First published Proceedings of an Australian Science Communicators Conference are now available online

Thank you to Nancy Longnecker for the update and for kindly editing the Proceedings!

Professor Nancy Longnecker – Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

The first published proceedings of an Australian Science Communicators conference are now available online: . The 200-page volume includes full papers and presentation abstracts as well as summaries of keynotes, plenaries, panel discussions, workshops, the Spectrum Science Art exhibition and other special events as a record of this noteworthy conference.

Many people played important roles in this undertaking. Authors submitted their work for review and waited patiently for the review process and publication to be completed. The Program Committee (Claire Harris, Kali Madden, Nancy Longnecker and Jesse Shore) went through each abstract and proposal submitted and allocated all those accepted to thematic strands to strengthen coherence of sessions at the conference.

Without reviewers, there is no peer review process and thanks for reviewing efforts go to Emma Bartle, Jenny Donovan, Jean Fletcher, Mzamose Gondwe, Will Grant, Nancy Longnecker, Jennifer Manyweather, Vicky Martin, Jenni Metcalfe, John O’Connor, Lindy Orthia, Will Rifkin and Miriam Sullivan.

Editing the ASC2014 Proceedings was my parting gift to ASC after almost two decades of membership. Editing any volume is a big but satisfying job. Incorporation of a research stream at the ASC conference and production of a peer-reviewed conference proceedings are ways to enhance the rigour of science communication for both practitioners and theorists. I am proud to have helped make this conference proceedings a reality and am happy to share what I learned with the next editors.

While many hands make lighter work, production of an edited volume is a substantial job and it was a relief when we finally published this. So why bother? For me personally, belonging to ASC shaped my career and this was a chance to give back to the ASC community. It has been extremely satisfying to be a member and to contribute to ASC in a variety of ways over the years. The small band of friends and colleagues who helped revive the WA branch in the mid-naughties and those on the Executive at that time taught me a great deal as have those who contributed to production of this volume.

Using a peer review process in publishing means that these papers are scholarly publications as  defined by the Australian Government’s audit standards. The full papers ‘count’ as a publication category E1 for those who record publications as a performance indicator. The research abstracts in this publication satisfy the requirements for publication category E2.

So what? As science communicators, we know that peer-reviewed articles are not the be-all and end-all of good communication. Yet for all its flaws, the peer-review system is still widely regarded as providing an important source of credible information.

Given there are so many alternative mechanisms to communicate, why do academics and other researchers remain so fixated on publishing peer-reviewed papers? It is important for our employers and in turn, they ensure it is important to us as individuals by rewarding publishing via the promotion process.

Most of us would agree that this is not a great mechanism. But the rules of the game we play in are that organisational publication tally is one thing that determines the size of slice of the university funding pie that individual universities get from government (at least in Australia and New Zealand). This funding is substantial at a research intensive university. While funding for one publication is small, it adds up. The financial reward for publications in a large research department can be enough to fund a full-time salary each year.

We can try to change the rules, but the maxim to publish or perish is likely to be with us for at least the remainder of my career. Publication of the ASC2014 proceedings has enabled some early career science communication researchers to add to their CVs. In addition to the value to authors on their CVs, readers will find value in papers and abstracts in the proceedings.

The papers in this volume touch on current critical issues such as risk communication, science and art collaboration and use of social media to support the community of science communication. Research students invest months of dedicated work into writing research proposals and literature reviews. Half of the full, peer-reviewed papers in this volume fall into this category. It can be difficult to find an appropriate place to publish these types of reviews since they usually do not contain ‘new’ results. Yet, literature reviews and synopses often synthesise a great deal of current work and can contain insights that are useful to other science communicators. Happy reading!

The citation for this resource is:

Longnecker, C. Harris & K. Madden. (Eds.). 2015. Proceedings of the Australian Science Communicators National Conference. 2–5 Feb, 2014, Brisbane.


Neural knitworks: craft a healthy brain

Thank you to Jackie Randles for the update.

Neural Knitworks, the collaborative project about mind and brain health, was first on show last August at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery during National Science Week. A giant, walk in brain sculpture made from more than 1600 knitted, crocheted and woven brain cells donated from all over Australia was created by textile artists Pat Pillai and Rita Pearce.

