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.

 

President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the President’s update.

Season’s Greetings

It’s that time of year when every organisation needs to get in its AGM, settle its accounts, and clear its books! While this is not the most festive of activities, it does signal the end of the year and time for a bit of reckoning. I’m very pleased to say that the ASC is going very well indeed. We held the AGM at ANU CPAS (Centre for Public Awareness of Science) in the famed green couch room on the 5th of December. Some highlights from the AGM:
  • On behalf of the membership, I thanked our voluntary executive for 2014—Pete Wheeler (Treasurer), Sarah Lau (Secretary), Claire Harris (VP and Communications team), Ian McDonald (Grants program), Will Grant (VP), and our amazing executive officer, Kali Madden.
  • We learned that we are solvent and our treasurer and executive officer (with help from our bookkeeper/auditor) are looking at the details of our tax situation and our status as a not-for-profit. We hope to finalise our books by the end of the year.
  • Ian McDonald announced the winners of our inaugural grant round (see more on this in this issue of SCOPE)
  • We discussed upcoming conference opportunities and an ASC strategy to give our members more chances to interact
  • We learned about some of the stellar events our branches have put on this year—this gave us a lot to think about as the most successful branches are hitting the sweet spot of offering members a few signature events each year, not overloading the calendar, but putting their best into some quality networking events.
  • I was delighted to accept the Presidential nomination and will serve as ASC president for 2015.
The year has ended on a very high note for me, though continued reports of cutting in the area of communications from many organisations is gloomy. I’ll address the ‘highs’ here and ASC will continue to try to tackle the lows by advocating for science communication at every opportunity. My ‘end of the year event’ was a science policy workshop run at the Academy of Science on the 5th of December.  You can check it out here. It was a rather incredible day where scholars, communicators, and policy-makers discussed some of the key features of using humanities and social research to effect policy and communicate effectively (spoiler: go to Cameron Muir’s talk about narrative; powerful stuff!). At the event, I was struck at the  number of science communicators in the audience and very pleased to hear sci comm concerns getting equal billing on the day. That day underscored for me the need for science communicators and this was clearly endorsed by the policy makers in the room.

I hope that everyone takes a bit of time out at the end of the year to recharge and connect with friends and family.  I look forward to starting afresh in the New Year.

SCREN update 2014

Thank you to Sean Perera for the SCREN update.

The Science Communication Research and Education Network (SCREN) is a special interest group recognized by Australian Science Communicators (ASC) and hosted under the auspices of the Director of the Centre for the Public Awareness at The Australian National University.

Currently, SCREN membership includes up to fifty science communication researchers and educators across twenty universities, including seven of the Group of Eight (Go8) universities in Australia, and three international affiliations in Canada, Kenya, and New Zealand.

Since its inception in June 2007, SCREN members convened nationally in April 2011 and May 2014. Deliberations at the recent meeting focused on a strategic forward vision for SCREN. SCREN members sought to identify a strategic Field of Research (FoR) “hub” for future science communication research publications as well as Australian Research Council (ARC) funding applications. Currently, the discipline lacks a unifying FoR Code, and SCREN members believe that a consensus is needed about where research in the discipline should be located, within the wider Australian research landscape.

Also at the recent meeting, strategies were proposed to increase interaction among science communication higher degree research students across Australian universities. SCREN in partnership with ASC introduced plans for a new on-line forum to be trialled in the coming months.

The meeting also addressed importantly the outcomes and implications of science communication research projects funded by Inspiring Australia. SCREN members agreed that other financial models should be explored to support research and development in science communication, and acknowledged ARC as a possible future funder of science communication research.

For more information about SCREN visit their website

Opening doors

Thank you to Sean Perera for the Inspiring Australia update.

The Opening Doors project, as it name suggests, gives otherwise unengaged and marginalised communities access to science and technology (S&T) in Australia. In particular, Opening Doors promotes awareness about S&T studies and careers among young (15–25 yo) humanitarian immigrants currently resettled regionally in Australia.

Mainstream scientific engagement in Australia is a novelty for this audience. Many of them also hold misconceptions about entitlement, stemming from experiences in their countries of origin. These negative early experiences have been anecdotally found to influence their perceptions about life in Australia, leading to views that S&T are elite study and career pathways, to which they do not necessarily have access.

Armed with an Inspiring Australia Unlocking Australia’s Potential Grant in 2012, Opening Doors pioneered a series of science communication activities for humanitarian immigrant youths resettled in regional NSW. The participants visited S&T centres in and around Canberra, including Geoscience Australia, Mt. Stromlo Observatory, Questacon, and CSIRO. They were introduced to first-hand experiences by S&T professionals, many of whom had immigrated to Australia. A wide variety of information including careers expos, Shell-Questacon Science Circus workshops, talks at the National Museum of Australia and the Museum of Australian Democracy were offered to the participants to experience the diversity of S&T opportunities available to them in Australia.

An important achievement in the first year of Opening Doors was to enrol one young man in a university science course leading to a career in medicine. This required the young man to re-embrace his passion for university education, despite numerous bureaucratic and cultural setbacks he faced when he arrived in Australia. Other young people in his community took his lead, and nine others are presently reading for university qualifications in nursing, horticulture, and computer technology.

A recent Opening Doors participant survey found that as many as sixty percent of the young people, who originally participated in the Opening Doors project, had positive views about S&T opportunities in Australia. This is a significant outcome, given that a majority of them were ambivalent, uninterested and even fearful when asked two years ago about S&T careers and studies in Australia. Their changed outlook was celebrated earlier this year by embarking on a partnership with the Atlas of Living Australia, through the QuestaBird citizen science project – where they proudly identified themselves as active contributors to S&T information in Australia.

