President’s Update April 2019

How does Aussie science reporting rate?

Lisa Bailey, ASC President

The quality of Aussie science reporting? Average, if you ask a bunch of journalists who cover science, researchers themselves and science communicators.

A recent paper by Merryn McKinnon, Bronte Black, Sophie Bobillier, Kirsten Hood and Madeleine Parker from CPAS examined the perceptions of science media coverage by the stakeholders of science journalism in Australia. Overall the study, which interviewed 43 participants, found that the quality of Australian science reporting is average, “with any perceived lack of quality attributed to the changing landscape of the media with recent cutbacks and declining numbers of specialised science journalists.”

Encouragingly, the scientists in this study no longer felt any stigma from being involved in publicly communicating their work through engagement with the media. Things have certainly changed in the last 15 years, with scientists stating that they saw a need for them to be engaged with the public. Researchers also had a positive view of science communicators, seeing value in their role in facilitating interactions with the media.

The use of Press Releases was one of the most common ways for science communicators to gain media attention, with most using a mixture of approaches including personal connections or providing reporters with rich media packages including video and images. The extent to which press releases are used, in some cases almost verbatim, contrasted between journalists who work for online or syndicated media outlets and those who freelance. Freelancers were less likely to say that their use of press releases had recently changed, however online journalists said they now use press releases more than they did five years ago ‘because online the currency is eyeballs, so you have to produce a lot of fresh content every day, so you’re relying on those press releases’.

Given this reliance on press releases as, at minimum a starting point, and in some cases, most of the actual news story itself, a system for ensuring that press releases are free from hype and easy to interpret would be a great help for both journos and readers. Famously a 2016 study found that the main source of hype stemmed from the press releases themselves. The UK Science Media centre last year started trialling a Press Release labelling system for new research – originally designed for health and medical reporting, the three categories would indicate:

  1. Is the research peer reviewed or not peer reviewed?
  2. What type of evidence is used to support claims? (eg Randomised control trial, observational study)
  3. What was the subject of the study? (eg humans, animals, cells)

The system in the UK is currently voluntary, but has been taken up by at least 5 charities and 20 universities since June 2018. It’s also being used by at least 5 major journal publishers including The Lancet, BMJ, Cell Press and PLOS.

The Australian Science Media Centre wants to bring this labelling system to Australia to integrate it as part of their SciMex platform for journalists. Ideally the labelling would be consistent with the already internationally recognised system, but this would require further training for Australian stakeholders.

Where has SciCom taken you?

Feature Interview with Lisa Bailey, ASC President

Lisa Bailey reflects on her experiences working in Science Communication (SciCom)

Where has SciCom taken you Lisa?

Weird places I didn’t expect SciCom to take me – that time in 2011 when I was 5 months pregnant, in Coober Pedy with a solar car, holding 3.4kg of solid gold that is the Melbourne Cup (that was really a thing that happened – the Melbourne Cup was on tour and that coincided with our visit to Coober Pedy with the solar car challenge) (see image).

So why did you choose to study science?

I was one of those kids who was always interested in science. I was a teenager in the 90s, so I basically wanted to be Scully from the X-files.

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

The friends I made along the way…. really, I have worked with some amazing, funny and talented people. One of the things I’m really proud of is SCINEMA International Science Film Festival. I started producing that at The Royal Institution of Australiain 2016, and by 2018 it had grown to be one of the largest National Science Weekevents in the country, with over 500 screenings around the nation. I love it because it was designed specially to make it easy for anyone to take part in science week, and the range of films we were able to curate was always so varied.  

And where has your career led you?

All over! In the literal sense it’s been wonderful in that I’ve had the opportunity to work both in the UK and Australia. I’ve been able to follow the World Solar Car Challengefrom Darwin to Adelaide, run SCINEMAin cinemas all over the country, been in the Prime Minister’s Office at the PM’s Science Prizes.

I started out doing a lot of public engagement programming – loads and loads of science events. So many. The last few years I’ve gone from science writing and film festival management, to teaching academic writing and teaching a University SciComm course, to Exhibition Manager at MOD at UniSA, a new museum in Adelaide.

