On Sunday morning, Tom Carruthers, our co-president, featured on ABC’s Radio National as part of the Ockham’s Razor series. He spoke of the value of expertise in science communication.
Listen to the episode on the ABC RN website, or have a quick read of the transcript below.
Tegan Taylor: If a tree falls in a forest and … you’ve heard this one before, haven’t you? What about if someone does a groundbreaking bit of science but no one finds out about it? I’m Tegan Taylor, and this is Ockham’s Razor – a soapbox for science. And this week, the case for not just science, but good science communication. Here’s Tom Carruthers.
Tom Carruthers: So I’m going to talk about talking about science, or science communication. This sometimes art – often, I would argue, quite scientific – evidence-based process of sharing information, sharing knowledge between peoples.
It’s been human nature for all of our existence. We are storytellers. We live off story, and that goes directly to the way that we engage with our current problems and our current successes, our current journeys.
But the scientific discoveries of today are, at least in the Western science world, getting more complicated to express. It’s a little bit more difficult to give the preamble of the last 150 years of little stepwise things to be able to now go “… and this is where my PhD sits in”. It’s a complex and difficult space to be.
And so it is now a field. There is specifically a specialisation there, specific expertise in the art of talking about science or doing science communication.
I am co-president of the Australian Science Communicators. This is a body of professionals and researchers, practitioners, policy advisers, journalists, students, interested people, teachers, everyone who has an interest in engaging in science communication and wants to be part of this forum.
I hope that over the next 5 or 6 minutes, that I’m able to impart that there is actually some real important value in having that specific expertise in that particular field of study. And I’m going to start with, first of all, talking about the importance of people who are the researcher having science communication expertise.
Quite often, the person who would be talking on this podcast is a researcher who is talking about their own research. And there is a huge value in them being able to explain the work that they’ve been doing to us. We want to know about it. If they they’re in academia or if they work at CSIRO, then it’s probably our taxes who helped fund it. So there is some real significant value in them being able to do that.
And I can tell you for sure in my own personal experience, it was hugely impactful in around 2016, I think it was, when then Treasurer Scott Morrison referred to the pub test as being something that was useful to consider when we were talking about whether or not science should or research should be funded.
So let’s do it!
Let’s get all of the scientists out into the pubs and get them to talk to people about their research. In my experience, every time I’ve been to one of those events, everyone thinks that the research is really worthwhile funding.
But there is a trouble there, though. If we allow that popular vote of what should be funded or not, we ignore the actual expertise of being able to decide or figure out what has the greatest potential of being really, really useful in future. If I was telling you two years ago that I was interested in studying how this weird molecule that is somewhat related to DNA that I might be able to use as a vaccine for animals could work, that happens to be known as mRNA, I might not get the public’s support to pay for that. Yet it was an mRNA vaccine in animals that led directly to the Pfizer vaccine that we’ve used to, in part, wrestle some control over this pandemic that we’re in.
So I’m going to leave it as said that scientists should have some sort of access to being able to do science communication. I don’t think that it’s entirely the crux of their responsibility, though. I don’t think that a brilliant neuroscientist or mathematician who struggles to do science communication should not be promoted. I do think that if someone does a lot of science communication that takes them away from research, that that should be acknowledged in their academic record.
But it does move into a space where others can actually support, and that’s where a practitioner might come in.
Hello. Hi, I’m Tom. I’m a science communication practitioner.
I typically talk about other people’s science. My expertise that I’ve been working on for the last five years is not doing the research, but learning how to read the research papers quickly, interpret them, understand them well enough to be able to then communicate them. That’s been a specific expertise that I’ve been developing.
We used to have a suite of science journalists who would have similar sets of expertise. They would understand the right questions to ask, to be able to thoroughly understand a problem well enough to be able to report on it. A lot of what my job has been up until recently is supporting non-expert science journalists in how to better report or talk about new discoveries like quantum mechanics, which is kind of hard to explain (I still find it really hard to explain, at least).
There is also another point, and it’s where the social science comes into this, and this is the science communication researcher in Australia. We actually do a really, really good job in this space, specifically in Canberra where we’ve a really active research centre, and there are people all over the country that do look into science communication or the related social science fields that feed into that.
And it’s this research that is actually one of our strongest values in terms of us being able to do effective science communication really, really well. That goes and surveys people after there’s an IPCC report that goes out and talks about what did you understand of the reporting? And that survey then comes back and says that the majority of Americans who saw the reporting about the IPCC don’t know what the word mitigation means, and they actually initially think that it’s got something to do with legal because they’re actually confounding litigation with mediation.
So if I’m a science communicator using that research, I don’t ever say the word mitigation when I’m talking about climate. Instead, I’m talking about the actions we need to take to reduce our carbon emissions. It’s the same thing. It’s just being aware of what the research is doing.
That also has implications in terms of the vaccine work as well, especially in Australia where we have migrant populations who quite often are still translating directly translating into other languages either for family or friends.
If I translate immunisation into some Arabic languages, the most direct translation refers to the immunity that you have that protects against disease, which could be from a vaccine, or it could be from the actual disease itself. And so you can see now that that becomes a real problem when we’re talking about a COVID vaccine rollout. And there are some people who’ve had COVID 1.0 that doesn’t give you a lot of resistance to COVID 7000 (whatever we’re up to now) and we’re trying to communicate the value of having a vaccine, is that the immunity you get from that vaccine is much more than you would have got from a ‘natural’ (in very big, inverted commas) infection. So being aware of the research is extremely important.
So that does kind of like bring me around to my end of this little talk is to really emphasise that we have some really, really amazing science that’s happening in Australia. We have some really, really amazing scientists who are fantastic communicators. We have some amazing science communication research also happening here.
But we also do have some really, really amazing professional science communicators who take into consideration all of those parts. Their expertise is no longer chemistry or physics or this particular thing. Their expertise is pulling together all of these fields, taking the best of science, communication, social science research, taking the newest, most up to date quantum mechanics, mathematics, biology, physics, and putting it together in a way that we can then give to you or me. And we’re able to partake in the amazing thing that is our scientific endeavour in Australia.
I think I’ll leave it there.
Tegan Taylor: Good science communication across the board for a better informed society. You’ve won me over, Tom, but maybe that’s not so much of a surprise. Dr. Tom Carruthers is co-president of Australian Science Communicators, the National Forum for Science Communicators and Science Journalists. He was speaking there at Ockham’s Razor’s live event at Smith’s Alternative in Canberra on Ngunnawal Country in May.
I’m Tegan Taylor, your Ockham’s Razor’s host and you’d better believe I’ll be back communicating some more science to you here next week.
This talk was recorded at Smiths Alternative in May 2022, and broadcast Sunday 4 September at 07:45 AEST on ABC RN.
Guest: Dr Tom Carruthers, co-president, Australian Science Communicators
Host: Tegan Taylor
Producer: Tegan Taylor, James Bullen