To learn more about Opening Doors visit the project website openingdoors.anu.edu.au

 

President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the President’s update.

This month, I participated in a debate at the RiAus on genetic modification (sponsored by the Waite Research Institute at Uni Adelaide)—not whether we should be doing it or its dangers or potentials—but how we should carry out conversations about it in public. During the course of the debate, I was reminded that the first Australian consensus conference on gene technology in the food chain was held 15 years ago. Do you remember what you thought of GM in 1999? It also reminded me that I was living in London at the time and that the GM tomato controversy was raging in the supermarket aisles, food-borne illness from listeria was stoking anxiety and Mad Cow was around the corner. The debate in Adelaide was an interesting indication of how far we’ve come and, well, how far we need to go.

The affirmative team was arguing “The GM debate should only be about the science” and the team was staffed with eminent Australian scientists working on various forms of GM.  They tried to argue that scientists should stay out of public debate and leave it to the professionals—science communicators. They tried, but couldn’t really do it with a straight face. Every member of that team had worked with a science communicator, a few had media training from ASC members, and all reflected that effective science communication was a real partnership  between science and communicators. That’s a fair move from 1999.  For the debate, I was on the negative team arguing, of course, “The GM debate should NOT only be about the science.” It’s a position I believe as a communicator and something we probably share in the ASC community. Whether or not you like or loathe GM, various values, legal intuitions, views on social justice, are going to come into the conversation and they should.

What was perplexing to me, though, is that because I was arguing to pay attention to various values and the context of science, some people in the audience assumed I was anti-GM or assumed that I thought values should always trump the science in conversation. Here’s where we still have some way to go, then. It still seems that there is a assumption that “social” values are at odds with “science” and that “social” and “science” are antonyms. They are not. Scientists have values, too. And, there are social contexts where science trumps everything else. So, creating a context where values can be discussed openly, even when those values are about scientific things, still seems elusive.

AGM
Unbelievably, it’s time for the ASC AGM. We’re planning to have it in Canberra on 5 December. If you can’t get to our nation’s capital for this event, ASC is planning to stream proceedings so consider putting a ‘save the date’ in your diary and checking in on the AGM online.  As always, if there are issues you’d like to discuss, drop me a line.

Keen to study SciComm at uni?

Thank you to Claire Harris for the update.

Have you been wondering where you could study science communication at university? Maybe some soon-to-be school leavers are interested in exploring the mix of science and people that sci comm offers?

A number of universities in Australia offer subjects and qualifications focused on science communication. These universities include:

  • Australian National University
  • University of New South Wales
  • The University of Queensland
  • University of Western Australia
  • University of Adelaide.

Interestingly, the Centre for Public Awareness of Science is the longest running science communication academic centre in Australia, offering its first graduate diploma in 1986.

Do you know of any others that we’ve missed?

Have you found any Massive Open Online Courses in sci comm that you’d care to recommend? Comment below. (See an earlier article in Scope about MOOCs.)

Members may also be interested in checking out the discussion on the public LinkedIn site following a question from an undergraduate science student about what qualifications are needed to be considered a science communicator.

Event review: The art of communicating science

Thank you to Kathleen Hayes and George Aranda for the event review.

The Victorian branch recently held an event looking at the use of art – such as photography, animation, illustration and video – in communicating science.

A wonderful night was had by all, with ASC member Kathleen Hayes providing the following review:

“A night of good company, interesting conversation and amazing visuals made the Art of Communicating Science event a great time for all. For the mainly science based crowd the presentations gave a new and stimulating perspective on art, and how it could effectively convey and inspire scientific thinking. It was fascinating to learn about the practicalities of communicating science in visual mediums, be it cartooning, photography or animation. In particular I loved the high speed photography of air movement by Phred Peterson, I’d never understood the beauty of the maths behind such physics as helicopter flight until I saw it illuminated. First Dog was also a crowd winner as he humorously took the room to task on the status of science communication and its importance in the current climate. As well as being an enjoyable night, I think the event contributed to the group knowledge of science communication as well, and I anticipate more such events in the future.”

If you missed the event – or if you made it, but enjoyed it so much you want to see more – video interviews with science photographer Linnea Rundgren and Horrible Science series Tony De Saulles can be found on the PopSciGuy youtube channel.

Celebrity guest, First Dog on the Moon!

Celebrity guest, First Dog on the Moon!

Event review: Melbourne National Science Week mixer

Thank you to Linden Ashcroft for the event review.

Science educators and communicators converged at Markov Place, Melbourne on Thursday 14 August to bring in National Science Week 2014.

More than 40 people came along to the Victorian branch of ASC’s ‘ice-breaker’ for what many claim to be the most exciting week of the year! The beer and conversations ran freely between attendees, including representatives from Australian Young Scientists, Knox Innovation Opportunity and Sustainability Centre (KIOSC), Science Teachers Australia, Inspiring Australia, the Environmental Film Festival Melbourne, Scienceworks, The Royal Society of Victoria, Mill Park Library Monash University, Laborastory and many other science–based events and organisations across Melbourne.

Those who were running events during National Science Week were given an opportunity to promote their shows on a timeline posted along the wall of the bar. There was also a chance to spruik events to the crowd in a two-minute lightning talk. Many thanks to those of you who took to the wobbly stool!

A large number of door prizes were even given away. Movie tickets, a night at an observatory, 3D-printed cookie cutters and free passes to National Science Week events were all up for grabs.

Despite the packed house a good time was had by all and it was encouraging to see such an active ASC community alive and well in Melbourne. We look forward to seeing you all at our next event!

ASC-August-2014