assisted science communication, participation science, power and equality, and hope, optimism, and storytelling in science communication.
Dr Phil Dooley hosted a panel on “business, brilliance, and battle scars with entrepreneurs Zoe Piper, Tina Chawner, and Claire Harris, providing insight into freelancing, starting small businesses, communication within business, and “small boats making big waves” as described by Tina Chawner.
Niall Byrne’s panel following Prof. Carr’s keynote address what inspired Inspiring Australia, was a passionate discussion on the work achieved by the Inspiring Australia initiative, including programs such as National Science Week, and the improvement of public science literacy. This was further expanded upon in Kylie Waker’s panel on “a future vision for science and sci comm” with panellist Dr Chris Hatherly (CEO Academy of Social Sciences in Australia) stating that “we want scientists to understand the value of the science communicator” – if we can collaborate effectively with scientists, we can further improve the translation of science to the general public. This is, of course, a difficult task which has definitely been felt and understood during the COVID-19 pandemic, as was discussed in depth during Natalia Bateman’s panel on “Communicating science during the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The final panel examined the various research infrastructure centres (Australian research data commons, Phenomics Australia, Australian BioCommons, Australian Plant Phenomics Facility, and the Australian Earth System Simulator), and how researchers, centres, and universities can be made aware of the resources available to them through various communication channels.
Balancing up the program were several concurrent sessions on topics such as COVID communication, business communications, creative communication and technology, media communication and how science communicators can be treated within the media landscape, to name a few.
A series of concurrent workshops then allowed for the professional development of attendees in a range of areas (including video-based storytelling, career development, gender equity, and more), and appeared to have been appreciated across the board. Another day long intensive workshop, hosted as a satellite event on Saturday 18th, was the EMCR communication training day, where early and mid-career research scientists (who might not identify as science communicators) could take advantage of visiting science communicators in intensive training sessions on communicating and collaborating with science communicators and the public – it was a smash hit.
Networking opportunities were also enjoyed throughout the conference, leading to new connections, networks, and potential future collaborations.
A welcome reception and demo night was hosted by the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS). Hands-on demonstrations included bubble blowing with DVDs, potentially destroying the biography of John Lennon for the sake of physics, group static electric shocks (a great way to get to know someone), and many more. The evening wrapped energetically with the official “soft launch” of the conference where “hindsight, the monkey” was launched, via canon, across the campus.
A valuable networking icebreaker session was hosted by Dr Phil Dooley, allowing for the formation of new connections. The Gala Dinner was an excellent opportunity for communication and possible collaboration between similar minds. The night was also a highlight as Lyndal Byford was awarded the Unsung Hero award of 2022. Lyndal has been at the forefront of facilitating communication between the scientific community and news media for over 15 years (you can read more about the award here).
Social events were also a hit, with networking at Cahoots Bar, hosted by Dr Phil Dooley, wrap up drinks at The Jetty, hosted by the ASC Canberra branch, and finally a public facing science communication night at Badger and Co., as part of the EMCR satellite workshop, where members of the public could “get to know [their] local scientist” and workshop participants practised the skills they had learnt earlier that day.
A recurring theme noted across the various keynotes, panels, and talks, was the need for a careful reframing of our communication. As Dr Heather Bray aptly points out, “We need to stop trying to sell the problem, [and instead] we need to sell the solution.” In the opening Keynote discussion by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley and Joan Leach, Cathy discussed this reframing with examples such as changing the story surrounding getting women into STEM roles, from an equity issue to an economic one, and delivering on climate change from a prosperity perspective – “we had to change the story from a moral issue to an economics issue”. These thoughts were echoed in the keynote by Prof. the Hon. Kim Carr where it was stated that “It is timely to genuinely refocus science communication’s ambitions on the national interest by emphasising science’s role in building economic prosperity, social justice and democratic values”. Reframing was also explored during the third keynote presented by Tom Calma, regarding smoking within indigenous communities, where he stated that, tackling smoking looks at the issue “…from [not just] a health perspective, which is a big motivator, but also the economic perspective…” and that by “looking at the benefits [gained] from not smoking, rather than the detriments”, people can focus on positives such as spending more time with family.