Many other neuron-inspired artworks from delicate crotched neurons to jewellery and sculpture accompanied the impressive brain installation that was the centerpiece of this exhibition seem by thousands of visitors over a three-week period.

So far Neural Knitworks has seen dozens of knit-ins held across the country at which people of all ages and abilities get together to create textile neurons and find out about neuroscience at the same time from guest presenters. The project’s aim is to encourage community members to learn about neuroscience as they have some fun with yarn craft and reap the benefits that it can bring – in particular mindfulness, creativity, learning something new and being with others. Take up of this grass roots initiative has been sensational, with more than 12000 people visiting the Neural Knitworks webpage in the project’s first 6 months.

In 2015 Neural Knitworks continues and all are encouraged to get involved!

This year we’re encouraging people everywhere to create a brain installation in their own community. We need as much help as we can get to spread the word and inspire people to have a go. Scientifically informed patterns and installation ideas are available on the National Science Week website so that everyone can enjoy the experience of yarn craft in a group.

It’s a great way for people of all ages to learn about the billions of neurons in our bodies that save memories, send electrical signals to every muscle and receive signals from every sense. The best thing about this community art/science project is that everyone can get hands on with knitting neurons no matter their age or level of competence.

Rita and Pat have enjoyed running yarn craft sessions with Dementia sufferers and we’ve had wonderful neurons donated from knit ins held at kindergardens, age care facilities, universities and schools. No knit patterns are especially popular with those of us who cannot yet knit or crotchet and participants have ways to make other brain cell like astrocytes. A group has even begun making footy neurons to raise awareness of brain injury in sport.

Not surprisingly, the project has been popular with neuroscientists, attracting support from luminaries like Professor Ian Hickie, Director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute and brain surgeon Dr Charlie Teo, who each led knit ins that were covered by the media last year. Pat and Rita have been invited to present at international brain imaging conferences and will be heading to Brisbane later this year to lead a knit in at QUT with Queensland based neuroscientists.

We anticipate that many more brain experts will again join knit ins this year and to promote important brain health messages in the community. There are many angles that can be explored, from adolescent brains and ageing through to addiction, dementia, brain injury, depression and more. Why not get a group together and invite a brain expert to join you at a knit in? We need your help to keep this national neural network thriving and look forward to seeing your creations on Facebook where you can join us here.

Congratulations to artists Pat Pillai and Rita Pearce who have been so successful in bringing community members together with leading neuroscientists and brain health experts. What a fantastic and inspiring science communication success story!

Jackie Randles is Manager, Inspiring Australia (NSW). Neural Knitworks is supported by the Brain and Mind Research Institute, Alzheimer’s Australia, ANSTO, Inspiring Australia (NSW), National Science Week, the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, Gymea Tradies, Your Brain Health and Carringbah Lions Club. Find out more on the National Science Week website at



Unsung Hero of Science Communication Award 2014 announcement

Thanks to Sarah Lau for the award announcement round up.

Recently, we celebrated the best and brightest of Australian Science Communication at the Unsung Hero award presentation ceremony in Sydney.

The ASC created the Unsung Hero award to honour a person or group who exemplifies science communication and who has not yet received significant recognition for their contributions.

Frankie Lee was crowned as the 2014 winner, in recognition of her diverse, creative and wide-reaching efforts in science communication across the country.

Frankie has worked tirelessly to engage audiences in science by managing varied and unusual science communication projects in Sydney and around Australia. She was recognised for her work in developing the careers of emerging science communicators through connecting them with events and media opportunities.

Whilst Frankie has been instrumental in many of Australia’s highest profile science communication programs, her work is nearly always behind the scenes – facilitating, coordinating and mentoring. It was for this reason that the panel considered Frankie to be the definition of ‘unsung’ in creating and promoting excellent science communication in Australia.

Frankie’s full citation from the judging panel and ASC President, Associate Professor Joan Leach, is included below.

The judging panel was impressed with the calibre of nominations and also selected two highly commended finalists for recognition – Dr Shane Huntington, from the University of Melbourne and broadcaster on 3RRR’s Einstein-a-Go-Go program and Jeannie-Marie LeRoi from the University of Tasmania.

