ASC Scope Interview: Julian Cribb, Science Communicator, Journalist, Author and Strong Advocate for Earth’s Future

-The Earth has a future whether humans want it or not. The question I am focussed on is: do we? (Julian Cribb).

Brief background:

Julian Cribb is an Australian science writer, the author of nine books and over 9000 media articles. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering,  the Australian National University Emeritus Faculty and the British Royal Society for the Arts (FRSA).

 

Why did you choose to study science?

A: My degree is in Homeric Greek, so I didn’t study science – but having a bit of Greek and Latin is a big help in translating scientific words, and the philosophy of science owes its origins to the Greeks. However, I was always fascinated by science and, in my first career as an agricultural journalist, I found myself reporting a lot of science – animal science, soil science, ecology, agronomy, weather, climate etc. I wrote my first climate change story back in 1976! In the 1990s The Australian asked me to come and work for them (again, I had worked there before) and asked me what I wanted to report on. I said science, because the opportunities for a news journalist in science are limitless (as distinct from politics, economics etc which repeat themselves constantly). I was their science editor for 5 years and thoroughly enjoyed it. While on the Oz, I was the first western journalist into Chernobyl after the disaster – but that is a story in itself. I’m glad I don’t work there today, as the Oz has abandoned any attempt to report science objectively and often seeks to distort it nowadays. But in my days the editors were better and the political agenda was less stark.

 

Looking back now, what has been the best part of your career in SciComm?

A: Interacting and learning from a couple of thousand of Australia’s most brilliant and gifted researchers was a joy and a true privilege. In my journalistic career, I have published over 9000 media articles on science and, as a communicator issued more than 3000 science media releases. I hope that that has helped inform many people about the scientific knowledge they need for a better life.

I was the first president of ASC when we founded it in 1994 – and I’m grateful to my colleagues who shared the vision that science communication embraces a wide range of professions – journalism, teaching, research, marketing, social media and so on. It is the craft of transmitting our most precious commodity, human knowledge, safely, truthfully and widely.

I thoroughly enjoyed heading CSIRO’s National Awareness unit, 1996-2002. We doubled the agency’s media coverage and changed the ethos. However before I took that job I demanded an assurance from the Chairman and CEO that I could report the science – not promote the organisation. Too many science organisations fall into the ugly trap of self-promotion, and forget that what really builds their reputation is the quality and relevance of their science. I had a great team of communicators at CSIRO who shared my view we should be getting the science out there, to the people who could use and benefit from it, not doing PR for the institution.

Having said that, the best time was the 15 years I spent running my own science communication business. I worked for over 100 different organisations including most of the CRCs, quite a few CoEs and universities, the Commonwealth and several State governments, several foreign governments, the UN and big international corporations like Rolex and Rio Tinto. It took me around the world, as a communicator and a speaker, and was a real buzz. The true pleasure lay in the diversity and range of the science I was handling on a daily basis, as well as the thrill of learning new discoveries at first hand.

 

Where has your career led you?

A: To my final career in trying to save humanity from the consequences of its own catastrophic mistakes.

Having spoken to thousands of scientists and technologists over more than 4 decades, I have garnered an immense amount of interesting and valuable evidence-based information. I realised after a time that I held more pieces of the puzzle in my hands than most scientists – because they are generally focussed on their own particular disciplines and areas of expertise. But they have given me the big picture. As a science writer, I knew much less than they did about the detail – but I had a larger overview. And I knew where to go to find out the detail. I am sure that people like Robyn Williams and Karl Kruszelnicki would agree that being a science communicator is a very special privilege and a pleasure because you can scan the whole of tested human knowledge and share it with others.

About ten years ago I began meeting a lot of scientists who were very dispirited about the future and the prospects for humanity. Ecologists and climatologists especially. Every day they had to deal with data that told them the world was going to hell in a handcart, and it depressed them. Furthermore, if they spoke out, they got belted over the head by the government or business, who didn’t like hearing ‘bad news’. Science was being forced into a dark corner and gagged by vested interest in politics and commerce. So I decided to do what a science communicator does best – pull together most trusted science I could find and interpret it for the ordinary citizen so they could (a) understand the problem and see how large it was and (b) try and do something to overcome it.

The result is a series of science books, four published and another due out on April 21, describing aspects of the existential emergency that faces humankind – and what we can do about it. This is an emergency that will almost certainly destroy civilization within the lifetimes of young people today, and under certain conditions may even obliterate our species. All the books are based on the best science and the most trustworthy scientists and institutions I can find, but written in plain language that anyone can follow. Importantly, they also explain the solutions to these catastrophic risks – what we must do both as a species and as individuals to avoid disaster and build a better, cleaner, safer and more wholesome world.

