Long-term science communication is a ‘damn good investment’ – but how do you make it happen?

Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell is an accomplished researcher who – in the words of grant assessors – started out as being ‘unheard of’, to someone with an ‘international reputation’, now leading an Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence, the highest amount of funding awarded by the ARC.

In a webinar in September 2023, Arnan discussed
the importance of science communication in establishing reputation,
demonstrating a track record, and how they can lead to securing successful

We sat down with Arnan, and science communicator Rachael Vorwerk, to ask some follow-up questions about why science communication is such a ‘damn good investment’ (in Arnan’s words!).

“A damn good investment”: the power of long-term strategic science communication

  • Arnan, how do you fund science communication on a budget?

Most universities invest in science
communicators centrally – at their research office, and sometimes at the school
and faculty level.  My suggestion would
be to find out who these people are and have a discussion with them about what
they are looking for and how best to engage with them.  If you have a little bit of money (or you can
convince your university to invest in this), the next thing to do is to try to
get some professional pictures – both of you and your team in the lab or out in
the field doing research and some interesting and engaging pictures of your
research. Engaging pictures will make people want to read about your work and
can be a great way to get attention. Do this regularly so that you build up a library
of great images. Probably the next step up is to engage a science communicator
as part of your team. Maybe you could fund a day a week for someone from the
central team? Or share a science communicator with a collaborative centre?
(hint: most ARC Centres of Excellence have a budget for a science communicator,
if there is a relevant centre in your institution, maybe have a discussion with
them about whether you could share the cost of a science communicator?).

  • Rachael, do you meet regularly with your team
    of academics to plan your media schedule?

In a team of about 40 researchers,
there are two ways I keep up to date with them. The first is through weekly
scheduled meetings with my Director, Arnan, where he reports on whether there
are any newsworthy events coming up from the team. The second way is our fortnightly
team meetings – where we have a schedule of update presentations and
achievements, and I can get a sense of any interesting news stories coming up.

One benefit of being embedded within the research team is that I feel very ‘on the pulse’ with news, and over the three years as I’ve been working with the researchers, more and more team members have been coming up to me at the end of team meetings, telling me about updates with their research – this is a major shift compared to when I was chasing the team for stories in the beginning! There’s something to be said for being present in the team and attending these team meetings, I’ve found that trust only grows over time.

  • Rachael, do you ever have periods of ‘no
    news’ and what do you do in these moments to keep the momentum going?

I always try to find news – and have a
few mechanisms to do so (as mentioned above). However, being the science
communication for a small research team means that the definition of ‘news’
changes slightly.

I have the luxury of working on
researchers’ stories that aren’t always ‘newsworthy’, or suitable for a media
release. With these stories, I like to work with the researcher to find other strategic
channels for their news – it might be through a case study on our Centre
website that can be sent to an industry partner, or a LinkedIn post from the researcher
themselves which helps them to build their online profile, or perhaps even something
that turns into a Three Minute Thesis that helps the student to solidify their
research elevator pitch.

By having my weekly meetings with
Arnan and attending the fortnightly team meetings, I find that there is always
news flowing in!

  • Arnan, who
    should pay for science communication and how do you convince them?

Good question! The only explicit funding source I have been able to find to support science communication over the long term is the ARC Centre of Excellence scheme. Often short-term programs will have some funds to support promotion, but this is usually a single event (like a launch). My view is that science communication is investment in reaching your stakeholders including industry end-users, and so if you are able to do industrial work (like we have been), then maybe try to build an overhead into this industrial work to support your team (including a science communicator?). I am currently working with my university to make funding for a long term embedded science communication as part of the funding that the university would provide to research centres.

  • Arnan, at what
    point in the research cycle should you think about science communication?

I would
say from the very beginning. I am very outcome oriented – so I like to try to
imagine the outcome that I want to achieve. What story would I like to be
telling and to who? What would I like them to do in response to this
story?  This then becomes the end point
in a plan to do the research to be able to tell that story most effectively.
What images would be best to include here?

So, in
short, I believe we should try to imagine the story we want to tell and the
science we want to communicate right from the very beginning.

  • Rachael: What are the differences between a
    role in a central media team at university, compared with being embedded within
    a research team as a science communicator?

One of the main differences I have
found between the two roles is that in a central media team (from my experience
in the media team at CSIRO), you jump in and out of a researchers’ life,
depending on when they have a journal article coming out. However, being
embedded within a research team means that you are with the researchers’
through thick and thin – you know when they’ve put in a grant application
because you probably helped them with it, then you know when they didn’t
succeed, you know when they try again, and then you know when they finally
succeed. It’s this long-term relationship building and deep trust that is so
satisfying in being embedded within the research team itself.

The other main difference is that it can get quite lonely being the only non-academic in a team of academics. Contrast this with a media team, and you have other communications-minded people around you that you can brainstorm with, who are completely on the same wavelength as you, they get it. This is the biggest disadvantage I’ve felt in the embedded model, however it just means you need to pro-actively reach out to other like-minded people and attend things like the Australian Science Communicators Conference!

  • Lastly, Arnan, you say science communication
    is a damn good investment, show me the money!

It is very hard to
draw a direct link between the investment we have made in science communication
and the increase in value of our research (both income and impact) – it is hard
to isolate the specific ‘cause and effect’. The number and scale of research
projects that we have been successful in winning has certainly increased over
the years while we have been pursuing this strategy – so there is definitely a
correlation – is it cause and effect?

