Presidents Update July 2018

What is all the fuss about behavorial economics?

Dr Craig Cormick
President

Have you bumped into anyone use behavioural economics to underpin a science communication strategy, and thought what has sci-comms got to do with economics?

Well let me tell you a story…

You might recall about ten years ago they world went through a serious recession known as the Global Financial Crisis – despite most of the senior economists of the world stating how robust the global system was.

The realization that they had got it wrong was well articulated by Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve who told the US Congress that he was “shocked that the markets did not operate according to his lifelong expectations.”Moreover he admitted that he had “made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders.”

His error was in believing that most people and institutions they work for, act in rational ways.

Dan Ariely, professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University in the USA and author of books such as Predictable Irrationality has said, “We are finally beginning to understand that irrationality is the real invisible hand that drives human decision making.”

Put simply, behavioral economics uses psychology and economics, to understand the cognitive biases that prevent us making rational decisions – but more importantly, how those same biases can be used to influence behavior changes.

Two names worth checking out are the Nobel Prize winners, Richard Thaler (author of Nudge) and Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow).

Many governments around the world have established behavioral economic units, including the UK Government’s Cabinet Office, the Singaporean Government and the New South Wales Government’s Department of Premier and Cabinet. And President Barack Obama not only established a Social and Behavioural Sciences Team but issued an executive order instructing federal government agencies to apply behavioral science insights to their programs.

But to my mind the real strength of behavioral economics is the fact it often relies on randomised controlled trials to determine how well an intervention actually works. Imagine if all your science communications work was tested by randomly assigning test subjects to two groups, one to test a proposed communication activity on, and the other as a control group with no intervention.

OMG – that would mean applying scientific principles to science communications! But we’d get a lot better outcomes for what we do.

Here are five key behavioural insights to consider adopting:

1. Power of Free: Yes, we love the word free and it can release large quantities of dopamine into our brains – but only if we believe there was actually a higher cost involved originally, and that thing is now being offered for free.

2. Show what others have done: This is known as social norms. We are social creatures and respond very strongly to conformity and like to behave like we think the majority of people are behaving. An example is how hotel guests were told that the majority of hotel guests reuse their towels, which increases towel reuse.

3. Dominated Alternatives: If there are two choices for your audience, you can steer them towards a preferred option by introducing a third option that frames your preferred option as more desirable. This is usually done by having the new option clearly inferior to the preferred option, but in comparison to the other option is both inferior in some things and superior in others. An example is a Chinese study in which factory workers were provided with spray bottles of sanitizer to clean their hands and workspaces – and told to do it hourly. After measuring usage, the workers were offered another less-convenient choices, a squeeze bottle of sanitizer or a wash basin. The outcome was that use of the spray bottles increased 60% to over 90%.

4. Irrational Value Assessment: If you are told something is very significant, or worth a lot, you are more likely to thing better of it.

5. Decision Paralysis: Having too many options can lead to a lack of decision, and dropping the number of options to about five gets a better result.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Kavli Science Journalism Awards

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is now accepting entries for the Kavli Science Journalism Awards until 1 August 2018.

The awards recognize outstanding reporting for a general audience on the sciences, engineering and mathematics. Stories on the environment, energy, science policy and health qualify, if they discuss underlying scientific concepts in a substantive way.

Entries must have been published, broadcast or posted online between 16 July 2017 and 15 July 2018. Independent committees of journalists select the winning entries.

We present two awards in each category: a Gold Award for $5,000 in funding and a Silver Award of $3,500. The categories are large newspaper, small newspaper, magazine, video spot news or feature, video in-depth, audio (radio or podcast), online and children’s science news.

Read our “Contest Rules” and “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)” websites before entering. In answering questions about submissions, we discuss a notable change from our past “Television” category to this year’s “Video” category.

Important Note: If a submitted work was not published or broadcast in English, you must provide an English language translation. Further discussion and guidance can be found on our “FAQ” webpage.