If you ask me: am I optimistic? my reply is, no. How could any rational person be optimistic in the face of such overwhelming evidence? But there is room for hope, if we act now, and we act together. The longer we delay, or allow others to mislead us about the scientific facts, the worse the ultimate collapse will be. However, early prompt action can save billions of lives. Not millions, billions. And that is what keeps me going.

I’m a grandad, and I am fighting for my grandchildren’s future on this Planet. As they say, beware of an old man in a hurry…

 

What excites you most about your work?

A: The fact that I shall probably fail. It makes me try harder.

In recognition of this, together with John Hewson, Bob Douglas and Paul Barrett we have formed the Council for the Human Future, https://humanfuture.org/ a not-for-profit alliance of scientists and concerned citizens whose aim is to awaken the world to the existential crisis it is facing, and work together to devise solutions and a road forward. You could say our job is science communication – getting the science to the world, and helping people think their way to the answers. One thing that is absolutely vital is to realise that there are not one or two big threats, like climate or nuclear war, but TEN, which collectively constitute the existential emergency. They are all coming together at the same time and cannot be solved one by one. They must all be solved together, and in ways that make none of them worse. There is no point in fixing the climate if we let the other nine risks destroy us. And it is no good fixing the food crisis if it destroys the climate or global ecology. So the solutions have to be crosscutting.

As science communicators most of you will be familiar with the concept of complex systems science. That describes the mess that humans have landed themselves in. It’s a system, and needs to be addressed systemically. And, if you think about it, it nearly all stems from our use, misuse and overuse of various sciences and technologies. So science got us in this mess in the first place, by triggering human overpopulation and overexploitation of the Earth’s resources. So, I believe, science owes it to humanity to help get us out of the hole it has helped create.

And whose job is that, you may ask? Well, I may be biased, but I think it’s a science communicator’s job. It’s about sharing tested knowledge that will overcome our crises and engender a more sustainable and resilient world on which to live in future.

 

What advice do you have for anyone considering a career in SciComm?

A: In my time I have mentored and taught many science communicators, scientists and young journalists. Looking back over my own career – almost 50 years now, my advice to others is that you should always choose the job that makes you happiest and most fulfilled. One that is a natural fit for your skills and which engages your enthusiasm. Working for a paypacket alone is a miserable existence. If you find yourself doing it, it’s time to look elsewhere. Also, if you can, work for yourself rather than for others, because bosses are a very variable commodity: some are good, but most are bad in one way or another. As a self-employed newspaperman (I launched several papers and two news services) and science communicator, nothing beats following your own dreams. It makes you get up that much earlier, work harder and enjoy it more and, if you employ others, a kinder boss.

 

What are some of the greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your SciComm career?  

A: too many to enumerate. As a journalist you sometimes have to face death and other threats, you make politicians and other self-important people angry (if you’re doing your job) and media owners are a mixed bag. As a science communicator, the greatest frustration is dealing with idiots who want to promote themselves or their institution and use you as a PR flack instead of a skilled expert who understands how best to share that most precious commodity, human knowledge.

 

 

Lisa Bailey: President’s Update December

President’s Update

This Thursday is the ASC AGM, which will be held on zoom and where we’ll be joined for an introductory Q&A with Deadly Science founder, Indigenous mentor and STEM champion Corey Tutt, who has not let 2020 slow him down! So if you have not already, please RSVP for that here.

As 2020 comes to a close, I’m sure most of us are happy to see it go.  2021 will bring a new set of issues, but also more interesting science communication challenges, particularly as COVID vaccines are rolled out around the globe and climate action becomes more urgent.

I hope that you all are able to take some time over the coming weeks to have a break, rest and recharge to be ready for 2021.

ASC Scope Interview: Dr Sam Illingworth, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication, School of Biological Sciences, UWA

 

Why did you choose to study science?

Following my compulsory science education in school, I chose to study science at A-level (exams that are studied and taken by 16-18-year-olds in the UK prior to University) because I loved trying to understand the world and the way in which we live. I pursued a combined undergraduate and master’s degree in Physics with Space Science and Technology at the University of Leicester because I had brilliant A-level physics teachers who instilled a love of the discipline into me. During my time at Leicester I fell in love with satellites and was lucky enough to do a PhD there as well, in which I used satellites to make measurements of greenhouse gases at the Earth’s surface. I then made the completely logical step of taking up a scholarship with the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation to study the relationship between science and theatre in Tokyo for a couple of years, which is where I first began to suspect that there might be more to the positivist mindset into which I had become indoctrinated…

Looking back now, what has been the best part of your career in SciComm?