Recall our
hypothesis: if assessors or decision makers already knew what we were doing and
had a positive view of it, then we were more likely to be successful in the
decisions that these people would make. I can identify a few specific examples
where this is clearly working. There have been several times where I have been
introduced to people at conferences and the people (who I have not yet met) that
say they already know me because they are following what I am doing on LinkedIn
or other online media – this clearly shows that the first part of our
hypothesis is working. Several of these people have spontaneously asked whether
I was planning on submitting a Laureate Fellowship and following up with
encouragement that they thought I would be very well suited for this (including
one person who was on the ARC college of experts). This indicates that the sort
of people who might be making these sorts of decisions already felt like they
knew who I was and were feeling positive about that. 

There have been a
couple of instances where we have deliberately been talking about some unusual
applications of photonics (for example visible wavelength photonics) in our
media stories – fishing to see if people are interested. In one case, this
resulted in a company engaging us to do a project on integrated photonics and
this funded us to turn what we thought was possible into a reality. This is an
example of the science communication about what we thought was possible, then leading
to engagement with end users to turn that possibility into a reality (flipping
the traditional model of doing the research first, then communicating what you
have done). 

I have also been invited to give higher profile talks – e.g. plenaries at major international conferences (such as SPIE Photonics West in 2023) – sometimes I feel like ‘who the hell do I think I am?!’ but then I think about this as science communication leading the research agenda.

Thank you to Rachael and Arnan for your time contributing to this Q&A and webinar.

ASTEN 2023 and Canberran adventures

ASC Member and ASC Policy Assist, Shanii Phillips, recently attended the ASTEN 2023 conference in Canberra. The below is a recount of her experience.

Q: What’s better than one conference in a year?

A: One conference that you spend 12 months planning for, and a surprise conference that your workplace sends you with 4 weeks notice! ???? 
(Okay, it wasn’t quite as chaotic as it sounds.)

In one national capital, over two days of the ASTEN conference, three days in Canberra, four Scitech representatives, giving five presentations between us, I think we can successfully say “achievement unlocked” on ASTEN 2023 ???? To compare ASTEN with the PCST conference I attended earlier this year would be like comparing apples to oranges – both valuable in their own right, but at very different scales, with different target audiences and key outcomes. ASTEN was a great opportunity to catch up with former colleagues, meet new people and share stories from a practitioner-focused perspective. 

As usual, I underestimated how much one can fit into three days, so will pick out a few key highlights to share below, and my traditional post-conference acrostic poem ????

Penguin (my domestic travel mascot) excitedly about to enter Questacon

After a quick catch-up with ASC National Co-President Tom Carruthers, I continued my ‘free day’ in Canberra by visiting Questacon, the national science and technology centre. As a proud card-carrying member of the Scitech community, I must admit I was on a bit of a mission to prove that Scitech is better than Questacon, because Western Australians suffer from the need to prove the rest of the country that we’re valid and important. However, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by our national science centre offering. While it was fun to recognise the ‘classic science centre’ exhibits and experiences, I especially enjoyed the use of the science/art installations found in the entrance foyer and on your journey to the top level.

Acknowledgment of Country artwork by Lynnice Letty Church
No Plan B, because we do not have a Planet B
Just too many mirrors – but who doesn’t love that?
Light-based sculptures, and Ngunawal word for learn
Ceiling fans with blades removed and replaced with colourful fabrics! So fun 🙂

I was also a little bit mesmerised by the moon installation in the central column of the building. As you walked down the ramp from the top level (with galleries spoked around the edges), you could look into the centre and see a giant sphere with the moon projected on it. At the ground level, you could walk into the ‘moon room’ and sit, or lie, or simply arch back and look up at the beautiful installation. It also made a great-looking nap room! ????

Penguin visiting the moon

Another important thing to add is that the Questacon café sold fairy bread … enough said ????

The Conference Itself

I’m always amazed by how much you can fit into a two-day conference. 

ASTEN 2023 kicked off with three insightful sessions from MOD, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, and the Australian Museum, exploring how they incorporate First Nations perspectives into their programs and experiences. What was especially amazing (for me) to see was all three talks were presented by First Nations staff members who play an integral role at their organisations to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories and content is being shared in a culturally sensitive manner and represent their experiences in a genuine way. While Scitech continues to work on our Reconciliation Action Plan, we don’t have any dedicated First Nations content or key First Nations staff members responsible for providing their perspectives on how to integrate Aboriginal knowledge into our experiences. It highlighted to me that while Scitech is taking steps in the right direction, we still have a long way to go – but many other peer organisations and colleagues we can learn from. A key learning that stood out for me was during the presentation by Kalkani Choolburra from the Royal Botanic Gardens, who had recently put a lot of hard work, research and community consultation into developing a First Nations Protocol Handbook to use when discussing native plants. 

“Non-First Nations people can announce the chapter, but it is the responsibility of First Nations people to tell the story.”

This means that non-First Nations staff members can give broad overview (such as pointing out that Aboriginal people used a wide variety of plants for food), but the specific cultural knowledge (such as explaining the preparation of Zamia seeds for safe consumption) was the role of First Nations team members. Such nuances are something I’m still learning and want to learn more about moving forward to ensure I, and Scitech, can continue to play our role in extending equity and respectfully sharing the stories and wisdom of our First Scientists.

It was a delight to see former Scitech colleague, Amy Boulding in fine form as she and Felicity (Flick) Waldock from CSIRO shared how they engaged First Nations and rural students through the STEM Together program. As an experienced science communicator, Amy began the session by bribing everyone with lollies and using a physically interactive exercise to wake everyone up after a long morning ????

Amy and Flick warming up everyone’s brains with a ‘Meerkat’ activity ????