What excites you most about your work?

I still love learning, and I think for any science communicator that’s obviously a huge part of what you are doing – being able to dig in deep to a field or topic, or even just an individual study, to be able to parse the relevance for your target audience. I love being able to talk with researchers about their work, what excites them about it and how they hope it can make a difference in the world. That, and then seeing your program in action and someone ‘getting it’ – even if it’s not for the reason you thought! I always use the story of a nanotechnology event I ran years ago now, where a truck driver had heard me speaking on the radio about the event that day and had driven several hundred k’s to the event that evening. Afterwards he came up and thanked me, he enjoyed the event because his son was studying nanotechnology and he had no idea what it was, but now he felt he understood it a bit more and could have a conversation with his son about it.

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

Join ASC! I have to say that as President, but honestly, I have found the network and personal friendships I’ve made through my involvement in ASCso beneficial. It really helps to be able to bounce ideas off people with a vast array of experiences in dealing with institutions, audiences, difficult topics, funding challenges. On a practical level it’s also a great network through which to find jobs when they’re shared through the list or Facebook group. I also say now that for anyone who is interested in science communication there’s no reason to wait for it to be your paying job to get experience. There are so many avenues for students to gain experience in SciCom through programs like FameLab, Fresh Science, 3MTand all the other various avenues for developing your communication skills. Gaining experience through a range of avenues can prove to an employer that you do have what they’re looking for, even if you’re moving into SciCom from another field. If you’ve kept a food blog running, or managed social media for a club through uni, or set up your own podcast reviewing Netflix shows, it shows that you’re familiar with the technology and the principles of scheduling, producing and building and nurturing an audience or community.

And lastly, what are some of your greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your SciCom career?

It took me a while to value the skills that I brought to a workplace or project as a science communicator. Some things that we take for granted, like considering things from the audience perspective first, really are not the frame that organisations or academics bring! So understanding what I was good at, and how that adds value for the teams I work with, has been something I’ve only really started to understand properly in the last few years. I had a massive case of imposter syndrome when I was asked to start lecturing in Science Communication!

I think one of the other challenges has always been that gap between what you’d love to be able to do, or what you know is most likely to work, and the resources and funding you have available to make it happen. That’s not unique to SciCom, it’s common in any scientific endeavour really. And tight resources can lead to some really creative thinking.

Science in The Pink City

2018 ASC grant recipient Linda Hales reports on her recent trip to the lab tours in Toulouse

How do you get an arachnophobe to stand in a small room next to a big glass container of spiders? One way to lure them in is by simply saying there’s interesting research being done in that room. That, combined with the fact I knew I wouldn’t hear the French scientist properly if I stood in the hallway, is how I found myself squeezed up next to a table in a little room with a collection of international journalists and a bunch of social spiders.

The lead researcher explained that unlike most of the thousands of species of spiders in the world, social spider species coexist peacefully (painting pictures of webs metres wide, filled with tens of thousands of happy arachnids, while I suppressed the urge to madly brush down my crawling skin). But scientists don’t understand the drivers of much of their behaviour. Even when they’re starving, why don’t they turn to cannibalism? Why do solitary spiders ‘lose’ their early social tendencies? Why are social spiders only found in tropical and subtropical areas? Combined with a deep shame at the thought of admitting to being an Australian zoology grad afraid of a crawling creature, it was fascinating enough to keep me still.

This was just one of many research groups we were introduced to during the laboratory tours at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition: we watched a little bee working out the fastest way to fly between a garden of ‘flowers’ holding sugar solutions; saw some robots that have been programmed to school like fish; tried a virtual reality tour of a termite nest; and were introduced to the famous, clever, brainless, slime mould (or the “blob,” which 2018 European Science Writer Award finalist Nathaniel Herzberg wrote about for Le Monde).

The lab tours were part of attending the European Conference of Science Journalists and European Science Open Forumin Toulouse, in July 2018.

