President’s update November 2018



President’s message

Dr Craig Cormick


Australian Science Communicators


A very big question for science communicators

So here’s a very big question for you: What are science communicators to do, to make a difference, in the face of the rapidly changing and complex environment that we operate in?  

Here is a brief picture of the world we are now living in, with growing:

  • mistrust in vaccinations and other mainstream medicines
  • belief that science makes life more difficult for many
  • trust in celebrities as sources of good information
  • media black holes where people ignore mainstream media altogether
  • fears of fake news
  • hyping of science stories, over-promising results.

And at the same time we have falling:

  • trust in public institutions
  • trust in academia
  • trust in science
  • mainstream media consumption
  • public funding for science and science communication.


All this in our post-truth, post-trust, post-expert world that is increasingly been polarised, driven by feelings over facts, with information being increasingly manipulated by corporations, media organisations and politicians!

Add to that huge fails in data security by leading social media platforms and government agencies  – it is no wonder that trust is low.

According to the Edleman Trust Barometer, one of my favourite go-to places for current information on changing trust –the major trends for 2018 have been diminished trust in Governments, the media, businesses and NGOs. Trust in the media, for example, fell from 42% in 2016 to 31% in 2018.

Of interest, their survey, conducted world-wide, but which can be broken down by countries, divides respondents into a ‘general population’ response (85% of the population) and an ‘informed public’ – who represent the top 15% by education, income and media consumption.

In Australia there are strong differences between the general population, who have a very low trust in institutions and the informed public who have a middling level of trust.

Interestingly, the country with the highest trust amongst both the general population and the informed public was China, yet Hong Kong had quite low levels of trust. Read into that what you will.

The largest drop in trust across the world was in the USA, falling 9 points from 2017 to 2018 amongst the general population and a whopping 23 points amongst the informed public. No surprise to most people probably.

Yet there is some good news in there too. While trust in the media is low, trust in journalism is rising, having gone up five points in Australia. Trust in media platforms however has continued to drop.

However this should be understood in terms of at least 50% of the public surveyed not consuming news less than once a week, and when people described the media they felt it encompassed both platforms and content. That is. Media to most people is both social media and mainstream media and news apps and so on.

Having access to good data like this, regardless of how sobering, helps us do our jobs better. But when I read another set of data in that surveyed scientists into what they felt the biggest problems were facing them today – many cited the poor communication of science. And then, when asked what might be done to address it, answers included:

  • Scientists should spend more time learning how to communicate with the public.
  • Improve the incentive structure for engaging the public.
  • Disincentives for hyping stories and having credible checkers.


BUT there seemed to be no mention of science communicators as being part of the solution.

Which prompts me to turn to that very big question I asked up front: What are science communicators to do, to make a difference, in the face of the rapidly changing and complex environment that we operate in?  

It is something we really need to discuss and grapple with if we really want to make some difference.

I hope to see many of you at the next National Conference in Sydney where will discuss this and other big issues for our profession.

And with that I’ll be signing off as President, after two years in the chair, and expect to hand over to a younger and dynamic President before the end of the year.

The ASC is a great organisation and I have been proud to have been a part of its ongoing journey.

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President’s update October 2018

President’s update

By Dr Craig Cormick


Science Communication in China

So how do you do science communication in a country with over a billion people, where there are several different languages, varying rates of general literacy and huge technological and educational gaps between those who live in cities and those who live in remote rural areas?

Having been lucky enough to be invited to the inaugural World Conference on Science Literacy in Beijing, I can share a few insights.

Run across three days with 30 different themed sessions the Conference attracted over 1,000 delegates from 38 countries – including senior figures from the Royal Society in the UK, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and similar organisations from many countries (yes, including the ASC!).  There were some big outcomes, like a declaration on collaboration and exchanges to actively promote public scientific literacy as one of the United Nations’ sustainable development issues.

And there were many, many smaller moments that may prove more achievable – such as swapping business cards, sci-comms war stories and best-practice ideas with people from so many different countries.