Enter online by visiting sjawards.aaas.org

US Postdoc Adventure

This month we are delighted to hear from Vicki Martin, writing to us a year into her US postdoc adventure. 

It’s been a year since my family and I moved to beautiful Ithaca, N.Y. for me to take up a 2-year Rose Postdoctoral Research Associate position at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I’m here to continue research on science communication and citizen science in particular. So far, I’ve conducted interviews with young adults all over the U.S., to understand their perspectives on citizen science and the barriers to their participation in one of the Lab’s largest citizen science programs, Project FeederWatch. I also asked the interviewees questions about the social networks they use to discuss wild birds. This information has highlighted the importance of how we signal who our programs and outreach are for, through the images and messages we use (e.g. the young adults notice that many birding groups are made up of mainly older adults, so they feel these groups are not really “for them”). Another study currently underway is looking at how people’s confidence in their knowledge about birds influences the likelihood they will participate in bird-focused citizen science.

Working at the Lab and being based at Cornell University has facilitated some fantastic collaborations with experts in Science Communication (Professor Bruce Lewenstein) and Communication and Social Network Analysis (Associate Professor Drew Margolin), as well as leaders in the fields of Conservation, Social Science, Ornithology (of course!), Citizen Science and Statistics. These experiences are giving a great boost to the type of work I do, and the support Cornell and the Lab provide for my research has been astonishing. It’s a real privilege to be able to work in such an encouraging environment. I’m trying to make the most of every opportunity while I’m here so when I return to Australia in mid-2019 I’ll come home with a lot more knowledge, skills, and experience to share. In the meantime, my family and I are also enjoying the changing seasons, the spectacular scenery in the gorges and waterways around the area, and the warmth, friendliness and generosity of the people in Ithaca. It really is a special part of the world.

Presidents Update June 2018

President’s Message

Dr Craig Cormick

 

Why science is rarely taken into consideration in political decisions

Sorry scientists, but here’s a hard truth – when it comes to most policy decisions, science is rarely a major consideration.

Take the recent decision not to cull wild horses in New South Wales high country parks. The evidence is clear that wild horses are an invasive species causing great damage to fragile Alpine areas. And this damage further threatens endangered species, such as the corroboree frog.

Many scientific reports have been released demonstrating this, arguing there needs to be a cull of the horses to reduce their numbers and reduce their negative impacts.

But up against the scientific evidence we have the emotional appeal of brumbies. Wild horses that represent that slice of Australian heritage embodied in the Man from Snowy River or the Silver Brumby.

And it is also useful to know that the Bill to prevent wild horses being culled was introduced into Parliament by the Deputy Premier of New South Wales, John Barilaro, whose electorate of Monaro covers the highland national parks. Snowy River territory. Home of those who consider wild horses a part of our heritage. Home of many of the descendents of the settler families who established cattle runs in the high country. Done largely on horses.

Groups like the Australian Brumby Alliance have been outspoken about the importance of wild horses to our national heritage, with statements like:

“It’s magic. It’s just a wonderful feeling; you just feel amazed at this majestic horse that can keep itself going in the park without any human interference. It uplifts my spirit.”[1]

By comparison, scientists’ rhetoric tends to be like:

“Horses have been present in the Snowy Mountains since the 1830s when Europeans first explored the region. Substantial transhumance grazing (i.e. the annual movement of stock and stockmen to summer pastures in the High Country) of cattle and sheep soon followed and continued for more than 150 years.”[2]

Another thing that is useful to know is that in politics decisions are informed by a large number of different factors, including: economic factors, interest group lobbying, political ideology, media stories – and scientific evidence.

Of course most scientists would see the weight of scientific input as being stronger than all the others – or maybe even at least of equal weighting. But that’s not the world we live in, is it.

If we had a spectrum of the emotive and electoral sensitivity of different inputs to policy, almost everything listed above would lie on the side of having high sensitivity – except for science evidence, which would be all alone on the other side having low electoral and emotional impact.