Shane is a true all-rounder in science communication, whether exploring science via radio interviews, implementing science outreach programs with schools or developing partnerships to support scientific research. Shane’s dedication to quality science communication, coupled with his community spirit, is evident in the quality of his work and the extent of his contributions.

27 years, Jeannie-Marie has initiated, developed, co-ordinated and supported a diversity of education and engagement programs. These have spanned student programs, community engagement, government relations, teacher professional learning and science-arts collaborations. Jeannie-Marie’s work has been extensive and she has made an extraordinary contribution within Tasmania and across Australia.



FRANKIE LEE is honoured as the 2014 Unsung Hero of Australian Science Communication for her significant contribution to science promotion.

Frankie has worked tirelessly to engage audiences in science by managing varied and unusual science communication projects in Sydney and around Australia. She is also recognised for her work in developing the careers of emerging science communicators through connecting them with events and media opportunities.

As a project manager across a number of science communication projects, Frankie is creative and sets up science communication in unusual settings, ranging from the Woodford folk festival to online ‘weather detectives’.

Frankie’s ability to monitor trends in science and seek opportunities for effective science communication is reflected in her involvement with the ‘I F***ing Love Science Live’ and ‘Science Alert – Space Oddity’ events. In both instances, Frankie worked tirelessly to secure interesting local and international talent, creating successful events that achieved significant attendance and media coverage. Frankie has played a huge part in bringing science to the forefront in Australia and ‘making science cool’ for different and unexpected audiences.

During her time with the ABC, Frankie was the driving powerhouse behind the ABC’s successful science outreach programs. She worked with scientists, broadcaster and ABC staff to produce creative science programs which highlighted the work of the scientists involved, engaged high school students and promoted a range of science events.

Frankie is a founding member of the Ultimo Science Festival (a partnership between Powerhouse Museum, ABC, University of Technology Sydney and TAFE Ultimo) and project manages many of the events as part of the festival, having been involved since its creation in 2006. Frankie has also project managed Science in the Pub across Australia, contributed to the genre of science comedy with the Science Comedy night at Ultimo Science Festival and the series of “That’ll Learn You” at Giant Dwarf Theatre, Redfern in late 2014.

Frankie works with many well-known as well as new science communicators to produce events on radio, television and live events. Frankie puts science communicators in the spotlight while staying behind the scenes. She is the brain behind the operation, curating inspiring and engaging science events and bringing science communicators to the forefront. She makes science communicators shine by ensuring that they are taken care of and that events run without a glitch.

Over the course of her extensive and diverse career, Frankie has made many significant contributions, but nearly always behind the scenes. It is for this reason the panel considers Frankie to be the definition of ‘unsung’ in creating and promoting excellent science communication in Australia.

Associate Professor Joan Leach

President, Australian Science Communicators





JEANNIE-MARIE LEROI is recognised as a highly commended finalist in the 2014 Unsung Hero of Australian Science Communication.

Over the last 27 years, Jeannie-Marie has initiated, developed, co-ordinated and supported a diversity of education and engagement programs. These have spanned student programs, community engagement, government relations, teacher professional learning and science-arts collaborations. Working primarily in Tasmania, Jeannie-Marie’s work has been extensive and she has made an extraordinary contribution across a wide range of activities.

Jeannie-Marie’s background in marine microalgal research has provided a strong scientific platform, whilst her creativity has contributed to new ways to inform and engage. Her commitment to improving community knowledge of local science research and career pathways has informed many successful programs and collaborations. She has excelled at pitching science communication activities, securing support and funding at the state and national levels.

In her current role managing marketing and engagement activities across the Faculty of Science, Engineering & Technology at UTAS, Jeannie-Marie works with internal and external partners on a range of mutually beneficial science education and engagement programs.

Under her leadership, Jeannie-Marie has helped develop the National Science Week program in Tasmania, expanding the number of events from 35 in 2001 to over 160 in 2013, with participation rates each year as the highest per capita of any state. Jeannie-Marie is currently the Chair of NSWk Tasmanian Co-ordinating Committee and member of the IA state partnerships with Questacon and DEDTA.