STEM Together focuses on highlighting the existing strengths of students, aiming to build Capability, Confidence and Connection. There were strong analogies between the goals of STEM Together and the Equity Compass/YESTEM projectwhich I use for evaluation at Scitech. Key principles for practice are shown in the image below:

Key guidelines: Open questions, Praise the process (not the outcome), Celebrate skills and behaviours, Role model curiosity and learning, and Encourage visitor-led learning.

Finally, Flick shared a tool she had developed called the My Strengths Wheel, which is a self-reflective tool that could be used with students to identify what they’re already good at. Keeping in mind teenagers often don’t want to admit they’re really good at things, the Strengths Wheel focuses on hobbies and favourite activities (which tend to indicate strengths). 

Being the token evaluator at Scitech, it’s always nice to learn about how other organisations collect data on their visitors (in the name of research), so I enjoyed hearing perspectives from Jenny Booth (Questacon) and Dr Chris Banks (CSIRO) about how they conduct evaluation during the “MELding” session. Chris Banks was brutally honest in his reflections on the challenges of conducting evaluations, with key challenges being Time, Complexity and Capacity. 

“At the level of individual [STEM] programs, impact assessment has been next to impossible.”

South Australian Academy for Gender Equity in STEM

In good news, these challenges can be overcome by good Program Design, Planning and Evaluation. Dr Banks also shared some key guiding theories that I hadn’t come across before – the ‘Bodies of Water classification’ became a popular framework referred to by presenters over the rest of the conference and I can’t wait to explore the others in more detail!

Examples of guiding theories to assist with program evaluation, as shared by Dr Chris Banks

“If she can do it, maybe I can too.”

Sally Hurst

The world is full of some incredible people, and science communication is filled with amazing role models, but it’s always extra amazing to be taken by surprise by the stories and accomplishments of unassuming people sitting in the row in front of you at a conference – and Sally Hurst is one such example. Sally shared an empowering story of growing up in a rural town with limited STEM engagement and education resources, she never had strong experiences or role models for science at school, thinking she’d end up in a humanities-focused career. It was through informal learning experiences and jobs, such as working at the National Dinosaur Museum, that enlightened her passion for science, which sent her down the path of archaeology and palaeontology at uni. After completing a Masters degree and becoming a Superstar of STEM, Sally is now a passionate advocate for rural students to have access to STEM role models, and uses her communication skills and science knowledge to showcase how it is possible to follow the same career pathway. Superstar indeed!

Sally Hurst sharing stories of her early years at the National Dinosaur Museum.

I also loved hearing about the ‘Science is a Superpower’ program being run by Scienceworks in Melbourne. The program combines short online videos and full-day workshops to encourage 10-to-12-year-old girls who have begun to ‘switch off’ from STEM to identify their ‘superpowers’ and see how they can apply those to STEM careers. The superpowers, very importantly, are human qualities vs. ‘STEM Skills’ of Curiosity, Kindness, Energy, Strength and Calmness, and the content explores the different ways these can be successfully applied to STEM careers.

Jonathon Shearer sharing ‘The Superpowers’

And finally, no conference based at Questacon would be complete without an appearance by the explosive and enthusiastic Graham Walker! Not only was it fun to go back to my roots and watch some fun science dems, but as a researcher, Graham also brought some much-needed academic flavour to wrap up the conference. Using a series of science demonstrations, Graham explained the power of simple dems to make abstract concepts, such as climate change and energy, visible and immediate. While showcasing his suite of home-made contraptions, he was very open to providing advice and assistance for others who wanted to build their own. My favourite moment was when discussing how to build an electrolysis device from a metal lunchbox, outlet power and a concentrated salt solution: 

“If you want to build one, please get in touch – there’s heaps of things that can go wrong!”

Graham Walker, when discussing how to make home-made green hydrogen

Conferences are all about people ❤

As mentioned, I was lucky enough to travel to Canberra with three wonderful colleagues (Lisa, Will and Colin) who made the three days especially enjoyable. It was also lovely to catch up with former Scitech Outreach Manager Amy Boulding (who is kicking all the goals at CSIRO) and research colleague Graham Walker.

Great to see you, Amy!
Colin testing Questacon’s Bernoulli blower
Because fun photos = best photos
Pre-conference networking
Hanging with Graham Walker and ‘Piston Pete’
Colin sharing how Scitech is pivoting our Outreach strategy to extend equity
Will and his bread

ASTEN 2023 – An Acrostic Summary

A is for Access and Acceptance. It is a universal truth that most people don’t enjoy public speaking, and several presenters began their talks with an acknowledgment that they were pushing through their nerves to speak. Something that surprised me at the end of the conference was an acknowledgement of this by Will, the ASTEN President, who called for a round of applause for the kindness and support of the ASTEN audience and congratulated the nervous presenters for pushing through and delivering their talks. I’ve never seen anything so wholesome in the context of a large public speaking event! As someone who recently pushed to overcome my own fear of public speaking, I used to ‘suffer in silence’ while everyone else confidently spoke. It was really lovely to see such encouragement and recognition that while public speaking is something “we all have to do”, it’s not something everyone feels comfortable doing – and that’s okay.

S is for Stories. Not only were there great stories of successes and learnings from practice, but also a range of beautiful and personal stories from the ASTEN presenters themselves. Flick Waldock and Sally Hurst both stood out because they shared stories of their own experiences growing up, and how they use their current work to advocate for and improve access to informal STEM engagement to students in regional and remote areas through their work. It’s wonderful to hear such examples of success while not forgetting your roots, and using your vocation and skills as a tool to share, give back to your community and be a role model for others. 