Previous attempts by the scientific community to impress the importance of certain topics upon the public and the policy makers have seemingly made little change, and during the “Science communication; what are we talking about?” panel, hosted by Simon Torok, reasons for this were elaborated upon by panellists. We need to “move from blame to solution based narratives … using fear and blame to create action actually leads to a block”, says Sonia Bluhm. Many times when people hear bad news, they will just hide their heads in the sand avoiding these seemingly hopeless situations. We do, of course, need to be careful to avoid creating false hope or glossing over issues such as climate change, extinction, and pandemics, as these “man-made mega-threats” must be addressed quickly before it is too late. There is a need to make clear the severity of these situations, however, there does need to be a level of empathy within our science communication to our fellow humans – humans who are complex, emotional, rational yet simultaneously irrational beings.
Empathy is important for being able to give realistic hope, and without this we cannot get those heads out of the sand.
The ASC2023 conference was an ideal meeting place for the discussion of future ASC ventures including a bid for the 2027 PCST conference, the next ASC conference, upcoming science communication roles, and finally a discussion on the roadmap for the society as a whole.
While COVID-19 was a period in time we would all like to forget, it has allowed us to approach the future with a reset mindset. We now have access to a multitude of new technologies allowing for better accessibility, and communication across the country, and the world. We need to keep up the momentum from these technological advancements and from the efforts everyone has put in towards the ASC2023 conference and look toward the future of the ASC.
With this reset mindset, there are several areas for improvement within the ASC as a whole: fostering high standards of communication, promoting national awareness and understanding of science and technology, encouraging discussion and debate (of ethical, policy, economic and social issues relating to science and technology), and to provide opportunities for meetings between science and technology communication professionals. Co-president Tom Carruthers outlined the forward looking strategy for the society and the above plan during the second day of ASC2023. It was found that many of these key areas are not currently optimised and subsequently needs work as it is “essential that we re-engage with what the intent of this organisation” is meant to be. We also need to ensure that the organisation provides the membership value for members.
There is also opportunity for the wider Australian scicomm community to make resources more accessible. During the “Inspiring Australia, Reflections and Dreams” panel, Alison Kershaw stated she was “Trying to make Inspiring SA a hub – a place you go to find STEM related activities”, and believes that there is room to expand this nationally. “There could be a repository” of resources that the Australian public can use to easily access these activities, as “taxpayer money is being spent on research and science communication and it’s really difficult to find. It is also “really difficult for [these audiences] to find [events and resources] because if you are not an engagement specialist or you don’t already have a mailing list… how do [audiences] find them?”. We, the ASC, should also be aiming to raise public awareness of science, and with the technological improvements driven by the worldwide pandemic, we may be able to achieve this. We can also be an accessible network for scientists wishing to communicate their science better, providing them with associate memberships, contacts, and professional development, as was done during the pilot EMCR satellite workshop.
The Australian Science Communicators national conference, ASC2023, was an opportunity to reconnect with old contacts and form new relationships within the field. It was an opportunity to hear from a range of experts in the field, in-person, and take time to discuss, question, and debate. Workshops presented allowed for the sharing of knowledge, and the networking events were a much needed opportunity to remind ourselves why we attend conferences – to share in the joy of science, science communication, and science communication research. The global pause to in-person meetings that was COVID-19, while disruptive, had some small silver linings, such as gaining time to reimagine what the ASC could be. Looking forward to the future of science communication, and taking on board that which we have learnt, the role of science communicators in Australia going forward should be one of understanding: Understanding the public’s needs, the scientists’ needs, and the needs of our fellow communicators. We must examine how we frame our communication, addressing the community’s desire for prosperity and economic growth, the aversion to fear and blame-based education and communication, and the need for education by stealth and improved public science literacy.
During the panel, “A future vision for science and scicomm”, Kylie Waker asked if there should be a “greater role for professional science communicators in times of crisis”, and the following statement by panellist Dr Sarah Tynan summarises this well:
“I think in a time of crisis, what we need is clear-cut, concise, clean information, that’s not weighed down by confusing detail.” As science communicators we need to “cut through those really technical messages and give [really distinct pieces of information] that people can trust”.