Jeannie-Marie initiated the Young Tassie Scientist program in 2003, which involves early career researchers in an interactive presentation program for Tasmania, focussing on regional and rural areas. This program has reached thousands of people in Tasmania and has helped the scientists share their work. She has also initiated and led a number of professional development programs for teachers, securing funding to establish targeted learning opportunities to support teacher skill development. These activities led to the establishment of the UTAS Graduate Certificate in Science Education in conjunction with the Faculty of Education.

Jeannie-Marie is committed to promoting the values of science as a career – and why we need scientists – challenging the commonly-held stereotype of scientists, and increasing the awareness of the importance of science in our society.

Associate Professor Joan Leach

President, Australian Science Communicators





DR SHANE HUNTINGTON is recognised as a highly commended finalist in the 2014 Unsung Hero of Australian Science Communication.

Shane is a true all-rounder in science communication who works across a variety of media, a range of scientific fields, and targets a diverse range of audiences.

In his capacity broadcasting on 3RRR’s Einstein-a-Go-Go program, Shane has interviewed over 1000 scientists and communicated a variety of scientific concepts. Over the past 21 years, he has championed science, scrutinised bad science, and invited listeners into the discussion of where science is taking us.

As the Medicine, Science and Engineering host of Melbourne University’s Up Close podcast program, Shane hosted more than 1000 episodes, helping scientists and engineers tell their stories through in-depth interviews.

All of these activities are above and beyond Shane’s full-time role as Executive Officer (Strategy) to the Dean of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences. In this role, Shane advocates for researchers across the faculty, building important linkages with hospitals and other partner organisations and supports the development of the Faculty as a vibrant and successful research hub.

Along with Professor Rachel Webster, Shane founded, conceived and funded the Telescopes in Schools program, drawing on his background in physics and passion for astronomy. This program places research-grade telescopes into secondary schools in Melbourne. The schools targeted by the program are local government schools, predominantly in areas of socio-economic disadvantage. Through the program, students have access to a research-grade telescope, along with on-going training and outreach evenings that help to foster an interest in science at these schools. This program has now reached thousands of students.

Shane has also conducted communications training for hundreds of students and early career researchers over the last 10 years, and MCs numerous science communication events.

Shane’s dedication to quality science communication, coupled with his community spirit, is evident in the quality of his work and the extent of his contributions.

Associate Professor Joan Leach

President, Australian Science Communicators


President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the update!

Not enough happening?

At our last National Council meeting, the representatives from our branches gave a bit of an overview of the activities that have been going on around Australia. There are science and film nights, cafe scientifiques, professional development meetings, networking and speed networking events, and even awards nights (check out our Unsung Heroes!) as we recognise each other’s strengths. It is pretty amazing the volume and quality of activities that are designed to support and develop us as science communicators. To add to that, I was just in Sydney for the Inspiring Australia Engagement Summit. There, I heard about what IA officers are doing to interact with ASC professionals and encourage keen volunteers in their local communities to give science communication ‘a go’. It’s impressive. Very occasionally, someone grumbles to me that ‘there is not enough happening’ in science communication. I’ve always given such grumbles short shrift but I think what is really being said is that ‘there is so much happening, it’s hard to characterise’. And, that’s different. I’ve also been inspired by the ways in which ASC members have characterised it themselves—for example, AUSSCM just launched SciMEX to be a hub for experts to tell their stories about Australian science (and review others!), the RiAus has launched their own digital channel, and the Australian Academy of Science has re-launched NOVA (a website with a wealth of digital content). And, I’ve sat at a table with ASC members from each of these organisations who clearly characterised what makes these different, but very complementary efforts to improve the availability and quality of digital science content. Not enough happening? No way. And, ASC members are also good at characterising the wealth of what they produce.

Soft power of science communication

One of the most stimulating discussions at the Sydney IA summit was had with colleagues from DFAT (I don’t usually get to write such things) about science diplomacy. Usually this refers to scientists in one country working with scientists from another to achieve a larger goal (the SKA or other big international science project). But, then, what is scienceinpublic doing when it puts out “Stories of Australian Science 2015”? Isn’t this a kind of science communication diplomacy, with science communicators making conversations among industry and governments in different countries possible? I’d say it is. So, it was so rewarding to find that colleagues at DFAT immediately saw a value in science communication in the cultural diplomacy area. Another thing that science communicators do—they are cultural ambassadors. I’m actually very keen on collecting examples of this from around Australia. So, if you think your organisation is doing this, please give me a shout by email.