That means for issues that are not emotional or electorally sensitive, then there’s a good chance that the science input will count for something.

But if the issue is being dominated by emotions and is electorally sensitive in any way – sorry science.

I mean, which narrative do you think is the most powerful?

  • Evidence shows that wild horses are damaging sensitive environments and they need to be culled, preferably being shot from helicopters.

Versus

  • Wild horses are an iconic part of Australian heritage that reflect the Australian spirit, and it is cruel and inhumane to slaughter them.

This science narrative above actually plays into an emotional response against it, as we know that there are strong preferences for non-lethal control methods of larger invasive animals – especially among the urban public, who live a long, long way from where such animals roam through sensitive bogs and creeks.

The same type of thing plays out in many contentious issues, where there is a conflict between scientific evidence versus emotional responses – whether the topic is climate change, coal seam gas mining, vaccination, embryonic stem cells – emotions far outweigh the scientific evidence.

So what is a scientist or a science communicator to do, given that they are often unable to play the emotional game to counter emotive arguments? Are you going to be perpetually out-played when trying to make some impact on policy?

Well not necessarily. It is possible to reframe your arguments that incorporate some element of the opposing emotive arguments. In this it might be possible to frame messages around putting the welfare of the wild horses first. Pushing for need to keep their numbers down so that wild horses number won’t grow to the point that it threatens their own well-being.

Frame messages that make you a wild horses lover, not a wild horses hater.

And above all, if you are embroiled in a policy debate – don’t rely just on the evidence. The emotion and electoral sensitivity will usually be more important, and you will need to find some way to address them too.

 

– – –

 

[1] Anderson, S (2017), Victorian brumbies: invasive pest, or majestic part of our heritage?, ABC News. 29 January.

[2] Office of Environment and Heritage (2016) This Draft Wild Horse Management Plan, Kosciuszko National Park, State of NSW and Office of Environment and Heritage.

President’s Update May 2018

Dr Craig Cormick

PCST Summary
For those members not fortunate enough to have attended the recent Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) conference in Dunedin, in New Zealand (or those who attended and got distracted by the local sites), I want to share some of the highlights and my thoughts.

In 50 words or less: the conference was four days of reflection on the arcane art of science communication in a time of growing disruption and fracturing of media, while needing to better address diversity, biases, exclusions, political interference, pseudoscience and echo chambers, in the post-truth, post-trust, post-expertise world we now live in.

In addition to the many case studies and research study findings, many sessions dwelt on our identity crisis, articulated in questions like:

– What is science communications exactly?
– Why should we even do science communications?
– How should we best (re)consider what science communications actually is?

Another key question, asked both in sessions and in the corridors, was:

– Does scholarly research meet the needs of scholars over the needs of practitioners?

That might hint at some of the tensions that emerged in the panel discussions, between sci-comms researchers and sci-comms practitioners (despite many people being both), or between scientists and sci-comms researchers (despite many people being both).

Though to be honest I heard much more concern from science communication practitioners about the lack of sessions dealing with practice than I heard from science communication scholars about the lack of sessions dealing with scholarship (though there were certainly both included in the program).

But if you want a really strong focus on practice you come to the ASC conferences, right!

There were also no clear answers to any of the many introspective questions that were raised, as there haven’t been any at previous PCST conferences, and there undoubtedly won’t be at any future conferences where the questions continued to be asked. For we are a very broad amalgam of disciplines, after all, and our first allegiances are often to other disciplines or agencies or professions in which we work, which collectively makes it difficult to clearly define what a science communicator is and isn’t.

But this can be a strength as well – allowing for more inclusiveness and cross-disciplinary work. People have come to science communications from philosophy and the sciences and social science and media studies and journalism and other areas, bringing those expertises with them, all broadening the field.