The Pink City was absolutely buzzing, although sweltering—full of scientists, journalists, and people shouting at TVs screening the World Cup. The week had kicked off with the journalist conference on a Sunday, which included discussions on science journalism in an authoritarian context, the strengths and limitations of philanthropically funded journalism, whether true independence can be maintained with increasing numbers of science journalists also working as science communicators, and more.

I spent Monday to Saturday at ESOF—writing about thediscovery of the first complete skull of the mastodon species Gomphotherium pyrenaicum(for Cosmos), and sitting in on discussions ranging from cities of the future to science communication in the Nordics, and whether poetry can help people connect with science on a more emotional level. I met some wonderful people who I hope to see again at conferences in the future.

Although there were inevitable discussions on the challenges facing science journalism and science communication that flowed over from conference sessions into social events (put a bunch of science journalists together and they’ll keep talking science and journalism) there was a persisting thread underneath these. For better or worse, most people at events like these are addicted to the area. In one breath there’s funding cuts to science or newsrooms, but in the next is what everyone is investigating now. You’ll hear the reasons they’re still in their field: chasing stories, digging into studies, questioning findings, talking to interesting people. Asking questions, and always learning something new. It’s enough to keep anyone in a room with spiders.

Click here for 2018 ASC grant recipients

President’s Update March 2019

A short and sweet call out for contacts

It’s reached that point in the year where you’ve blinked and a couple of months have already passed.  Students are heading back across the country and, and it’s a good time to set some plans on what ASC could focus on in 2019.  I’d like to focus on our membership, and particularly on what ASC can offer for students across disciplines from science, engineering, media, journalism, education and the arts (and apologies to any I’ve missed in that list).

There are so many opportunities for students to develop their skills in sci-com by acting as student ambassadors, contributing to institutional blogs and video channels, or participating in any of the amny competitions and development opportunities like fresh science, Fame Laband 3 Minute Thesis.  I think it would be great if ASC was able to provide support in the lead up and follow on from these types of events for students keen to continue developing their network in science communication.

So I’d like to hear from you!

If you are

  • Interested in supporting a student ASC chapter at your institution
  • Involved in co-ordinating sci-com opportunities for students (eg 3MT)

Please get in touch with me at lisa.bailey@unisa.edu.au to discuss how we might best initiate this – or let me know if it’s already happening well in some areas!

Thanks
Lisa

President’s Update February 2019

In defence of daydreaming

Often the work of a science communicator is focused on the ‘doing’ of the work.  There’s always deadlines for delivery of some tangible activity- writing an article, running an event, delivering a workshop, designing a program.  It’s all too easy to get stuck in the process of doing the work, or thinking about doing the work, or planning to do the work.

Making space in your day to daydream and let your mind wander is not a priority for most of us.  Yet it’s the time when our most creative ideas might occur. Shelly Gable, Elizabeth Hopper and Jonathan Schooler report in the latest issue of Psychological Science that the ideas that occur when our minds wander are the ones in which we’re most likely to experience the precious ‘Aha!’ moments, ideas that are the ones most likely to help us solve a particularly sticky problem.  

The research team from University of California Santa Barbara found that ‘spontaneous task-independent mind wandering’ where you daydream off on a tangent totally unrelated to what you’re currently doing, can result in the most inventive thoughts.  The team looked at two highly creative professions – theoretical phycisists and screenwriters.

In both professions, most creative ideas were generated while people worked on task, but one in five occurred during mind wandering.  These ideas were the ones most likely to help people overcome an impasse. There are myths of the ‘Aha!’ moments throughout the history of science, Archimedes in the bath, Newton and the apple falling on his head, Einstein glancing at a clock tower from a streetcar and being struck by a thought experiment that led him to write a paper on the Special theory of Relativity six weeks later.  

Is it really daydreaming if you are setting aside time to do it especially?  Maybe we just need to make space for those fortunate connections to happen – give your brain a break, during your commute, or walking the dog, or washing the dishes.  Let your mind wander free and hopefully reap the creative benefits.

 

Victoria ASC President; Lynette Plenderleith Scope interview

Victoria ASC President; Lynette Plenderleith Scope interview

 

  • Why did you choose to study science?

