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

President’s Update

Hands up who has a boss who doesn’t really understand social media?

Or maybe your boss gets Facebook, or maybe gets Twitter like Donald Trump does, but uses their own personal experience of one to define how others might experience it?

That can be a fairly common problem for all communicators, but the bigger question is how do you explain the nature of new media/digital media to such a boss in ways that help you make a case for being able to best use it in your work.

I can put my hand up for having worked with bosses who saw the agency being criticized by organised Facebook groups, and whose first response was: “We need our own Facebook page to counter these claims.”

And yet such bosses are never likely to respond to being criticised in the Australian newspaper or on television, by saying, “We need our own newspaper or TV channel to counter this.”

The fact the criticisms were being made on Facebook is not the real thing to be focusing on. Of more concern is that the criticisms are being made by an organised group. In this instance, Facebook is just the channel for the group’s issues.

It’s true, as Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s that the medium is the message – but sometimes you need to not confuse one for the other.

And hand’s up whose boss has decided you need a Youtube channel because – well because… and then is disappointed at the number of visits you are getting – noticing it’s a lot less than many teenage girl’s makeup tutorials or young dude’s game walk-throughs?

Because the world is waiting for one more YouTube channel or Facebook page like it is waiting for one more garage-recorded heavy metal song, or like it is waiting for one more self-published Amazon book.

It doesn’t matter how good your stuff is if people can’t find you in a highly crowded market. Or if only your friends and colleagues are visiting you.

The conversation with your boss (or let’s face it, with yourself sometimes) needs to focus on what you actually want to get from using digital media. For it can be many different things, and you need to often think of it as many things.

It can be a channel, or it can be a place for multiple messages, or a place for feeling the mood of an audience, or a place for conversations with people, or all of these and more.

Effectively understanding the language and use of digital media has been compared to learning a second language. And there are:

  • those who have been born into speaking it (digital natives),
  • those who have learned to speak it really well even though it was not their native language (digital migrants), and
  • those who never fully get it and don’t speak it very well at all (digital tourists).

 

These are not necessarily age-related categories, though they do tend to favour age categorization, with the digital natives being younger and the digital tourists being much older. So before getting into a heated conversation with your boss over the use of any digital media great idea he or she might have, first seek to understand what their level of fluency is and work around that, not against that.

Sometimes the right response to a boss saying we need a [insert random digital media thing], is to say, “No, we actually need a boss who understands digital media.” But it’s more likely to be more appropriate to say, “No we actually need a communication strategy that starts with clear objectives and use that to define the mediums and messages we should best use.”

Data Trivia: When to communicate your science.

Data Trivia

Feature your data and/or visual stories and findings. If you have some data trivia that reveals an answer or poses a question that you would like to share, please email editor@asc.asn.au

The following Data Trivia has been submitted by Ravindra Palavalli-Nettimi, PhD student, Macquarie University.

Is summer the best time for communicating about ants?

Google trends analyses suggest so. Northern hemisphere countries like Canada and the US have a peak in the search term “ant” during their summer, while Australia has a peak in the Australian summer.

More ant activity in summer means more Googling about ants. So we need more ant content during summer to raise awareness and to spread knowledge.

The full story can be found here.

Suggestions for future trivia:

http://www.radicalcartography.net/?utm_content=bufferec7a3&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Written by: Ravi, ASC Web Editor

ASC grant write-up: MD Writing and Editing course

By Ravindra Palavalli-Nettimi, PhD student, Macquarie University, 2017 grant recipient.

One course, 6300 words, and 2 papers.

I was awarded one of the Australian Science Communicators professional development grants last year to take a scientific writing and editing course offered by Dr. Malini Devadas. I am happy to share with you that since I started the e-course, I have been able to revise a paper and submit it, and have written another paper to be submitted soon.

The course was unique and very handy for me at the right time of my PhD thesis writing. It was an eight-week course with short video tutorials and worksheets. It was not just about the actual writing, but also about navigating different stages of writing a paper. The course also gave me access to an exclusive Facebook group consisting of other students taking the course.

I found some of Malini’s tips very useful in the process of writing of papers—especially on planning, revising and copyediting. Here are a few things I learned in the course:

  1. Spend time thinking about what your main result is.
  2. Plan each paragraph. Write a sentence summarising each of them, and expand on it later.
  3. Do not edit while you are writing.
  4. Take a break from your paper for at least a week before you revise.
  5. Revise to make your sentences succinct and remove redundancy.
  6. Copyediting is often neglected (at least I did). But make sure you check punctuation, syntax, and use a consistent/appropriate style for the journal you are writing. For instance, some journals want x% as opposed to x %, or similarly, >x or > x—some details that often get overlooked.

You know the feeling when you realise you have learned to do something more clearly and better than before. I had that feeling about writing the papers. Thanks to the ASC and Malini for this opportunity and a learning experience.

President’s Update

There is no One Public!