T is for Tiny Science Centres. I never realised the Australasian science centre network was so vast, and included so many small organisations! The UOW Science Space literally brought half of their team (of 8) to ASTEN, the Cairns Children’s Museum is still on the hunt for a permanent home, the Discovery Science and Technology Centre in Bendigo runs with 11 permanent staff … and they’re all doing incredible things! One day, when I have the time and money, I’d love to visit each and everyone of them ❤ 

E is for Equity and Environment. Extending equity and considering the environment (both in content and experiences, as well as the physical make-up of those programs and experiences) were key themes of ASTEN 2023. A lightbulb moment for me came from the presentation by MOTAT, where they discussed printing graphics panels on biodegradable cardboard and using screws to hold them together instead of plastic-based glues and tapes. Even considering how parts of exhibits could be reused or repurposed, such as giving away glass jars in one exhibit to staff members as a Christmas present prior to dismantling was a lovely touch. Going that extra step further to consider the whole life cycle vs. just the planning and delivery is an important part of walking the walk when it comes to sustainability, and New Zealand often outshines in the respect! Equity is obviously a passion of mine in science communication, and it was fantastic to see the amazing initiatives being implemented across the country in science centres and museums, both big and small ❤

N is for New Networks. Yes, ok, the “N” in “ASTEN” does stand for network, but it holds true for the acronym and this acrostic! Despite the cosy nature of the ASTEN conference, with around 55 attendees, there was so much opportunity for new collaborations and forming of networks. 

Last but not least …

Special thanks and congrats to the ASTEN Executive for organising the conference, Questacon for hosting us bunch of rogues, and Scitech for letting me tag along. Looking forward to hearing more stories from everyone in 2024!

The original copy was posted on shaniiscicomm.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with permission.

The ASC honours & post-graduate research symposium

21 November 2023
3pm AEDT | 2:30pm ACDT |5pm NZDT |
2pm AEST | 1:30pm ACST | 12pm AWST

In the world of science communication research, it’s not often that students find a platform to present their findings, especially if they’re not pursuing a PhD. Building on the success of last year, we’re championing these budding researchers by hosting our annual symposium. This is our endeavour to bolster the SciComm community, providing a unique stage for students from both Australia and Aotearoa, New Zealand to share their insights with their peers.

While students undoubtedly refine their skills through research, it’s the broader SciComm community that stands to gain the most, staying abreast with the latest data to enrich our practices.

Our annual event isn’t just a showcase; it’s a commitment to nurturing confidence in our students and offering the community a timely glimpse into ANZ research. All presentations will be recorded and made available on the ASC YouTube page. This serves a dual purpose: it not only keeps the community informed but also provides students with a valuable asset to showcase their presentation prowess—a trait increasingly recognised as invaluable in our field.

We invite you to spread the word. Let your colleagues, networks, and anyone with a vested interest know about this enriching, free event.

We are also very excited that our host for the symposium will be Jo Savill, senior science communicator at the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC). 


21 November 2023

3pm AEDT | 2:30pm ACDT | 2pm AEST | 5pm NZDT | 1:30pm ACST | 12pm AWST

3:00pm AEDTSymposium begins
3:10pm AEDTCommunicating Science: Is it Time for a More Anthropological Approach?
Chris Ellis (PhD student, The University of Sydney)

There is an increasing pessimism of science communication as science  attempts to define origins of the universe, life and consciousness. Science communication is essential in order to mobilise people to act against some of humanity’s most pressing problems, including climate change, but it may have trouble achieving this if it does not take a more anthropological approach. 
3:35pm AEDTMusical NMR: Building a Molecular Ensemble
Jake Willett (Masters of Science (Physics), The University of Melbourne)

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) is a staple in the molecular imaging world and is the foundation of MRI. It is an inherently quantum mechanical phenomenon which is often hard to understand. HOWEVER, there is a connection between NMR and music: a more familiar topic, that may help in bridging the gap between the micro and macro world.
4:00pm AEDTComparing COVID-19 Vaccine Information in Indonesian and Singaporean Online News
Priscilla Seah (Master of Science Communication, ANU)

Comparing how COVID-19 vaccine information was presented in two vastly different countries in terms of their COVID-19 management, secularity, and cultures. Did religion themes dominate, or were news media articles more scientific-based? What perspectives were emphasised? How did news media in these countries convince the public to take the vaccine and counter hesitancy?
4:30pm AEDTFrom 2D to 4D: Reconstructing a Giant Extinct Aussie Amphibian
Jack O’Connor (PhD student, Monash University)

Can 2D skeletal illustrations inform 4D locomotion animations? This talk outlines how I developed a novel procedure in 3D modelling software to recreate the morphology of one of Australia’s few described Jurassic vertebrate species; Siderops kehli. The resulting animated asset provides insight into the lifestyle of this giant Australian amphibian through the lens of science communication.
4:55pm AEDTChanging environmental behaviours, using ABC’s War on Waste as a case study
Rachael Vorwerk (Master of Communication, RMIT)

Non-preachy tone. Relatable contexts. Step-by-step how to’s. Targeting consumers, businesses and government. What exactly was it in ABC’s War on Waste that led to such widespread change in Australia? Learn about new insights and practical tips on how we can use communication strategies to change behaviour at scale. 
5:30pm AEDTSymposium ends

To enhance accessibility and promote ongoing learning, all presentations will be recorded and uploaded to the ASC YouTube channel. This serves two purposes: it keeps the broader community informed about the latest developments in our field, and it provides our students with a valuable platform to demonstrate their presentation skills—a key attribute in academic and professional environments.

Join us to engage with pioneering research and support the next generation of scholars.

We look forward to your participation in the symposium!

Last year’s symposium

The symposium was run for the first time last year.