Having the opportunity to combine poetry and science and to be in a position where I get to read, write, and perform poetry as part of my job. When I set up my blog The Poetry of Science a few years ago, it was on a bit of a whim. But as a result of that blog (which is still going strong), I have been able to build an entire community of practice, developing a research paradigm that combines poetic inquiry with science communication research and practice. As well as further outreach opportunities, such as the accompanying podcast, I have been fortunate enough to write a book, conduct a variety of research studies, and give keynote speeches all over the world. I can honestly say that I love my job, and I feel incredibly privileged to be able to continue this work in my current role as Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at The University of Western Australia.

Where has your career led you?

Literally right around the world. From the North of England to the West Coast of Australia, via Japan, China, and America. I have been lucky enough to study, teach, and research science communication all over the globe, and doing so has really helped me to better understand the need to diversify science, and to use my voice and privilege to create platforms for others to share their knowledge and expertise.

What excites you most about your work?

The opportunity to work with others and to learn from different publics about their expertise. I love collaborating and working with people who have different opinions on what science is and what it can be. If anyone reading this is interesting in connecting with me and potentially developing a collaboration then my Twitter feed is always open!

What advice do you have for anyone considering a career in SciComm?

Think about what area of SciComm you want to get into. Do you want to be a SciComm practitioner? Do you want to be a SciComm researcher? Do you want to be a scientist who has a side hustle in SciComm? Science communication is a varied field and there are many routes into it (and out of it!); thinking about which particular niche you want to occupy will help you to frame your work and where you sit within the wider SciComm environment.

What are some of the greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your SciComm career?  

I’m not sure I’ve overcome them yet to be honest. The two biggest battles I face are trying to convince people that my work is about more than teaching people how to give good presentations, and that using poetry and games is a serious way in which to engender dialogue and participation in science. Helping to set up Consilience, the world’s first peer-reviewed poetry journal has gone some way to convince others of my intent, but there is still a way to go!

Lisa Bailey: President’s Update October

Jobs jobs jobs…

It’s budget day, and it’s all jobs jobs jobs…

Where do you go to find a job in sci-com? It’s a question that’s now more relevant than ever as COVID impacts start reverberating through some of the sectors that have been some of the big employers of science communicators like the higher education sector and the research institutes they host.

Always check SCOPE where we will list vacancies, you can also post any opportunities you come across to the wider ASC mailing list or to our Facebook group.
Taking a wider look, internationally, Jo Brodie has been collating sci-com job opportunities for ages and has this great blog post summarising years of sourcing places you can look for work.  There’s also the Scicom Ops email with lots of (Eu centric) opportunities, or Science Communication Jobs Facebook group or #scicomjobs over on twitter.

Do you have any good places to look for Aussie science communicators?  Do you have a job opportunity you’d like to share?  Please let us know.  And thoughts going out to all those who’ve been impacted by the economic blows of 2020.

ASC Scope Interview: Craig Bloxsome, Scitech Science Centre Manager

Craig Bloxsome

 

Why did you choose to study science?        

I’m not sure if I actually did study science although my undergraduate degree Leisure Science did have the word science in it. I grew up in a small country town and neither of my parents completed high school so the thought of going to university seemed very daunting. I had never even thought of studying for a career. Anyhow making the decision to leave home, go to university and study Leisure Sciences gave me a really strong grounding to my future Science Communication career.

Throughout my undergraduate course we spent a lot of time understanding what people in the community liked to do in their leisure time and how we could help develop programs to match these pursuits. We ventured into the communities a lot and I got to see how diverse Australians are and how peoples pursuits are always changing and never static. One of my units involved us visiting prominent stadiums, venues and museums to understand their role in the community and how they operate. It was an outing to Scitech where a manager mentioned that they were hiring new science communicators. I put in a application, got asked to come in for an interview and to bring a science demonstration. I prepared, brought in a bunch of soft toy animals and a week later started my science communication career.

Looking back now, what has been the best part of your career in SciComm?