So rather than ask the same questions about what is science communications, I would rather ask a broader question: We are very good at talking about the relationships between our own conflicting values and motives and needs, and we are not bad at talking about the values and motives and needs of scientists – but why are we so piss-weak poor at talking about the values, motives and needs of the public when at conferences like this?
They seem to me to be the main missing audience at such conferences. There is a lot of talk about the public, but really no representation from them to take part in discussions about the impacts on them of the communication of science and technologies.

Maybe that is something that will be taken up at the next PCST in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 2020!

Also, a post-conference highlight for the ASC was the Australian ASC team defeating the New Zealand SCANZ team in the inaugural Great Trans-Tasman Science Communication Challenge. Thank you to Tara Roberson, Claire Farrugia, Larissa Fedunik, and Lisa Bailey/Jarvis for joining the team and proving we can win (without using sandpaper).

And finally, a short summary of conference tweets to give you some of the flavour of the Twitteratti:

Christine O’Connell‏ @CocoNell2 Apr 3
Real communication is more about listening than talking. Ask questions, involve your audience, be open, and listen – some of the core points whenever I teach #scicomm. Totally agree on the importance of teaching listening @JohnBesley #PCST2018

Brooke Smith‏ @brookesimler Apr 5
Prof Maja Horst’s advice on controversial science issues: just keep talking about them; don’t shut down the conversation. #scicomm #scipolicy #PCST2018

Anusuya CHINSAMY-T‏ @palaeo_prof Apr 4
#PCST2018, NZ I absolutely love #Otagomuseum Otago Museum’s ‘Lab in a box’. Such a simple, inexpensive, and yet effective concept… converting a container into a Lab that can be easily closed, packed and moved to different locations!

Merryn McKinnon‏ @MezMcK Apr 5
.@PeterGluckman says that science, no matter how good it is, will not make a difference unless there are better national conversations. An international problem which is a call to arms for #scicomm people everywhere. #PCST2018

Tamsin Laird‏ @TamsinLaird Apr 5
Most ‘liked’ question for the final plenary session @PCSTNetwork : is it beer o’clock yet? Panel confirms diversity IS more important than beer  #scicomm #PCST2018

PD Grant Recipient reflects on #PCST 2018

Shanii Austin

Four days, nine concurrent sessions, six keynote presentations, so much food and wine and an endless selection of science communication researchers, practitioners, scientists-in-communication and everyone in between; PCST 2018 has been the most intense, exhausting, mind-blowing and valuable experiences of my academic and professional career so far. I was incredibly grateful to receive the Professional Development Grant from the Australian Science Communicators to help me attend the Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference in Dunedin, NZ from 3-6th April. It taught me so many more things that I expected, and has made me appreciate the value of what we do even more!

As a science communicator, I was taught to ensure my communications are clear, concise and brief. In order to keep this review short and sweet, I have written an acrostic of sorts. If you’d like to read more detail about my adventures at this conference, please find my daily blog posts about PCST2018 at shaniiscicom.wordpress.com.

#PCST2018
# is for social media savvy. While at the conference, a friend of mine convinced me to join the wonderful world of Twitter, and I discovered the rabbit hole that was #PCST2018. I was amazed at the avid social media presence of the people attending the conference, and got incredibly excited when big names in the field (like Bruce Lewenstein and Jenni Metcalfe) were retweeting and liking my posts! I’ve also discovered it to be a great way to share my work with the wider science communication community that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Follow me @ShaniiSciCom #shamelessselfpromotion #ASC

P is for people and practitioner-researcher collaborations. I met so many amazing people at PCST2018 – not only researchers whose names I recognised from reading their work, but also Scicom practitioners or scientists dipping their toes in science communication. It was also great to meet other science communicators doing similar work in different countries, including Dr Graham Walker (whose research has heavily influenced my own!), Mikko Myllykoski (Experience Director at Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre), Erez Garty (from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel) and Claire Concannon (a science communicator at Tuhura, the Otago Museum science centre), as well as countless others. One of the strong themes highlighted at the end of the conference (and something I feel quite passionate about) was the importance of researcher-practitioner collaborations. One of the great ironies of science communication, in my opinion, is that we are excellent at communicating to our specific target audiences, but not with each other! Both science communication researchers and practitioners have so much experiential and empirical knowledge that we can learn from one another, and continue to improve science communication as field.