Last year’s presentations are now available in this playlist.

The ASC Honours & Post-Graduate SciComm Research Symposium

The future website

The ASC website has been overdue some serious attention for some time. We’re currently over-capacity for server space, and our ability to host a breadth of resources or support updates to lists has been very limited.

In addition the member-management system currently doesn’t fulfil our organisation’s needs anymore. Billing for conferences or running online events isn’t as smooth as it should be. Ask anyone who’s tried to change their branch!

Dealing with this is something various committees have been working on for the last several years.

Today we’re proud to announce that we’ve commenced the project of integrating the membership system with a new website. It’s going to take some work to complete, but we hope that in the end our systems will be easier to maintain, while giving more benefit to members and the broader scicomm community.

As part of this work, we have defined a set of principles for our digital platforms. They include:

  • simple – for members, staff and the public, to use, update and maintain
  • integrated – as few platforms as possible, and multiple platforms readily connect to share required information
  • automated – with simple actions to prioritise staff time on complex cases
  • flexible – to adapt to the needs of the organisation into the future
  • supported – help from suppliers if/when it’s needed, and ideally in time zones reasonable for our volunteers and staff
  • sustainable – financially affordable, yet not afraid to invest money if it saves significant paid staff time
  • secure – meet Australian (and ideally global) privacy laws and legal requirements

Our decisions moving forward have been based on how well any option meets these. To that end, we have chosen a new Australian membership platform supplier: Membes

We will keep you up to date with detail as it comes available.

What does this mean for me?

In the immediate term – we will start the work of setting up the membership software to suit the ASC. We ask that if you have an active membership, that you consider logging in to update any details so that when we get to porting information to the new system, we do so with up-to-date information. You can do this at the https://scicomm.network webpage.

Over time we will start to port member management over to the new system, as well as the ASC official website. We will communicate with everyone this process, but aim to ensure that the switch over will impact very few, if any, members.

Finally, once we have pressure-tested the new system, and established a new integrated member website, we will retire the current systems and archive them for future research purposes.

By the end of this process, the hope is that we will have one unified member site as the home and host for all ASC material, resources and event registrations. We want this simplified system so that we can focus on engaging with each other, rather than spending all our time on making systems talk to each other,

If you want to be involved in the process, please reach out to the office inbox and we’ll connect you with the project team. Also, if you have got to the end of this blog post thinking ‘oh I have always wanted the webpage to have a _______ section’ – now is definitely the time to quickly shoot us an email.

The June 2024 conference

Shared values and established relationships often hold more weight in decision-making and building trust than mere facts or truth. As humans, we inherently seek community. We are drawn to groups that affirm our perspectives, make us feel welcome, and dismiss notions we don’t like. The danger, however, is that we might find ourselves trapped in an echo-chamber, ensnared by confirmation bias.

A pressing challenge for today’s science communicators is leveraging this innate human need for connection to effect positive social good. How can we assist those transitioning away from groups founded on disinformation, ensuring they feel embraced and encouraged when exploring new ideas? And how can we simplify the journey for those open to incorporating science-based evidence into their decisions?

Introducing Support, Connect, Grow, the 2024 conference.

The Support, Connect, Grow conference presents an opportunity for professionals, researchers and educators from diverse fields to come together. It’s an occasion to delve into the ways quality communication can dismantle barriers, bridge knowledge gaps, and foster evidence-driven decision-making. This gathering not only offers a moment for reflection on the fundamental tenets of quality communication in science and technology but also serves as a hub for strengthening relationships, developing new collaborations, and elevating professional practice.

The conference will be held in Perth 16 – 22 June 2024. More details and early-bird tickets will be available shortly.

Sign up for updates.

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The Eurkea Prizes

Two special conversation events are coming where ASC members and friends are able to hear from some of the awardees of the 2023 Eureka Prizes.

Eureka Prize with Jo Chandler

16 October 2023, 23 October 2023, 12:30 AEDT

Recording available here: http://www.asc.asn.au/blog/2023/10/25/the-eurekas-with-jo-chandler/

Note the change of date

Jo Chandler is the 2023 winner of the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Science Journalism, and she joins the Australian Science Communicator’s co-President, Dr Tom Carruthers, in conversation about her win, her award winning piece, science journalism, and everything else.

In her blog, she shares how excited and honoured she felt to be awarded the prize, and how she felt her winning story entangled exploration, science, politics and policy all together with human ambition and endevour.

Join us to find out more from Jo on her broad experience in science journalism, what it feels like being recognised by the Eurekas, and to add the ASC’s warm congratulations for her award.

The event will start with a short conversation with Jo, talking about her award winning piece and her views on what’s important to consider when sharing science in today’s media landscape. We will then open to cover questions you may have for Jo.

Jo Chandler’s longform essay Buried Treasure follows the most ambitious Australian Antarctic endeavour in a generation. The award-winning journalist had tracked the story for over a decade before pitching her article, which skilfully navigates urgent questions about science, our heating planet and the human condition.

Australia Museum, citation for Jo Chandler, 2023 Australia Museum Eureka Prize for Science Journalism

Jo’s winning piece was published in the Griffith Review (Edition 77: Real Cool World), 2 August 2022

Members can register directly here. Non-members purchase tickets via EventBrite.

Eureka Prize with Prof Toby Walsh

17 October 2023, 30 October 2023 12:30 AEDT

Professor Toby Walsh is the 2023 winner of the Celestino Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding Science, and he joins the Australian Science Communicator’s co-President, Dr Tom Carruthers, in conversation about his win, his approach to explaining AI, and everything else.