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

I think we all know there are two different types of people in the world (those who think you can divide the world into two different types of people, and those who don’t!). But understanding different types of similar people is a very useful tool for science communication.

Segmenting your audience is one of many marketing tools that have found their way into the communications world. The concept is simple enough: there are those who prefer Diet Coke over Classic Coke, or Coke Zero, or Pepsi, or those who wouldn’t drink either if they were dying of thirst. Marketing teaches you the very important lesson that there is no one public – rather lots of publics.

And replace the word Coke, for Astronomy, Physics, Biology etc and you’ll be reminded that no one size ever fits all.

You can segment your audience in many different ways: by the types of mediums they use to obtain information, by their levels of education, or indeed if they are even interested in science at all. Or you can segment your audience by how people think.

According to Jungian psychology there are 16 different personality types. You may have done a Myers-Briggs personality indicator test at some time, which is based on Jungian personality types.

A CSIRO segmentation study based on attitudes to climate change found five different segments:

Segment 1: The Sceptics (8%)

Segment 2: The Abdicators (16%)

Segment 3: The Undecided (31%)

Segment 4: The Eco-Friendly (30%)

Segment 5: The Eco-Warriors (14%)

Another segmentation study by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, found six segments by attitudes to science:

Segment 1: Mr and Mrs Average (23%),

Segment 2: Fan Boys and Fan Girls (23%)

Segment 3: I Wish I Could Understand This (8%)

Segment 4: Too Many Other Issues of Concern (23%)

Segment 5: Not Interested, Not Trusting (14%)

Segment 6: I Know All I Need To Know (2%)

For a science communicator it is useful to know the behaviours and ways of thinking of each segment. Segment 1, for instance, are your average audience who use the most common communication mediums.

Segment 2 are so keen and interested they will find you and whatever you put out there.

Segment 3 are often considered the low-hanging fruit, and are the main audience and reach to grow your audience size by explaining the science behind something more simply.

Segments 4 to 6 however can be a lot harder to reach.

Segment 4, for instance, is just too busy with all their other issues in life to pay much into science issues, be that work or kids or debt or taking dogs to the vet etc.

Segment 5 isn’t much interested in science and don’t particularly trust it.

And segment 6 feel that they know all they need to know already – often from alternative non-scientific sources.

You may need to come up with a different segmentation model for the audiences you need to reach, based on factors more relevant to you, for as we don’t all preference the same types of Coke, we don’t all preference the same information formations, content or media channels.

So there really are two different types of people out there – those who know the benefit of segmenting their audiences, and those who don’t.

ASC Grant write-up: the MD Writing and Editing Coaching Program

By Sarah Bradley, 2016 grant recipient

I would like to thank Australian Science Communicators offering me the MD Writing and Editing grant to aid my academic writing.

At the end of 2016 I graduated from the Australian National University with a Masters in Science Communication Outreach. This should have been the end of my academic career, but I didn’t feel ready to head into the workforce. Throughout my academic career I have completed short pieces of writing, but had never undertaken a long project. I decided to embark on a second Masters and improve my writing.

I started my thesis at the beginning of 2017. The idea was inspired by the popular Facebook page Humans of New York. Humans of New York takes the stories of everyday people and communicates these to people all over the world. I was interested to see if the personal stories of scientists and how they became interested in science, could be used to inspire people who didn’t previously have an interest in science.

Although I had an idea, I was not confident in my writing ability. When the Australian Science Communicators offered several grants, I decided to apply and was awarded with the MD Writing and Editing grant.

My longest project previously had been 2000 words chemistry laboratory report. I had never before written a literature review or designed a research project from start to finish. Understandably, I was nervous about embarking on a research project of this magnitude.

The MD Writing and Editing course was excellent. Malini was very supportive and full of knowledge. If I had a question about the structure or appropriate language, she was more than happy to help. Her planning method really made me revaluate my approach to each new writing task, making me more critical of my writing and evaluating each word before I put words on paper.

I would like to thank MD Writing and Editing course for improving my writing ability and for the Australian Science Communicators for providing the opportunity to improve my writing.

Season’s greetings and a free gift for ASC members!

On behalf of the ASC Executive I would like to wish all members a Happy Holiday season, or Seasons Greetings, or Merry Christmas – whichever best accords with your personal beliefs (except if you believe in wearing a tinfoil hat to ward off alien broadcasts – if that’s you we need to have a serious talk about whether you are in the right organisation!)

And a free gift, courtesy of our Membership with the World Federation of Science Journalists*, all current financial members will get free access to Wiley online journals (So you can scrub that off your gift list).

For access, contact the Executive Officer (office@asc.asn.au) to request your login details.

And thank a science journalist next time you meet one.

And finally, whether you cross the finish line for the end of the year victoriously, or just limp across it in more muted triumph, I hope you end the year well and start 2018 with a positive but objective critical analysis of any New Year’s platitudes (supported by peer reviewed data-based findings, of course).

Dr Craig Cormick
President
Australian Science Communicators