Having the title President of the ASC on my business card clearly carried a lot more weight than it does down at my local shops, as I not only found myself sitting in the comfy lounge chairs of the front two rows, but was stood up in a group photo with key international dignitaries and First-ranked Secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Communist Party of China, Wang Huning (yeah, I’m the one with the borrowed tie wearing black sneakers)

So what were the key learnings – beyond the standard government-approved media coverage of the success of the Conference?

Well first of all – China really, really knows how to do things on scale, and how to give government backing on scale to get an outcome. Their National Science Day is said to reach 1.3 billion participants. Not bad for a country of 1.42 billion.

Several of the international speakers gave really good talks on topics of interest to the West – but of much less relevance for China. For instance, the role of social media in a country that blocks access to Google, YouTube, Amazon, WhatsApp, Facebook etc. Or the role of the mainstream media and the challenges of meeting the media’s needs in a country with State-controlled media that does not lean to either sensationalism nor to investigative reporting.

China still has a generational gap like many countries with divides between Old School and New School – several elder Chinese speakers talked about the cause of science illiteracy being due to a lazy mindset and a reluctance to ready text books. But most younger Chinese speakers are more in line with contemporary thinking and discussed how to best align messages with audience interests and how to use multiple channels.

There was recognition given that succeed in raising science literacy (and yes, there were questions as to what exactly that meant), you needed four key things:

Political will

Government support

Public-centric view

Research into practice

And let’s be honest, it’s a rare year when in Australia when we can honestly claim to be ticking all four of those really well.

Of interest, a couple of things really stood out in a rather stark way too:

For instance, having a senior speaker from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) talk on the important work they do in protection patents seemed just a little bit out of place in China.

Also, First-ranked Secretary etc, Wang Huning, in opening the Conference, described one of the biggest negative impacts of technology being “disorder of morals”.  Pretty sure you won’t find that listed in most academic journals looking at the down-sides of new technologies in Western Countries.

It is no secret that China is pushing for science supremacy in several areas and has a goal of achieving a Nobel prize in science (any field will do). The fact that nearly all of the overseas delegates had their conference travel and accommodation costs met – which alone must have been more than most organisations in Australia have to spend on science communication in a year – demonstrated the effort China is putting into being a pre-eminent player in the sci-comms field too.

They may have a few hurdles to jump, including some old school mindsets, but over the course of the three-day conference clear changes in the way things were being discussed were evident.

And with the resources and the scale that China is willing to put behind initiatives that they prioritise, I expect we will see a lot more of China in the sci-comms space in the years ahead.


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Leading the STEM entrepreneurship events in NSW #SparkFest

By Dr Astha Singh

Australia’s largest festival for startups, innovators and entrepreneurs kicks-off this month from 19th Oct – 4th Nov. Spark Festival 2018 has brought along a line-up of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) inspired events with a flair for business and entrepreneurship.

Along with learning about communicating STEM concepts to the wider society, learning about entrepreneurship in STEM is also vital. It will better prepare the next generation of the STEM workforce with a stable channel for discovery, innovation and enterprising talent. It will also continue to impact society and to inspire the younger generation to pursue STEM disciplines. We want to help them pursue the 21st century STEM careers and not just the jobs. These prospects that are already thriving successfully may include intellectual property protection, technology commercialisation, technology transfer, data science, cyber security, synthetic biology, biotech, ag-tech or simply being entrepreneurs to commercialize their ideas with building products or technical services.

Whether you are getting started in a science related career or have a strong inkling to work on an idea. Are you an innovator, student or executive? Or do you just have flair to learn? With more than 140 events (mostly free) this festival is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to connect and find your place in the world of entrepreneurship. The selection of events across NSW in STEM will set the platform up for learning, networking, professional development and discussions.