The Australian Academy of Science (where Toby is a Fellow) shares how the Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UNSW has helped shape the conversation globally on the ethical implementation of AI. He writes regularly for print and online media and has authored several books on AI for general audiences.

Join us to find out more from Toby on his experience in science media, what it feels like being recognised by the Eurekas, and to add the ASC’s warm congratulations for his award.

The event will start with a short conversation with Toby, talking about his approach to public engagement and what’s important to consider when sharing stories about AI. We will then open to cover questions you may have for Toby.

Professor Toby Walsh is a world-renowned authority in artificial intelligence (AI), exploring subjects such as self-driving cars and autonomous weapons. On television, in books and at academic forums he leads conversations about our AI-driven future: what it will look like, how we can prepare and what we should be wary of.

Australia Museum, citation for Prof Tob Walsh, 2023 Celestino Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding Science

Members can register directly here. Non-members purchase tickets via EventBrite.

Response to Australia’s draft National Science and Research Priorities

The revitalisation of Australia’s National Science and Research Priorities and National Science Statement will shape a long-term vision for the Australian science system. This process is intended to re-energise conversations across the Australian science and research sector. This process is being led by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley.

In March, co-presidents Jirana Craven and Tom Carruthers were invited to contribute to a roundtable convened by Dr Foley. We extend our thanks the the Office of the Chief Scientist for engaging with the ASC.

At the time, several members contributed to a document of issues that were used to inform the discussion. The ASC is pleased to see some of the language used by the co-presidents make its way into the draft.

On 29 September, the following response to the draft was submitted. The submission will be publicly viewable on the Government Consultation Hub in time, and is reproduced below.

Australia’s draft National Science and Research Priorities

Response to the Draft Recommendations

The Australian Science Communicators (ASC) commends the Government on revitalising Australia’s national science policy framework, and the consultation process adopted by the Office of the Chief Scientist and the Department of Industry, Science and Resources in the production of this draft and appreciate the opportunity to provide comment at this stage. We additionally thank Dr Cathy Foley and the Office of the Chief Scientist for the invitation to contribute to one of the March roundtables informing this document.

We further recognise and applaud the overarching frame with which Indigenous knowledge and knowledge systems have been adapted to the whole document and the priorities, and the clear emphasis the consultation process has put on engaging with communities on Country.

This submission from the Australian Science Communicators emphasises the pivotal role of science communication and the critical need for more communications research to enable and shape Australia’s response to the four identified priorities outlined in the draft. We highlight the impact that increased and formalised support for science communication professionals and research would have in the sector. We argue that a lens of community dialogue and communication is essential for us to achieve a scientifically engaged and prosperous society.

The overlap of the priorities and objectives

The figure on page 8 is a graphic that depicts the whole strategic priorities outlined throughout the document. It gives an overview of the four priorities, and the specific areas of focus intended to achieve progress across them.

We feel that the graphic clarifies a key gap in the priorities of not having centred a specific reference or focus on community engagement with the scientific endeavour.

This engagement with the sciences is crucial for the continued social licence to conduct groundbreaking research and fully exploit the new technologies and advances this research offers us.

It is quality communication (and the support of the research and education that supports this practice) through which we achieve the positive engagement with and support of ethical science and research.

The ASC therefore recommends that the priorities either takes an approach to science communication research and practice as being a critical enabler for all the objectives, or explicitly notes where that research is most effectively applied.

Priority 4: Building a stronger, more resilient nation

We specifically make note of recommendation 4, and applaud the focus on concerns around misinformation and disinformation conveyed by the ASC co-Presidents in their roundtable contribution earlier this year. We further acknowledge the link to democratic resilience referenced in the first aim in this priority, another aspect highlighted by our co-Presidents.

Disappointingly though, we note that while this priority seems to start to engage with the challenges posed to the Australian sector and economy, it fails to engage with the opportunities or pathways to address these issues.

As such the ASC recommends:

  1. Critical research in understanding mis- and disinformation to be expanded to include science communication tools and methods to support disengaging with mis- and disinformation.
    1. Science communication research has for years reviewed the cognitive, social and language tricks used to entice people to engage with misinformation.
    2. But we need to know more than just how or why people engage with communities that reject ideas they don’t like, and support ideas that make them feel comfortable.
    3. We need to understand the full pathway for people as they are exposed to, are influenced by, engage with, and eventually dismiss misconceptions or falsehoods.
    4. Importantly, we also need to dedicate focus to understanding how best to support those leaving family-like communities built on disinformation. What support do they need while they navigate a phase of their life when they are extremely vulnerable to more extreme ideologies or ideas? (This has obvious benefits in national security contexts also.)
    5. The critical research in the social science of the whole gamut of behaviour change is essential to fully support this goal of a stronger and more resilient nation.
  2. Priority 4 incorporate specific acknowledgement of the role of science communication expertise in achieving the desired aims
    1. Aim one states: Australian science and research will support communities to develop the skills, tools and systems that can strengthen Australia’s democratic resilience and enhance trust.
    2. This aim is thoroughly seated in the realm of quality science communication and engagement, though the rest of the discussion avoids referencing this as being important or even a factor. In fact, the word communication is not included once in the entire draft.
    3. While the aim remains focused solely on science supporting communities (ignoring the role of communication), this priority continues to diminish the role of professional and expert science communicators and delays the development of the evidence base required to best support their work.
  3. Critical research also expanded to include the development of the evidence base in quality science communication and engagement.
    1. An ongoing issue with the science communication community is the lack of connection between science communication research and practice. Practitioners often make decisions based on past experience, with little high quality evaluation methodologies or reports available for public consumption.
    2. While there’s broad interest in ‘best practice’, the research sector in science communication is thoroughly under-resourced to be able to provide adequate analysis or recommendations for Australian practice within the Australian context. With the exception of ANU and UWA, very few universities have been able to justify science communication research positions, and those who have science communicators in academic staff positions are often so overwhelmed with undergraduate first-year generalist teaching that they have zero capacity for practice or research.
    3. Best practice science communication needs to be based on findings from high quality research, but there typically isn’t the funding or resources available for collaborations between researchers and practitioners.
    4. Science communication research, conducted alongside practitioners, is essential to continue to improve best-practice, with clear benefits of increased community resilience.