Being able to develop and work with some of the best science communicators in Western Australia. I have been at Scitech for 17 years and seen so many young adults start their professional roles here and then go onto greater things, whether that be doctors, teachers, continuing science communication or becoming fantastic parents. I have always seen myself as a mentor to our science presenters who are almost always far more intelligent than myself and are destined to be great people so I try to keep them grounded, build them up a strong work ethic and also help them to learn that not everyone is obsessed in STEM like ourselves. This is probably why I have been given the unofficial title of “The Peoples Manager” at work.

Where has your career led you?

Management. I worked purely as a science presenter for a few years and even spent sometime as a supervisor. I then decided to return to university for a year and do a Graduate Diploma of Primary Education. Although I never really thought I would be a school teacher (backup plan) I found the course extremely useful in understanding childhood development and also how important the school curriculum is for our programming within the Science Centre.

After the one year away I returned to Scitech as the Manager of Science Presenters which involved training lots of future science communicators, rostering and also developing programs and events within the centre. For a few years my specialty was robotics and running the Robocup WA event which in the end got too large for our centre and is now hosted at Curtin University. I then finally moved to my current role as the Science Centre Manager. This involves more planning work with my full-time team and every now and then I still get to spend some time communicating with visitors.

What excites you most about your work?

Seeing families learning and experiencing new things together. We spend a lot of time planning how events and holidays will operate but the excitement happens when we open and you see the direct impact that you are having on individuals. I always find that when I feel like I’m having a bad day at work and I can always walk into the gallery spaces and see smiles everywhere. I really like to get involved and sell tickets as you can see the anticipation on children’s faces just before they walk into the building, it’s a delightful feeling. It’s also great when you talk to people outside of work and when they find out you work at Scitech, they retell wonderful stories that they have from your workplace.

What advice do you have for anyone considering a career in SciComm?

Get to know and understand your audiences and customers. We all come from very different backgrounds and levels of education so it is very easy to get carried away with topics you’re interested in before even seeing if the person/group wants to be communicated to. I find that nothing beats basic humanistic skills like politeness, listening and understanding. Add these skills to your immense scientific knowledge and communicating ability and you might be able to break down some barriers that have been up to get a message across.

What are some of the greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your SciComm career?  

Having pretty poor writing skills and not being the most articulate speaker in my early days is something I’ve had to overcome and am still working on. I really struggled when I first went to university as I was not made for academic life and did not have much support. At Scitech I have learned you use the variety of knowledge and skills amongst the team as an advantage and am never shy about getting my team members to check my notes and reports before they are sent. I only wish I had this confidence and humility to ask for help during my university days.

ASC SCOPE Interview: Paul Holper, Co-Director of Scientell

Why did you choose to study science?

I liked the precision of science and the logic that underpins everything. At university I discovered that chemistry was particularly enjoyable, so that’s what I majored in.

I naively decided that as I liked demonstrating to university students, I should become a teacher. I spent 10 years in the classroom; teaching can be a brilliant profession when students are motivated but, sadly, too few students are.

I anguished about what other career options might be available, so I started looking at job advertisements. The then CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research in Melbourne needed an ‘Information Officer’. I applied, was interviewed and they offered me the position, which I nervously accepted. Apart from leaving the security of teaching, we were about to have our first child, and here I was foregoing 16 – yes, 16 – weeks of paid annual leave for just 4.

But I soon realised that, without the high stress of teaching, for the first time I loved my job. I was working with brilliant, world-renowned researchers in an organisation that was trying to better understand and preserve the environment.

A huge advantage of working for CSIRO was the camaraderie and teamwork among the communication staff. I learnt so much from communication luminaries like Wendy Parsons, Marg Bryant, Niall Byrne, Toss Gascoigne and Jenni Metcalfe. A few years later, one of Australia’s leading science journalists, Julian Cribb, joined CSIRO. He was a passionate, powerful advocate for communication.

Looking back now, what has been the best part of your career in scicomm?

The very best part of scicomm is the process of exploring and coming to grips with particular scientific concepts and then trying to solve the problem of how best to communicate them in a logical and compelling way. Every day, scicomm brings another puzzle to be solved.

The part of scicomm that gave me the greatest pleasure was when I was able to identify and promote a research story and ultimately see it in the newspaper or on TV.

Where has your career led you?

Looking back, there were skills that I developed at uni and in teaching that I was able to apply further in a research environment.

I spent 25 years at CSIRO, becoming a communication manager and then moving into business development and ultimately managing a large national climate change science research program. With an astute CSIRO colleague, Mandy Hopkins, I re-established the national ‘GREENHOUSE’ climate change conferences, convening five biennial events across Australia.

What excites you most about your work?

Society is founded on the effective application of scientific advances. Helping to convey the value and implementation of science is extraordinarily rewarding.