Below is a list of STEM inspired events during the 16 days of #SparkFest 2018

  1. Create innovative apps to help regional NSW flourish
    27-28 October 2018, all day event, University of Technology Sydney
  2. Innovation and Commercialisation of Sustainable Technology
    24 October 2018, 7pm-8pm, Stanton Library, North Sydney
  3. Nandin at ANSTO
    26 October 2018, 9.30am-12.30pm, ANSTO, Lucas Heights
  4. Robotics WorkShop
    20 and 27 October 2018, 1.30pm-3.30pm, Manly
  5. Spin on Spin outs
    29 Oct 2018, 2pm-5pm, Sydney Startup Hub
  6. Tales from the Hardware startup World
    25 October 2018, 5.30pm-8pm, CSIRO Lindfield
  7. The Future of Energy
    22 October 2018, 6pm-8pm, University of Sydney
  8. The role of Women Entrepreneurs in tackling Climate Change
    30 Oct October, 5.30pm-8pm, Energy Lab Chippendale
  9. Transport for NSW: Co-Developing New Technology
    23 October 2018, 10am-11.30am, Sydney Startup Hub
  10. Women In STEAM
    1 November, 12.30pm-4pm, Sydney Startup Hub
  11. How to build physical products
    25 October, 6:30pm — 9:00pm, University of Technology Sydney
  12. IP housekeeping before you scale in Ag-Tech
    25 October 2018, 7:30 am – 9:00 am, Norton Rose Fulbright Australia
  13. Sydney Climathon
    26 October — 27 October, 5:30pm — 8:00pm, Energylab Chippendale
  14. Turning Trash Into Cash: Innovation in up-cycling
    26 October, 10:00am — 3:00pm, Funhouse Studio
  15. 3D Printing for Humanitarian Needs
    27 October, 2:00pm — 4:00pm, The Learning Space, Rhodes
  16. CannaTech Sydney
    28 October — 30 October, 10:00am — 4:00pm, Doltone House, Sydney
  17. The Save On Meats case study
    29 October, 8:30am — 11:00am, Sydney Startup Hub
  18. Driving the Red Meat Industry to Carbon Neutrality
    1 November, 5:30pm — 7:30pm, Cicada Innovations
  19. Minimum Viable Security | practical tips
    2 November, 12:30pm — 2:30pm, Sydney Startup Hub
  20. Design Thinking & Coding for Kids
    27 October, 10:30am — 4:00pm, Blacktown

You can follow #SparkFest on Twitter and Facebook on @SparkFestivalAu and LinkedIn on @spark-festival. For more information and to register for events please log on to

President’s Update September 2018

We need to have a very serious talk about gender

Dr Craig Cormick

President, Australian Science Communicators

Rather than quote lots of facts and figures at you about the problems with portrayal of gender in science communications, I’m going to rely on the super powers of metaphor  and talk about the super hero Black Widow. You know the character played by Scarlett Johansson in the Marvel movies.

Well, one of the best scenes in the movie Avengers: Age of Ultronis when the Avengers’ Quinjet swoops down low over the streets and Black Widow drops out of the bottom of the aircraft on her motorbike and hits the road and zooms off to fight evil.

Yeah! Kick-arse awesome!

Except when the toy companies Lego and Hasbro released their tie-in toys, suddenly it was Captain America who was dropping from the jet and riding the motorbike. What the..?

The companies copped quite a serve in the media and online for replacing a female action figure with a male one, and their excuse was that female action figures don’t sell as well as male ones. Which is a pretty lame excuse really – because how do you make change if you are not part of the change?

I really think Black Widow needs to knock on their door and say, “We need to have a very serious talk!”

Or take the European Union’s clumsy attempt to make a video promoting more women to take up careers in science with their ‘Science: it’s a girl thing’ video, that put more emphasis on cosmetics and fashion than science. It generated such outrage it was gone in a few days.

There is data as well as anecdotes. A number of studies have found evidence for significant bias against female scientists. Compared with their male counterparts, they:

  • Receive grants less often and receive smaller grant allocations.[1]
  • Receive fewer citations.[2]
  • Receive fewer scientific awards.[3]
  • Are less likely to get promoted.
  • Are less likely to present their research at conferences.
  • Are less likely to publish their work or collaborate internationally.
  • Are under-represented among inventors.
  • Are less likely to hold academic leadership positions.
  • Receive faculty recommendation letters that are less praiseworthy.[4]

It has even been stated that taken together, the data suggest a pervasive culture of negative bias — whether conscious or unconscious — against women in academia.[5]

So the ethics of gender are something you need to continually consider. The same as race and disability and other forms of diversity.