Priority 2: Supporting healthy and thriving communities

Similar to our critique of Priority 4, we argue that community engagement is inappropriately absent from the discussion around this priority centred on community social wellbeing.

Australians are not making health decisions absent of influence or direction. Aim two starts to highlight the need to understand the diverse and unique social and environmental drivers of health and wellbeing in communities. This is an aspirational goal, but falls short of considering the gaps in the evidence-base for those engaging communities in health advice.

The ASC highlights the enabling function science communication research and practice in health communications and community building would have in addressing these areas.

Priority 1: Ensuring a net zero future and protecting Australia’s biodiversity

While we will leave comment on the scientific feasibility or appropriateness of having a goal focused on supporting a pathway to net zero to the relevant scientific experts, the ASC does want to highlight the lacklustre message that this aspiration sends to Australians and our international partners.

Other technologically advanced countries such as Germany, Denmark, Great Britain and the USA are already focusing substantial climate investment into negative emissions technologies, and the European Climate Act stipulates net negative emissions after 2050.

The draft currently conveys the critical research needed to engage with carbon emissions and this is crucial, but the message conveyed by not more thoroughly emphasising the need for negative emission technologies further reaffirms Australia’s place as following the rest of the world in our climate responsibilities and actions. The ASC therefore recommends that the language of Priority 1 more thoroughly emphasises alignment with the global aspiration for negative emissions, rather than net zero.

About the Australian Science Communicators

The Australian Science Communicators (ASC) is the peak membership body representing the interests of those who work in, study, teach and have an interest in the field of science communication. The Australian Science Communicators has been bringing science communicators together for 30 years.

Pathway to Diversity in STEM

The Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review will recommend how the Australian Government can support change so that people can access and feel they belong within STEM education, careers and industries.

On 8 September, the following response to the draft recommendations was submitted. The submission will be publicly viewable on the Government Consultation Hub in time, and is reproduced in full below.

Pathway to Diversity in STEM

Response to the Review Draft Recommendations

The Australian Science Communicators (ASC) commends the Diversity in STEM consultation process and appreciates the opportunity to provide comment at this stage.

This submission emphasises the pivotal role of science communication professionals in delivering and shaping the future aspirations for diversity in STEM, and the impact that increased and formalised support for science communication professionals would have in the sector.

The need for quality science communication

Science communication plays an important role in modern democratic society, forming links between scientific researchers and the wider community. Science communicators facilitate and encourage dialogue between scientists, policymakers, educators and citizens. Equipped to understand the science that affects them in everyday life, people are empowered to make informed decisions about their future.

Effective science communication plays a key role in reducing these barriers to access by ensuring that educational opportunities, research initiatives, and potential collaborations are shared widely and in a way that avoids misconception and bias. Across the profession there is specific expertise in reaching and engaging people who are at high risk of disengaging or with access barriers.

It is the view of the ASC that effective science communication plays a crucial and yet underappreciated role in facilitating the implementation of the recommendations of the Pathway to Diversity in STEM Draft Review. As such, we recommend the final Pathway Recommendations to:

  1. Acknowledge and call for adequate support and resources for professional science communicators within the STEM sector
    1. Many universities, government agencies and research institutions employ some form of marketing, communications or promotion staff, whose role it is to translate complex technical information and communicate it in a way that different audiences and stakeholders can understand. This is called science communication.
    2. However, these science communicators are typically under-resourced and required to be a one-stop-shop for all external communication needs. Often they are required to be a university marketer first and foremost.
    3. The skills and knowledge required to take complex information and share it in ways that are relevant to policy-makers, other institutions, educators, children, and the wider community are not to be taken for granted, and should be recognised as professional skills of science communicators.
    4. In the same way that scientific researchers bring skills and knowledge to their fields of expertise, so do those who communicate science.
    5. With this formalised and acknowledged role, science communicators would be able to contribute more thoroughly to the intent behind the Pathway to Diversity.
  2. Demonstrate the value of diversity of thought, especially among research leaders at government organisations and institutes
    1. We argue point 4b doesn’t go far enough to demonstrate the importance of utilising trained and experienced science communicators. 4b references the media and entertainment industry to work with industry and researchers to celebrate diversity in STEM.
    2. Informal science learning organisations, including museums, zoos, aquaria and science centres play a crucial role in celebrating diversity, as well as science journalists, and media and entertainment professionals.
    3. Representations of scientists and science as showcased in informal science learning organisations are important for visitors to see the range of ways science is done, the people involved, the importance of collaboration and showcasing that there is no singular way of being a scientist.
  3. Address the issue of Early- and Mid-Career Researchers (EMCRs) being dissuaded from participating in community engagement and outreach activities
    1. Scientists and researchers participating in outreach and community engagement activities is an important component of science communication. It allows non-scientists to not only meet with scientists, allowing opportunities for discussions, debates, and common understanding, but creates opportunities for children and young people to meet and see scientists as role models for future career aspirations.
    2. However, many EMCRs are typically dissuaded from participating in outreach activities.
    3. Supervisors, with their mentee’s interest at heart, will often provide counsel that outreach is a ‘waste of time’ as only core research and publications are considered important for career stability and progression.
    4. Those who are disadvantaged in the system are even more likely to be encouraged to ‘focus on their research’, or alternatively, are overwhelmed with requests to be the diverse person at an event.
    5. If ‘allowed’ to participate, EMCRs are typically unpaid for their efforts, or required to conduct outreach in their spare time. Further, few university panels account outreach activities as valuable when considering individuals for promotion.
    6. This trend is harming the opportunities for EMCRs, and especially those with additional barriers to promotion or success, from actively participating in science communication and the goals of the Pathway to Diversity purpose.
    7. In addition, it further reinforces the poor value perception that science communication and that it is not a professional expertise.
  4. Adequately fund the continued development of the evidence base in science communication to address diversity access issues
    1. An ongoing issue with the science communication community is the lack of connection between science communication research and practice. Practitioners often make decisions based on past experience, with little high quality evaluation methodologies or reports available for public consumption.
    2. While there’s broad interest in ‘best practice’, the research sector in science communication is thoroughly under-resourced to be able to provide adequate analysis or recommendations for Australian practice. With the exception of ANU (with Australian Federal investment), very few universities have been able to justify science communication research positions, and those who have science communicators in academic staff positions are often so overwhelmed with undergraduate teaching that they have zero capacity for practice or research.
    3. While research funding is linked to undergraduate or international student numbers, science communication will continue to be undervalued in the university sector.
    4. Best practice science communication needs to be based on findings from high quality research, but there typically isn’t the funding or resources available for collaborations between researchers and practitioners.
    5. We recommend funding to be allocated to science communication research conducted alongside practitioners, to continue to improve best-practice, with clear benefits of increased accessibility.