C is for culture. The best presentation that I attended from the entire conference was titled Science Communication as Culture: Entertainment, interaction and emotion. Culture was defined as “the production and exchange of meaning”; instead of simply sharing information with your audience, it encouraged us to think of science communication as creating meaning together, with inputs from both the audience and scientists. This session really resonated with me because it encourages new ways of thinking about what science communication really means. I think this presentation sparked a wonderful opportunity for all of us to rethink how we define science communication – not simply as telling our audience how great science is, but starting a proper conversation with them or creating a safe environment for people to discuss science and science-related issues in society. If you’re keen to learn more about this session, you can find more of my musings at: https://tinyurl.com/y8th5t29.

S is for stories and sharing. It is no secret that use of narrative and storytelling as a communication tool is a powerful way to help people remember information and compartmentalise new knowledge. Prominent paleoanthropologist Prof Lee Berger, best known for the excavation of Homo naledi at the Rising Star Cave in South Africa, shared his story of the value of sharing science research. Throughout the entire process of the study, from using social media to ask for “skinny scientists” (a team of amazing women who became known as the ‘Underground Astronauts’), to having National Geographic livestreaming the excavation of the fossils as they were brought to the surface, but also making all the research open-source, including 3D-models available to download and print so scientists around the world could scrutinise and learn from them, Berger made sure nothing was hidden from view. Despite being ridiculed by other scientists in the field on the dangers of sharing ongoing research with “the public”, making the research open-access from day one not only awarded Berger several awards such as Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, but also made the research some of the most highly cited in the field. Sharing the failures of science was also an interesting idea that was proposed. Science communicators often fall into the trap of hyping up the value of new discoveries and research. If everything is the “most amazing, new, exciting, fantastic contemporary discovery ever”, it can be hard for our audiences to work out what is important and can cause people to tune out. By sharing our faults and how we learned from them is a way we can humanise science and make it more relatable – that way when we do share something amazing, hopefully everyone can appreciate its true value.

T is for talking – as in, stop it! As science communicators, we love to share amazing new discoveries and cool facts about science – but is it really what our audiences want to hear? Listening to your audience and asking what they actually want to learn or hear from the world of science was a very strong theme throughout the conference. We’ve done well to move on from the Deficit model, but most science communication is still based on those with “science knowledge” disseminating it to those with “less knowledge”. Moving forward, we have an opportunity to imagine new ways to ask our audiences what they’d be interested in learning – which I think ties in very nicely with the idea of science communication as culture, and creating meaning together.

2018 is for moving into the future. Science communication has come a long way since our early attempts at Deficit model style communication, but PCST 2018 has helped highlight that there are still improvements to be made for us to continue moving forward as a professional and research community. By continuing to keep sharing ideas with each other, asking our audiences what they’d like to hear and discovering new ways to create meaning together with scientists and society, we have a busy and challenging, but definitely exciting future ahead.

President’s Update

President’s update

US cuts Funding to National Science Foundation’s Social Science Programs

Here’s something surprising – the US National Science Foundation recently went to Congress, as they do every year to discuss their $7.5billion budget – and they actually advocated for a cut to their own social science budget.

What the…?

Yes, the National Science Foundation asked Congress to cut their programs into social, behavioural and economic science by more than 11 per cent.

The most any other program was proposed to be trimmed was 2 per cent.

Of course social scientists and those who rely on their research, such as science communicators, were more than a little perplexed, and were curious to know what was motivating this.

And, as we all know, in the absence of facts, rumours fill the gaps.

So according to Democrat member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Eddie Bernice Johnson, “I do not doubt this steep cut was dictated by the White House,”

The NSF’s decisions on how to allocate its budget is generally decided by scientific advisers, but there is a real concern that this year there were political motivations behind the cuts.