Soft launch of STEM consultation

You may have missed it; I nearly did!  However, as you see in this month’s SCOPE, there is an open consultation on “Vision for a Science Nation”. ASC needs to make a contribution here—there is a lot in this paper about science engagement and that is great.  I think we need to underscore our value,  remind government about our continuing professional contributions to ’the science nation’, and even talk about how we’ve used the national strategy, Inspiring Australia, for good. I’m also keen to represent members views.  I’ll put a note on LinkedIn where you can comment or just email me on But don’t wait, consultation is over at the end of July so I’d like to get your views by the 20th.

Event review: National Science Week Event Holders’ Meeting

Thanks to Bonnie Murthy and Anneliese Gillard for the event review.

National Science Week is Australia’s biggest science festival. During the National Science Week Event Holders’ Meeting, the Victorian committee provided background about the event from previous years, including key successful events, and provided an overview of 2015’s plans.

Nine Victorian groups have received grant support for their events in 2015, and the meeting aimed to help cross-pollinate information and ideas between event holders. A few of the grant-holders spoke about the events they will be hosting during the National Science Week in Victoria-

  • Representative from IEEE Women in Engineering announced that they will be running Energized Fashion Show– a wearable technology fashion runway and hands on workshops exploring various applications of wearable technology in fashion, healthcare, occupational safety and many other fields.
  • Ricketts Point in Brighton will be hold nine days of marine science activities engaging community members of all age groups. Marine Education and Science Centre at Ricketts Point will be a multi-use, environmentally friendly facility, redeveloped at Beaumaris Yacht Club just in time for National Science Week.
  • Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI), whose many and varied activities for National Science Week coincide with WEHI’s Centenary 2015, celebrating its 100 year anniversary. One key event that is part of Centenary 2015 is a free Art of Science exhibition that is open to the public in The Atrium at Federation Square. Other information about Centenary 2015 can be found here.
  • Representative from University of Melbourne announced an Astronomy and Light Festival for National Science Week with an aim to bring science to the western suburbs of Melbourne. The event will showcase current research in the field, host talks by local leading researchers, hands-on demonstrations, telescope observing, planetarium and light room shows, and more.

The committee was firm in reiterating that inspiring Australia is particularly keen for this festival. There is a strong focus on engaging people who don’t consider themselves the usual consumers of science.

National Science Week website provides a tool kit for those interested in holding events throughout the festival and can be found here. There is encouragement and support provided from the National Science Week committee.

Australian Science Communicators encourages everyone to get out there and take part in #NatSciWk and encourage your friends and family to do so too. ASC will also help promote your events on ASC’s social channels.

You can stay up-to-date with National Science Week through following channels:
Twitter: or #NatSciWk


President’s Update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the update.

Looking Forward…

Exciting news in the science communication world—the World Science Festival is coming to the Queensland Museum in Brisbane next year in March. The timing is very good to plan the 2016 ASC conference in tandem with this event and we’re looking into that now. In other news, ASC member Andrew Stephenson has been touring The Science Nation: The Storytelling of Science. I spent a very enjoyable afternoon at the Qld State Library telling stories and listening to others with an audience of over 100 people of all ages. ASC members have also been acting as judges and EMCEEs for the British Council’s FameLab program. It’s inspiring to see young scientists get the science communication message—and in some cases, come to the realisation that it’s all more difficult than it looks!

But, getting out of Queensland is on the calendar. I’m looking forward to a June 4 ASC NSW meeting in Sydney to host the “Unsung Hero of Science Communication” award night and check in with NSW ASC members. Check out Facebook and the list for more details which will be forthcoming. If you’re in or near Sydney, put a ‘save the date’ in your diary.

President’s update

Thank you to ASC President Joan Leach for the January update.

Happy 2015!