I grew up in the bush. Although we didn’t call it the bush, because it was England. But nonetheless I grew up around wildlife and weather and mud and I loved it. Most of my family were biologists of one kind or another, so perhaps I had a genetic disposition to study science. Either way, I was hungry to know more about the ecosystems that I treasured.

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

You can’t beat that new job smell! There are many, somewhat concealed advantages of short term and casual contracts, including the prospects presented by moving around. I’ve been lucky enough to step forward with every career move and with every new position comes new opportunities to learn and grow, different people to meet and more career goals met.

  • Where has your career led you?

Physically? The rain forests of Honduras, inner city Baltimore, a New Zealand swamp and lots of places in between. More significantly and less scientifically, it has led me closer to fulfilling my career goals. I have met so many people from so many walks of life and it has increased my understanding not just of the ecosystems I set out to study, but of people, politics, community and conservation.

  • What excites you most about your work?

Being able to give people a better understanding of the world around them and with that, a greater opportunity to appreciate it. My work specifically aims to enlighten people through entertainment, which is one of the more effective and enjoyable methods of education for all involved.

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

Work out what you want to do within science communication – it’s a broad field and narrowing it down will help. You can do that whilst exploring jobs and courses though of course – don’t be afraid to give things a try.

  • What are some of your greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your Sci-Com career?

My work sits in the sweet spot between science and the lay public, but it can be afflicted by both edges of the same sword – I can be both undermined for not being a scientist or dismissed for being too “academic”. It can be brutal sometimes, especially during conversations with hard-core conspiracy theorists and the like, but challenges like that are all part of building your craft and finding your voice. Every conversation with a climate change denier or anti-vaxxer helps you formulate arguments, articulate your thoughts, find holes in your own arguments and gaps in your knowledge. It’s ok to not know everything and it’s ok for people to disagree with you, even if you have evidence on your side. That’s the beauty of being in science communication.

 

Thank you for sharing with us Lynette!

If you would like to be interviewed next please feel free to contact the National Co-Editors by emailing here: editor.scope.asc@gmail.com

President’s Update December 2018

Lisa Bailey

Happy New Year. What will 2019 have in store for us?  Here’s my new year’s listicle of things to keep your eye on as a science communicator in 2019…

  • The Periodic table turns 150! There’s a special place to celebrate the role that an Australian research teamhelped contribute to the discovery and creation of element 117 Ununseptium (or tennissine).
  • 20 May the International System of Units (SI) will redefine four measrurements: the kilogram(mass), the Kelvin(temperature), the mole (amount) and the ampere(electrical current). The General Conference on Weights and Measures voted in November 2018 to redefine these on physical constants rather than representative objects.
  • 21 July we’ll celebrate the 50thAnniversary of the first human footsteps on the moon. There’s a coin set commemorating the Aussie dish at Honeysuckle Creeknear Canberra that relayed those first signals. A great excuse to rewatch the classic Australian film The Dish.
  • Will 2019 result in another significant coral bleaching event for the Great Barrier Reef?High temperatures in early summercould be a worrying indicator of what we may see in the next couple of months.
  • Get ready for your democracy sausage in 2019. The Australian Academy of Science have released their 10 recommendations for science for the upcoming federal election, including  a call for the government to commit to increasing national R&D spending to 3% of GDP over the next decade.
  • The Australian Space Agencywill open doors in 2019, set to be housed in at Lot14, the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site in Adelaide. Their first task set to be increasing coordination across the aerospace industry.
  • Where next for CRISPR and gene editing? 2018 saw the first cloned primates, and reports of the first genetically engineered babies born in China, so it will be interesting to see what 2019 brings.
  • Given these advances, it’s also worth keeping an eye on the recent review of the Gene Technology Scheme by OGTR, which recommends updating existing definitions given the technological changes that have occurred in the nearly two decades since the implementation of the scheme. This will kick off additional consultation this year on definitions of GMOs (of note for sci-commers especially – they review also flagged that there be a targeted public communication strategy for the scheme).

Wishing you a happy, curiosity filled trip around the sun in 2019.