Ask yourself if you have really tried to get balance in representation in stories and activities you are doing. Here is a bit of a check list:

  • Do you have quotes from both men and women that are equal in the worth of the quote, and from equality in work roles?
  • Are you supporting gender stereotypes or helping to break them down?
  • Are you using gender-fair language, such as avoiding ‘he’ as a generic pronoun and worlds like chairman, businessman, mailman etc.[6]
  • Do your images promote equality of roles?
  • Do you have a mission statement on gender equity and diversity to refer to?

After all, how do we ever get change if you are not going to be a part of the change?

Because if not, you should know the day is definitely going to come when Black Widow knocks on your door and says, “We need to have a very serious talk about gender!”


[1]Bornmann, L., Mutz, R., & Daniel, H. D. (2007). Gender differences in grant peer review: A meta-analysis. Journal of Infometrics, 1

[2]Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Glynn, C. J. (2013). The Matilda effect –Role congruity effects on scholarly communication: A citation analysis of Communication Research and Journal of Communication articles. Communication Research, 40(1).

[3]Lincoln, A. E., Pincus, S., Koster, J. B., & Leboy, P. S. (2012). The Matilda effect in science: Awards and prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s. Social Studies of Science, 42.

[4]Trix, F., & Psenka, C. (2003). Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society, 14.

[5]Ledin, A., Bornmann, L., Gannon, F., & Wallon, G. A. (2007). A persistent problem: Traditional gender roles hold back female scientists. EMBO Reports, 8.

[6]Ramšak, A. (2014) Guidelines for Gender Sensitive Reporting, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Slovenia.

Science Express at the Sydney Science Festival

A Science Communication professional development evening at the Sydney Science Festival – Review by Astha Singh

Nine young and upcoming science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) researchers took over ‘The Lab’ at the Powerhouse Museum (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences) on 15th August. The agenda was to have conversations with a full house about how to approach, talk about and communicate STEM concepts. As a science communications and outreach professional I was elated to be joined by some rising stars in STEM research to advocate for quality science communication. The line-up included; Alfonso Ballestas-Barrientos (USYD) Chemist working on clean energy generation, Angela Crean (USYD) Evolutionary ecologist and veterinary scientist, Isabelle Kingsley (UNSW) Science communicator, educator and researcher, Jonathan Plett (UWS) Fungi and plants researcher, Muthu Vellayappan (Monash) Human heart research, Nural Cokcetin (UTS) Medicinal uses of honey, Richard Charlesworth (UNE) Diagnosing Coeliac disease, Toby Hendy (ANU) Physical and mathematical structures in nature and biology, Vanessa Pirotta (Macquarie University) Whale conservation researcher using drones technology to monitor whale health.

This very diverse, award-winning and exuberant group of scientists reflected on their experiences with #Scicomm, techniques, implications of concise communication and the impact of their work on the public and policy makers. Out of all the ideas from the speakers, I’m going to list the top 10 takeaways that I compiled from #ScienceExpress2018

1. The concept: A few speakers in the evening emphasised on how important it is to know your work inside out. Knowing all aspects of any topic is most likely impossible however you are the master of your area of research. It is highly imperative to have the clarity of the concept that you will be talking about. There is no harm in undertaking some more research on some other areas that relate to your topic and have clarity of the ideas that relate to your concept.

2. Jargon and complications: Science is messy! Even though all parts of STEM research entail complexities and different kinds of jargon, it is always necessary to keep it simple.

3. Elevated pitch: When you sprinkle some life and energy into your talk or presentation it depicts the passion you have for your work and makes it easy for you to be able to make an impact on the audience who also might be important connections within your industry.