An article in the Pacific Standard, science and health writer Francie Diep stated that while President Donald Trump isn’t known for having any particular views on social science, the same can’t be said for other congressional members of his party.

Representative Lamar Smith, the chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that oversees the NSF, for example, has long and vigorously criticized social science studies as a waste of NSF money, and has tried several times to limit social science funding.

Of course social and political science research includes pesky things like climate change studies into what motivates climate change denial, and the political-ideological divides that see most Republicans as denying climate change as being caused by human actions.

The members of the US Committee on Science, Space, and Technology have been divided on social science spending, with some having criticised it as “silly studies”, but other defending it.

This is not the first time cuts or proposed cuts to NSF’s social science programs has made headlines. There have been similar moves, largely by republicans, to cut social sciences with political sciences in particular being targeted, or to limit funding to things deemed to be in the national interest.

The point is, of course, that similar directives of where funding is spent and not spent, are often present – but are rarely so overt, and we all know that political decisions become precedents for other decisions by other governments. Yes, I’m talking about ours.

Every year when the ASC releases its list of grants red-neck yokel politicians try and get cheap coverage by criticizing some as silly or frivolous, and calling them a waste of money. These include a feminist surfboard and the experiences of LGBTI people in natural disasters and spatial dialogues: public art and climate change.

That politicians can decide what research gets funded with public money, as it is in the national interest, I can agree with – but when they make decisions based on what is in their own interests – I think we should all be worried.

President’s Update

Trust Me, I’m a Science Communicator.

With thanks to Dr Craig Cormick, President, Australian Science Communicators

Let’s start with a quick poll. Who do you think people trust the most?

Scientists?

– sorry. No.

According to a poll conducted by Roy Morgan, nurses topped the trust charts for the 22nd year in a row as the most trusted profession. And they were followed closely by pharmacists, doctors, engineers and school teachers. Bottom of the list were those working in car sales, advertising and real estate agents.

Scientists as such weren’t even thought of to be included on the list as a profession worth asking about!

A US poll conducted by Gallup in 2018 also rated nurses as the most-trusted profession. They were followed by military officers and teachers. Medical doctors and pharmacists rated a bit lower.

Also no scientists!

We all know celebrities hold a level of trust way above their qualifications, on all kinds of topics – but just how much are they actually trusted? A study by the Korn Group found that in Australia, the most trusted celebrities are Hugh Jackman, Jamie Oliver and Ellen Degeneres. At least there were no wacky foodies on the list, or crazy health faddists, sprouting paleo diets and vaginal steam baths.

So what about those polls that did look at trust in scientists?

And an Australian National University poll, conducted in 2014, found that 71 per cent of respondents trusted scientists (much more than they trusted the politicians responsible for science, at 15%).

In Britain a poll conducted by Ipsos-Mori in 2017 found that 83% of the public thought that scientists were trustworthy (though again nurses topped the poll with 91% trust).

And in the USA a 2016 survey by the National Science Foundation found that more respondents expressed “a great deal” of confidence in science leaders than in leaders of any other institution except the military.

But  not all US polls were so glowing – another conducted by GSS over several decades found only about 4 in ten people had a great deal of confidence in scientists (though they were the only group amongst 13 whose confidence rating remained stable, which might be some consolation).

So trust in scientists isn’t actually too bad – but why then do many people not much trust science? That’s an altogether more interesting question to ask, and several researchers have looked at it in detail.

According to the Pew Research Centre in the US, there are distinctions in those who trust scientists in general, and those who trust scientists on contentious issues, such as childhood vaccines, climate change, and genetically modified (GM).

A report by Pew stated, “Overall, many people hold skeptical views of climate scientists and GM food scientists; a larger share express trust in medical scientists, but there, too, many express what survey analysts call a “soft” positive rather than a strongly positive view.”