My Fabulous Internship with Refraction Media

Carmen Spears

In 2018, I was fortunate to win the opportunity to intern with Refraction Media through the support of the Australian Science Communicators.

With the goal of learning everything I needed to be a freelance science writer, I left my kids and husband at home in Melbourne and flew to Sydney to spend four weeks in Refraction Media’s funky WeWork office.

The very trendy office environment included free coffee, pizza Fridays, the occasional doughnut wall, a Melbourne Cup party and a rather serious Ping Pong tournament. But don’t be fooled, I was working hard.

Heather Catchpole, Refraction Media’s Director and Head of Content and my internship mentor, allowed me a lot of autonomy and responsibility during my internship. This gave me the chance to be involved in every step of pitching and publishing an article. I was able to generate my own story ideas and pitch them to Heather. I contacted and interviewed the relevant people myself, wrote the article and had it edited by Heather. I realised quickly that the more I could pitch, and write, and ask questions, the more I could gain from my time with Heather.

Heather is the kind of teacher that pulls the bar a little higher every time you reach for it.
‘Can I send you a pitch?’ I’d ask.
‘Yes, send me three,’ Heather would reply.
This was a very effective teaching method, and one Heather delivered with kindness and support. Her feedback on my writing was one of the greatest benefits of my internship.

Once I’d gotten the article nicely polished, I could upload it to the Careers with STEM website myself. I tended to lean on digital producer Eliza Brockwell for a bit of help with this last uploading step, but I appreciated the learning opportunity to do this myself was available.

Eliza was another perk of my internship. Aside from Heather, I spent much of my time with Eliza, who was ever patient and generous in answering my questions and supporting my learning. Eliza gave me feedback on writing for an online audience, as well as ample tips on the workings of digital media, WordPress, social media and marketing.

In my time with Refraction Media I discovered I love interviewing people (something I was initially nervous about). I enjoyed being able to conduct interviews both over the phone and in person.

I wrote fun stories, news stories, profiles of scientists, event wrap-ups and short fact bites. I am grateful to have gained a portfolio of writing clips and the kudos of being able to say I’ve written for both of Refraction Media’s main platforms – Careers with STEM, and Science meets Business.

As well as gaining writing experience, Heather encouraged me to attend and network at several events during my time in Sydney, including the ASC conference, NSW Writing’s Quantum Words Festival, and the UNSW Bragg awards. I learnt that attending events was also about grabbing stories. Heather took me with her to attend the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) Industry day at CSIRO, teaching me how to find great stories and make contacts at this type of event.

Since Refraction Media is a small team, I appreciated being able to get up close with all aspects of how the business is run. I was included in production and content meetings, and the entire staff were very welcoming of me. I really enjoyed the time I spent with them all.

I am so thankful to the Australian Science Communicators, Heather Catchpole and Refraction Media’s team for all they have given me through this internship. I now feel well equipped to take the next steps in my science writing career.

President’s Update December 2018

Lisa Bailey

Well the end of the year is barrelling down upon us.  It’s already been a month since the 10th Australian Science Communicators conference wrapped up in Sydney, kindly hosted for us at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.  We had over 230 registered attendees with over 60 sessions on the program.

Thanks to those who’ve completed the post-conference survey, which is still open.  By far the most popular aspects of the conference according to the survey responses were the networking and sharing our sci-com experiences.  I know personally I managed to speak to a lot of new people, and it was great to see so many fresh faces as well as old friends.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was hearing from Aunty Joanne Selfe at the opening address, sharing with us the critical role of language in seeing relationships in country.  Next year is the UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages, so it’s a good time now to think about how we might incorporate and celebrate this in our 2019 projects.

What’s next?  Well, ASC is what you make of it!  If you’ve just joined ASC since the conference, don’t forget about the Facebook Group and email list, which are great for tapping the hive mind.  See what your local branch is up to.  If it’s not up to much, think about what you’d like to see and how you might make it happen.

Wishing you all a 2019 that brings you moments that lead you to celebrate like a couple of NASA Engineers who just landed a probe on Mars.

President’s update November 2018

 

 

President’s message

Dr Craig Cormick

President

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 Vox.com 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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