4. Own the unique: Today, we are quite a diverse range of professionals in the STEM industry and therefore it becomes even more important to keep your uniqueness and own it. You could be unique at anything – skills, persona, sense of humour, nationality, ethnicity or anything else that makes you stand out. Use it to your advantage; For example, if you are a YouTuber – say it!

5. Impact: It is important to make an impact via your work and what you are trying to communicate. This impression is more necessary for policymakers and government officials to be positive and should lean towards making a tangible change.

6. Who and what: This one is well known to all – know your audience and where you will be speaking. Practice with a diverse set of audiences and keep a tab on their positive reactions. Use the content that made a positive impact on your own audience again and again.

7. Connection: When you talk to a new audience, try to make an instant connection with them in the first 30 seconds. This will boost their attention towards you. Use analogies, have your own stories to tell them and they will not forget your message. There is also no harm in sprinkling some emotion in your pitch.

8. Body language: Your body language says a lot about your work. Be open as it encourages open conversations and adds more genuineness to your speech. Positive hand gestures are a great example of open body language.

9. Honesty: Be honest. Ensure the credibility and authenticity of your work prior to preparing the speech. Misleading your audience is the last thing you would like to do. If you don’t know something that is being asked, say you don’t know. This provides an opportunity for future conversation about the topic later with some meaningful growing connections.

10. Smile: This adds a whole lot of flavour to your speech. Communicate the concept with a smile and you will already have made quite an impact on your audience. If it is a younger demographic of audience, smiling will instantly develop open communication. Other face expressions while explaining different concepts also helps to provide genuineness to your talk.

Note: These ideas are a combination of what was discussed on the evening by the nine speakers listed above. All credits are directed towards the speakers.

President’s Update August 2018

Another Bloody Conference?

My wife hears me say that too often during the course of a year when I’ve been invited to attend another conference. And often they involve a lot more travel than I prefer, a lot more preparation that is done for free, and a lot more grumbling about having to miss out on things to go.

Until I get there. Then I generally find that the time is well spent, the people are stimulating and enjoyable and I come back richer in experience and wisdom.

But one conference I won’t be grumbling about beforehand and knowing I am going to get those benefits is this year’s Australian Science Communicator’s Conference.

This year’s conference – with the theme of’ Elevate Engage Collaborate’ will be held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney from Sunday evening 11 November through to Wednesday 14 November, with an extra day of professional workshops.

Building on the success of the last conference in Adelaide I expect his year’s conference to be a showcase of the sparkling talent of ASC members, providing a great opportunity to meet peers,find out what the latest trends in research and practice are – and to discover some awesome science communication.

There are also some important issues for science communicators to consider:

  • Are we making enough impact?
  • Are our roles changing from translator of science, to match-maker between scientists and their audiences?
  • How do we adapt the ever-changing media landscape?
  • How do you continue to do your job with less resources?
  • How do you be innovative in a risk-adverse organisation?
  • And so many more.


There is a good chance that others of our members are wrestling with these problems, or may even have found some solutions to them. And I find that is one of the key strengths of an ASC conference – providing an opportunity to share problems and solutions.

Already we have received a great number of ideas for panels and volunteers to be session producers – which all goes to making a better conference when it is based on your ideas and your input. Because let’s be honest – it is YOUR conference and needs to meet YOUR needs.


For anyone who has worked in the sciences, or social sciences, it is clearly established that conferences are a very important way to keep up with latest trends, make professional acquaintances, find new opportunities and just hang with the tribe.

And Janine Popick, writing for Inc. has said the four main benefits for any employee in attending a conference (make sure you boss hears this), are to:

  • Learn new things relevant to doing your job better,
  • Network with other professionals,
  • Acquire new content and practical ideas,
  • Share new learnings and ideas in the workplace upon your return.


But whatever your motive for attending the ASC Conference – I look forward to seeing you in Sydney in November.

Presidents Update July 2018

What is all the fuss about behavorial economics?

Dr Craig Cormick

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

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.


  • 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.


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[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.