In the USA at least, many people are either skeptical about scientists’ level of understanding of contentious issues, or think scientist disagree on them.

So what’s to be done to stop trust being eroded?  The answer according to many researchers is in better engagement on science. Put simply. Build a relationship between scientists and the public.

And that’s the role of science communicators.

Trust me on this. I’m a science communicator!

Sixteen Legs

Posted on behalf of Dr Neil Doran, UTAS

I am a prior threatened species management officer from Tasmania. We have an upcoming screening of the award-winning Australian cave biology documentary SIXTEEN LEGS in Canberra this weekend (18 Feb), and Devonport, Brisbane and Sydney later this month.

It’s a film that aims to inspire care and appropriate management of unique ecosystems in Australia, and proceeds from the screenings will also support educational work with Australian students.

As added incentive, we are planning to give away a couple of seats on our next Antarctic Flight (later this year) to attendees at one of the premiere sessions – so it’s worth people coming along! We (the researchers and filmmakers) will also be there for a Q&A session following the film.

View the film trailer here.

Film Description

SIXTEEN LEGS is a nature documentary like no other. Featuring Neil Gaiman alongside appearances by Stephen Fry, Tara Moss, Adam Hills, and Mark Gatiss, and with a score co-written and performed by Kate Miller-Heidke, SIXTEEN LEGS tells the story of the world beneath our feet through 6 years of filming, over 25 years of scientific research, and hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Journey into a shadowy world of weird animals and strange rock formations, overseen by giant prehistoric spiders trying to find love in the dark. Meet animals that outlasted the dinosaurs, survived the splitting of the continents and that have endured the entirety of human civilisation in Australia?s deepest caves. As the world seemingly descends into the next period of global mass extinction, a message of hope comes from an unlikely hero: a creature, often reviled, that has survived previous mass extinctions and climatic change in a magical ecosystem hidden beneath one of the world’s last great wildernesses. With award-winning imagery and a dark-fantasy twist, this real-world “Charlotte’s Web” takes you on an adventure through an ecosystem that preceded us and may still outlast us.”Followed by filmmaker and scientist Q&A. Proceeds will support the Bookend Trust’s work supporting students studying unknown aspects of the natural world.

Final Screening Date

SYDNEY (with filmmaker Q&A): 18 March 3.30pm, Chauvel Cinema, 249 Oxford St, Paddington.

Book tickets here.

2017 Grant winner shares story

Explore. Climb. Knit. The secrets of good science writing with Jo Chandler

If you want to be a great science writer, you’ve got to explore. Then you need to put a fence around it and etch out your landscape. Yes, you need character. You’ve got to nail it, you’ve got to knit it, you’ve got to kill your darlings and drown your kittens. But most of all, you’ve got to be brave enough to climb the ladder. All the time remembering that, hey, it’s not about you.

These are some of the ingredients of the special sauce that takes science writing from a Tuesday-night meal of information-sharing to a Michelin-starred story of science that is engaging, powerful and connects deeply with a reader. With the (much appreciated) help of the Peter Pockley Grant for Professional Development in Investigative Journalism, I travelled to the Melbourne offices of The Monthly to hear Walkley-award winning journalist Jo Chandler share her secrets for good science writing with a small group of aspiring science journalists, communications professionals and scientists.

Here’s a taster of what I learnt from Jo’s workshop, as well as a few other complementary morsels from some of the other masters of their craft.

Explore. Then put a fence around your story and etch out your landscape

The first stage of storytelling, Jo explained, is exploration. Is there some interest around a particular piece of research? Journalist Michelle Nijhuis uses Kathleen Jamie’s phrase ‘a turning in my head’ to describe this early stage of developing a story idea; the feeling that there might be something to say about an experience or topic. This is followed by what Jo called the ‘long-haul phase’ of gathering and organising information (aka reporting): searching for and bringing together clippings, scientific papers, facts, scenes, details, statistics and characters that need to be sifted, stacked, rated, and then tossed or filed. At this point, a good writer will take a step back and focus. What is the story about? Jo advised us to resist the urge to tip the contents of our notebooks onto our readers. Now’s the time to put a fence around your story and decide its boundaries. Then you can begin to etch out the landscape you want to lead the reader through by plotting the story’s beginning, middle and end, and thinking about how to draw the reader into this landscape using powerful opening scenes and interesting characters.