Though, from the volume of activity already going on in ASC circles, it very much feels as if the year is more than 1/12th underway. At the start of this year, ASC is forming a new executive as hardworking 2013/2014 executive volunteers take a well-deserved breather.  Bianca Nogrady (editing the 2015 edition of Australia’s Best Science Writing) and Niall Byrne (of Science in Public) have joined the executive team. Both have visions of keeping our connections to the science writing and science journalism communities strong and have great ideas for events and future conferences. I’ve already thanked Claire Harris for her fabulous work on behalf of ASC—but again, thank you, Claire. A full roster of the ASC 2015 exec will soon be up on the website, but I wanted to take an early opportunity to welcome Bianca and Niall.

The Australia Day honours list included a science communicator! Congratulations to Professor Mike Gore (CPAS, ANU and Questacon) as he is honoured as an Officer of the Order of Australia. I can’t help but read his citation as a validation of science communication as well as recognition of an eminent and lovely colleague. His citation reads: “For distinguished service to science through a range of public outreach, communication and education initiatives on a national and international level, and as a mentor and role model for young scientists.” He has certainly been an extraordinary mentor and role model for science communicators as well.

Vale Darren Osborne
Sadly, our ASC community lost a colleague and friend early this year. Darren Osborne, who over the years held so many important roles in the science communication community—ABC online news editor, Double Helix Editor, Education manager at the NASA Deep Space Network station, and maybe most importantly, mentor and friend to many a science communicator, died on 23 January. The Australian Science Media Centre has a tribute page for remembering, reflecting, and sharing the loss of a great colleague. Our sympathy to Darren’s family and many friends.

Event review: Laborastory

Thank you to Sean Elliot for sharing his experience presenting at Laborastory.


One of the biggest challenges I have found in science theatre is how to gather a crowd. All the passion and production on stage may be for naught if there isn’t an audience to play to.
In October I participated in Laborastory to a packed room of people who had come to hear tales of science. Laborastory has been running since 2013, and over that time has gathered an enormous following. The format is five speakers, each telling a tale of a figure from science. The theme of this night, being near to Halloween, was ‘villains’.
My talk was on Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse; a 19th century surgeon who blew up the first transatlantic cable with electricity and hubris.
The other speakers waxed lyrical on MMR vaccine doubter Andrew Wakefield; hydrogen bomb inventor Edward Teller; Louis Agassiz and his racist theories on human ancestry; and a controversial look at Silent Spring author Rachel Carson.
For me, the picture painted by the evening seemed to be how to do science right by hearing tales of science done wrong.
The organisers are always on the lookout for new story tellers. If you’ve got tale to tell about a science hero, Laborastory has an excellent and friendly audience who will loved to listen to you.

Event review: Served with a sprinkling of science

Organisations involved in food production, processing, distribution and policy face considerable challenges and opportunities as a result of a range of forces, including globalisation of food systems, growing consumer expectations, economic growth and demographic shifts (particularly in developing countries) environmental issues including climate change, and the growth of chronic diet and nutrition-related diseases.

In response, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Adelaide is working to develop new research projects in the area of ‘Making ‘good’ food: interdisciplinary approaches to understanding food values and policy’.

National Science Week provided the perfect opportunity for the team to explore how people make decisions about novel foods that have scientific, social, environmental and economic dimensions. The team’s successful bid for funding with an SA Community grant in conjunction with National Science Week allowed them to hold an event “Served with a Sprinkling of Science” What would you put on your plate at which they could collect data, in real time, from the audience using the KeepPad™.

Speakers for the event were each allocated a topic:

  • Martha Shepherd, Galeru and ANFIL (native foods)
  • Tony Lufti, Greenwheat Freekeh (ancient grains)
  • Rachel Burton, ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls (GM foods)
  • Bob Gibson, FoodPlus University of Adelaide (functional foods)

for which they discussed cutting-edge food research currently underway from scientists and other experts.

By allowing the audience to participate directly in the event, the team gained valuable insights into how the audience make decisions about novel foods that have scientific, social, environmental and economic dimensions.

Event organiser Heather Bray said, “We wanted to do two things. We wanted to find out what people think about food made with science, as well as finding out if events like this can engage people in the issues.”

The event was a great success, with the organising team gathering a number of novel and significant data sets which they are hoping to publish – keep your eyes peeled for that in the near future.

‘Served with a Sprinkling of Science’ was also showcased recently at the joint meeting of the History of Science Society and the Philosophers of Science Association in Chicago, USA, as an example social engagement.