Scicomm has had many successes, but we’ve had major failures. I thought that we had successfully convinced society of the need to address climate change early in my CSIRO days. Hah! I’m still bemused that people who refuse to believe in the straightforward science of climate change will happily entrust their lives to the far more complex science of flight and gravity every time they board a plane.

 

The scicomm experience told us long ago that far more than communication of facts is needed to effect change.

What advice do you have for anyone considering a career in SciComm?

Scicomm offers a rewarding combination of science and communication, where the latter can take so many different forms. There will always be challenges to be overcome, problems to be solved and new ways of encouraging the application of science in ways that help.

What are some of the greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your SciComm career?

There are two that stand out. One is escaping from teaching; the second, which gives me much satisfaction, has been establishing Scientell with Simon Torok, a business that has now completed more than 150 fascinating scicomm projects.

 

Lisa Bailey: President’s Update September

I hope you are all doing ok, especially thinking of all our Victorian members who’ve been going through lockdown round 2 over the last month.  If you’ve not been able to catch our live members Q&A series so far, you can now access them online via the ASC members area.

This month, there are a few new things to check out – you’ll soon be able to grab a copy (and the e-version is free!) of the new book ‘Communicating Science. A global perspective’ which has been made possible by the work of several ASC members.

Debbie Devis shares with us the experience of creating whole new types of museum experiences online during COVID-19 including running an exhibit in Minecraft and designing a new role-playing game.   If you’ve found yourself jumping into a whole new way of working in 2020, we’d love to share your reflections with the wider community.  Members are able to log in and post to the ASC blog, or feel free to send through blog ideas to me at president@asc.asn.au

President’s Update July

President’s Update

I hope that you’re all travelling well, and are heartened by the recent national committee meeting we’ve had last week where we shared information about how ASC members around the country are adapting their events and programs. We’re continuing our members Q&A series this week featuring Jonathan Webb, ABC Science Editor so make sure you’ve registered for that session coming up on Friday. I’d also like to shout out and congratulate Linden Ashcroft, Mia Cobb and the rest of the Research Program team from ASC2020 for their work pulling together a special issue commentary for the Journal of Science Communication, featuring five papers from the conference.

As most of the country starts moving about more and restrictions for the most part start easing, it feels like we’re moving from one kind of weirdness into another. How do things start up again?  It’s easy to keep your distance when you’re home on your own, but once people start getting out and about, the threat of complacency kicks in.

We know that the longer restrictions are in, the harder it is for people to stick to them. This has led to a range of new campaigns reminding people of the need for physical distancing and hygiene. It really comes down to human behaviour, and as the latest editorial in Science states, while good science communication is essential, persuasive words are not enough when it comes to changing minds, attitudes and behaviour.

President’s Update, June

 

Reconciliation Week 2020 started with the destruction of two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cultural sites in the Pilbara by Rio Tinto.  The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last week and the pain and anguish of so many protesters in the US was another call for Australians to take a long look at our own history, and the lasting impacts for First Nations people here.

So much hurt and pain and anger. What to do? Where to start? Pause, reflect and start by doing what we know are some of the key principles of good science communication; start by listening. Learning. There are some great lists of suggestions of books to read and social media accounts to follow out there for where you can start.

Support those in local communities already taking action. The following are some of the First Nations led organisations that I have donated to.  I would welcome recommendations from ASC members as to who we can add to this list.  This list reflects organisations relevant to science communicators with a particular focus on equity and excellence in STEM, and action on climate and sustainability.

Deadly Science – led by the incredible Corey Tutt, this organisation provides science books and early reading material to remote schools across Australia.
Seed – Australia’s first Indigenous youth ­led climate network.
INDIGI LAB – whose mission is to create a future where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are leading in science, technology and digital innovation.
Firesticks Alliance – providing Indigenous leadership, advocacy and action to protect country through cultural fire and land management practices.

State Branch Support

On top of regular capitation funds for this year, there is a post-conference grant of up to $300 available to each state and territory to organise a follow up ASC event or activity or purchase any necessary equipment (eg new banners or marketing materials) for their local members.  To apply for this, please email exec@asc.asn.au with the following information:

  • A title and a short description of your planned event/activity/equipment purchase
  • Names of all ASC members involved in the application
  • Date and location (if funds are requested for an event)
  • Requested amount
  • A budget outlining where funds will be spent
  • How you intend to let members in your state know (we can also assist with this through inclusion in SCOPE for example)

Thank you Lisa Bailey for this info.