Yes, you need character

Scientists are concerned with the why, the what, the where and the how of their research. But the who? When you’ve been trained to write about your own work as if you’re a passive, emotionless observer, thinking of yourself as a ‘character’ in a story may, for some, seem anathema. Yet while people may be fascinated by super blue blood moons and fishes that live in a sea cucumber’s anus, what people are most fascinated by is other people. Finding great characters—or revealing your own—is a powerful way of drawing readers into a story, particularly when the central topic is not the sort of thing that usually captures the public’s imagination. Jo used herself as the central character in ‘Gut feelings’, where she divulged (with much comic relief) the sad state of her own microbiome after being treated with potent antibiotics for multi-drug resistant TB. Another masterclass in using character to lead readers into a story on a subject they may never have heard of, let alone care about, is Ed Yong’s ’How a guy from a Montana trailer park overturned 150 years of biology’, a story about symbiosis in lichens.

Nail the essential bits to the wall, then knit together a tight story structure

All this talk of landscape and character is all well and good, I hear you say, but this is science, so what about the facts? Jo suggested that, when you’re ready to write, decide the key facts, key quotes and key scenes that are essential to the story and then ‘nail these bits to a wall’ (write them all down in one place) so that, no matter how many times you revise your piece, you can make sure that these essential elements have been retained. Then it’s time to knit your story together with a tight and compelling structure. Structure is the connective tissue that leads the reader through your key facts, quotes and scenes; it gives context to events or scientific findings and helps the reader digest difficult pieces of information. Good structure creates tension. Jo used the analogy of a good movie: the mood might shift between quiet and loud but it’s never ‘dead’; the story could move back and forth in time; the camera can pan across the landscape and then zoom in for a detailed close-up before panning back out again. The scene changes. The point-of-view shifts between characters. The audience is given a hint of what is to come. Kathryn Schulz’s essay ‘The really big one’ is a powerful example of how great structure creates a tension-filled story about an event that hasn’t even happened (yet).

Kill your darlings and drown your kittens

That great quote from your main character that’s hilarious, but doesn’t illustrate a key point? Kill it! That clever metaphor that will only make sense to diehard fans of Red Dwarf? Drown it! Good writing means being (at times ruthlessly) selective about what you edit out, even though you really, really liked that bit.

And she’s climbing the ladder…of abstraction

Jo explained the ladder of abstraction as a tool that writers can use to organise a story so that it conveys both information and meaning, and appeals to the senses as well as the intellect. The ladder rises from the most concrete details of a story (the facts), up through increasingly broader and more abstract categories. Good writers move up and down the ladder, giving their readers a view that varies between the specific and the comprehensive; between detail and generalisation. In his book Storycraft, Jack Hart writes that reports convey information and emphasise outcomes, but stories convey experience and have meaning. He observes that anybody who works in an institutional setting deals mostly with information, and all this reading and writing of reports can trap you on the middle rungs of the ladder of abstraction, crippling your ability to tell a good story. As a former scientist making the transition to science writer, I know how terrifying it can be to climb up onto those top rungs. But now that I’m beginning to conquer this fear, I’m finding the view from the top magnificent.

It’s not about you

In ‘A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists’, Tim Radford writes that the only person you are writing to impress is someone hanging from a strap in the train on their daily commute, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given the chance. Even science writers at the top of their game, Jo included, remind themselves that ‘nobody has to read this crap’. So, to paraphrase Alan Alda, forget thinking about what you need to say, and write about what your reader wants to know.

Follow Viki on Twitter @VikiCramer or at her website www.vikicramer.com.au