Response to Australia’s draft National Science and Research Priorities

The revitalisation of Australia’s National Science and Research Priorities and National Science Statement will shape a long-term vision for the Australian science system. This process is intended to re-energise conversations across the Australian science and research sector. This process is being led by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley.

In March, co-presidents Jirana Craven and Tom Carruthers were invited to contribute to a roundtable convened by Dr Foley. We extend our thanks the the Office of the Chief Scientist for engaging with the ASC.

At the time, several members contributed to a document of issues that were used to inform the discussion. The ASC is pleased to see some of the language used by the co-presidents make its way into the draft.

On 29 September, the following response to the draft was submitted. The submission will be publicly viewable on the Government Consultation Hub in time, and is reproduced below.

Australia’s draft National Science and Research Priorities

Response to the Draft Recommendations

The Australian Science Communicators (ASC) commends the Government on revitalising Australia’s national science policy framework, and the consultation process adopted by the Office of the Chief Scientist and the Department of Industry, Science and Resources in the production of this draft and appreciate the opportunity to provide comment at this stage. We additionally thank Dr Cathy Foley and the Office of the Chief Scientist for the invitation to contribute to one of the March roundtables informing this document.

We further recognise and applaud the overarching frame with which Indigenous knowledge and knowledge systems have been adapted to the whole document and the priorities, and the clear emphasis the consultation process has put on engaging with communities on Country.

This submission from the Australian Science Communicators emphasises the pivotal role of science communication and the critical need for more communications research to enable and shape Australia’s response to the four identified priorities outlined in the draft. We highlight the impact that increased and formalised support for science communication professionals and research would have in the sector. We argue that a lens of community dialogue and communication is essential for us to achieve a scientifically engaged and prosperous society.

The overlap of the priorities and objectives

The figure on page 8 is a graphic that depicts the whole strategic priorities outlined throughout the document. It gives an overview of the four priorities, and the specific areas of focus intended to achieve progress across them.

We feel that the graphic clarifies a key gap in the priorities of not having centred a specific reference or focus on community engagement with the scientific endeavour.

This engagement with the sciences is crucial for the continued social licence to conduct groundbreaking research and fully exploit the new technologies and advances this research offers us.

It is quality communication (and the support of the research and education that supports this practice) through which we achieve the positive engagement with and support of ethical science and research.

The ASC therefore recommends that the priorities either takes an approach to science communication research and practice as being a critical enabler for all the objectives, or explicitly notes where that research is most effectively applied.

Priority 4: Building a stronger, more resilient nation

We specifically make note of recommendation 4, and applaud the focus on concerns around misinformation and disinformation conveyed by the ASC co-Presidents in their roundtable contribution earlier this year. We further acknowledge the link to democratic resilience referenced in the first aim in this priority, another aspect highlighted by our co-Presidents.

Disappointingly though, we note that while this priority seems to start to engage with the challenges posed to the Australian sector and economy, it fails to engage with the opportunities or pathways to address these issues.

As such the ASC recommends:

  1. Critical research in understanding mis- and disinformation to be expanded to include science communication tools and methods to support disengaging with mis- and disinformation.
    1. Science communication research has for years reviewed the cognitive, social and language tricks used to entice people to engage with misinformation.
    2. But we need to know more than just how or why people engage with communities that reject ideas they don’t like, and support ideas that make them feel comfortable.
    3. We need to understand the full pathway for people as they are exposed to, are influenced by, engage with, and eventually dismiss misconceptions or falsehoods.
    4. Importantly, we also need to dedicate focus to understanding how best to support those leaving family-like communities built on disinformation. What support do they need while they navigate a phase of their life when they are extremely vulnerable to more extreme ideologies or ideas? (This has obvious benefits in national security contexts also.)
    5. The critical research in the social science of the whole gamut of behaviour change is essential to fully support this goal of a stronger and more resilient nation.
  2. Priority 4 incorporate specific acknowledgement of the role of science communication expertise in achieving the desired aims
    1. Aim one states: Australian science and research will support communities to develop the skills, tools and systems that can strengthen Australia’s democratic resilience and enhance trust.
    2. This aim is thoroughly seated in the realm of quality science communication and engagement, though the rest of the discussion avoids referencing this as being important or even a factor. In fact, the word communication is not included once in the entire draft.
    3. While the aim remains focused solely on science supporting communities (ignoring the role of communication), this priority continues to diminish the role of professional and expert science communicators and delays the development of the evidence base required to best support their work.
  3. Critical research also expanded to include the development of the evidence base in quality science communication and engagement.
    1. An ongoing issue with the science communication community is the lack of connection between science communication research and practice. Practitioners often make decisions based on past experience, with little high quality evaluation methodologies or reports available for public consumption.
    2. While there’s broad interest in ‘best practice’, the research sector in science communication is thoroughly under-resourced to be able to provide adequate analysis or recommendations for Australian practice within the Australian context. With the exception of ANU and UWA, very few universities have been able to justify science communication research positions, and those who have science communicators in academic staff positions are often so overwhelmed with undergraduate first-year generalist teaching that they have zero capacity for practice or research.
    3. Best practice science communication needs to be based on findings from high quality research, but there typically isn’t the funding or resources available for collaborations between researchers and practitioners.
    4. Science communication research, conducted alongside practitioners, is essential to continue to improve best-practice, with clear benefits of increased community resilience.

Priority 2: Supporting healthy and thriving communities

Similar to our critique of Priority 4, we argue that community engagement is inappropriately absent from the discussion around this priority centred on community social wellbeing.

Australians are not making health decisions absent of influence or direction. Aim two starts to highlight the need to understand the diverse and unique social and environmental drivers of health and wellbeing in communities. This is an aspirational goal, but falls short of considering the gaps in the evidence-base for those engaging communities in health advice.

The ASC highlights the enabling function science communication research and practice in health communications and community building would have in addressing these areas.

Priority 1: Ensuring a net zero future and protecting Australia’s biodiversity

While we will leave comment on the scientific feasibility or appropriateness of having a goal focused on supporting a pathway to net zero to the relevant scientific experts, the ASC does want to highlight the lacklustre message that this aspiration sends to Australians and our international partners.

Other technologically advanced countries such as Germany, Denmark, Great Britain and the USA are already focusing substantial climate investment into negative emissions technologies, and the European Climate Act stipulates net negative emissions after 2050.

The draft currently conveys the critical research needed to engage with carbon emissions and this is crucial, but the message conveyed by not more thoroughly emphasising the need for negative emission technologies further reaffirms Australia’s place as following the rest of the world in our climate responsibilities and actions. The ASC therefore recommends that the language of Priority 1 more thoroughly emphasises alignment with the global aspiration for negative emissions, rather than net zero.

About the Australian Science Communicators

The Australian Science Communicators (ASC) is the peak membership body representing the interests of those who work in, study, teach and have an interest in the field of science communication. The Australian Science Communicators has been bringing science communicators together for 30 years.

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