Organisers would like to thank ASC President Joan Leach for the brilliant job she did hosting and facilitating the event – her contribution meant that they could sit back a little and monitor how things were going, a key factor in the events huge success!





Six questions for outgoing SA Chief Scientist Prof. Don Bursill AM

Thank you to Abbie Thomas for sharing this interview.

After three very successful years as SA’s Chief Scientist, Don Bursill is looking forward to doing a bit of fishing. During his time leading the South Australian science community he has established a State Science Policy, set up Future Fellowships to keep SA’s best researchers from heading interstate or offshore, and founded an Early Career Researcher Network where people from different science disciplines can connect with each-other and with industry.

How much influence does a state Chief Scientist actually have?
When I was asked if I wanted to do it, I thought I’d like to have a go, but the cynic in me said people probably won’t listen to me. But I was very pleased to see that the Chief Scientist position is regarded highly by the government and the beaurocracy. One thing about being a Chief Scientist who has finished their career is you’ve got no career aspirations; you can talk frankly to the premier and the ministers without worrying about your future. I have sat in meetings and heard very senior public servants tell ministers absolute rubbish, and I’ve had to pipe up and say ‘well, I don’t believe that’s right’. I think it’s important that more people understand that science and innovation are really fundamental to making sure that our productivity is fuelled by new ideas and doing things smarter and doing things better in the future. I thought we needed a new Science Strategy which I started working on soon after I was appointed. There were 41 recommendations put through to cabinet this year and they were all approved.

How could Australia do better in building innovation?
I think our culture – not just in South Australia but all of Australia – has a bit of a ‘branch office’ or colonial mentality – we think we are too small and too far away and too insignificant to really matter, and we think that any of the real things that are going to happen will happen somewhere else and we can just buy them. And a lot of our big players – the decisions are made by Boards in other countries, for example in the automotive industry, and our small to medium enterprises are often family businesses that don’t have the technical capacity to really know how to lift themselves out.

Before becoming Chief Scientist, you were SA Water’s Chief Scientist for 15 years. How bad is Adelaide’s drinking water, really?
Every so often, the media set up blind taste testing in Rundle Mall (in Adelaide’s CBD) with water from the various states to see who picks out what’s what. Whenever there’s one that’s a bit on the nose, people always attribute it being from Adelaide! But in fact treatment has improved a lot, and most of the tests in last 20 years have rated Adelaide above average. We’ve come from behind and we don’t quite get to the top of the tree, but it is very high quality and definitely one of most reliable (Australian city water supplies) in terms of public health aspects. In fact we (SA Water) went over to Sydney and helped them when they had a problem with Cryptosporidium.

Australia’s population is projected to double by 2050. How are we going to find enough water for everybody?
We happen to have most of our population living on the coast, and desalination technology is becoming better and cheaper all the time. These have been installed in all the capital cities except Hobart in the last 5-6 years, and it can all be supported by renewable technology which has a very low carbon footprint – quite different from what is often portrayed in the media. But I personally have a view that it’s about time we started to develop a different economic model than the one we have which says GDP has to keep growing every year. This predisposes our resources will be bottomless pits. If any other organism was expanding at the rate of the human population we would call it a plague and we’d be out with the pesticides!

What are your tips for successful science communication?
The importance of science and the fun that can be conveyed in it are very important – to be honest with people is important. I do lots of talks to all sorts of community groups, especially on water issues, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there. So I do a list of dot points which I call ‘Your water supply – the myths and the realities.’
I show the things people think are true (based on what they’ve heard in the media), then I give them some of the facts – but I invite them to verify each fact for themselves. I bring them all along because they have the information to enable them to make the right conclusions.

Does Australia need a Science Minister?
The important thing about having a Minister for Science is that, come Budget time, they will argue for science even if no one else does. At least at the moment Ian Chubb is still there – he’s trying to establish things on a good strategic foundation and I think if he had more support this country would be doing better. But if he goes and isn’t replaced, then that would be a real disaster; it would be time for us to start getting a bit more active. We can’t not have a vigorous research and innovation program in this country – we are already right down near the bottom of the OECD with respect to industry participation in research. We can’t let that stay that way; we have to turn it around.