With these considerations, we support the Pathway and look forward to being key partners in its implementation.

About the Australian Science Communicators

The Australian Science Communicators (ASC) is the peak membership body representing the interests of those who work in, study, teach and have an interest in the field of science communication. The Australian Science Communicators has been bringing science communicators together for 30 years.

Job available – Executive Officer [contractor]

About the role

The Executive Officer has historically been the central hub for all member enquiries and supporter of the National Executive Committee’s projects and initiatives. For the past several years, this is the only paid role at the Australian Science Communicators.

Until recently, the role has been filled by a long-standing employee who has chosen to stand down from the role. This leaves a significant gap in the organisation with many tasks being absorbed by volunteers. We are keen to reduce the number of volunteer hours as a priority.

In the immediate term, we are seeking the support of a temporary contractor who can invoice for their time. As part of our strategic review, it is expected this role will evolve into one or more operational and strategic positions. It is expected the successful contractor will support the design of this.

Key accountabilities

  • Provide executive support to the National Executive Committee
  • Be the key point of contact for all general office and member enquiries and respond to these in a timely manner
  • Use our membership management platform to manage and modify membership information, extract data and reports, raise and edit invoices, and other membership-related tasks
  • Manage online account access, subscriptions and services, and keep information up to date
  • Manage other administration-related and ad-hoc tasks, keep documentation organised and up to date
  • Assist with bookkeeping, invoicing and accounting-related tasks where needed
  • Provide event-related support where needed
  • Other activities as appropriate and requested by the National Executive Committee

We’re looking for someone who:

  • Has excellent communication and customer service skills
  • Can manage their own time and priorities
  • Has flexibility in their schedule to monitor email inboxes at least once every 24-48 hours and allocate enough time to respond to enquiries when needed
  • Can rapidly problem-solve around complex technologies and systems
  • Is familiar with the principles of using a CRM and accounting software such as Xero

This role will be contracted at a weekly rate of $300-450 (ex. GST) pending experience and impact. Including additional load during the conference season, the estimated time requirement is between 6 – 10 hours per week (more initially as you become familiar with our systems). Should more consistent time be required, we will appropriately increase the weekly rate to cover.

Please do not hesitate to get in touch via office @ asc.asn.au if you are interested in discussing the role and your suitability. The role will be filled once a suitable candidate has been found.

About the Australian Science Communicators

The Australian Science Communicators is the peak body for science communication in Australia. Established in 1994, it represents a body of over 200 members with an interest in science communication.

2022 and 2023 has been a period of significant change, which will continue until the national conference, held in June 2024 in Perth. Further strategic review of the organisation, its operations and priorities are currently underway.

The Australian Universities Accord

The Accord Interim Report outlines a vision for the future of Australia’s higher education system. The Report reflects high-quality, thoughtful submissions and extensive engagement with a wide range of stakeholders. It contains five recommendations for priority action and raises issues for further discussion to inform the Review’s Final Report.

The Australian Science Communicators made a submission in reaction to the Accord process, specifically recognising the gap in support for formalised science communication training and professional impact.

The response was submitted on Friday 1 September and is reproduced below in full.

Australian Universities Accord

Response to the Accord Interim Report

The Australian Science Communicators (ASC) commends the Universities Accord consultation process and appreciate the opportunity to provide comment at this stage.

This submission emphasises the pivotal role of science communication professionals in enhancing the impact and public perception of university research, and stresses the need for more ambitious aims for the Universities Accord.

The need for quality science communication

We consider that the need for quality science communication to support and enhance Australia’s higher education system has not been adequately addressed in the Interim Report or the sector more broadly.

Science communicators being limited almost exclusively to the role of ‘science PR’ in many universities thoroughly ignores the obligation on the part of universities to make public research appropriately and accurately accessible to those who fund it, benefit from it, and use it.

The Business Council of Australia’s Seize the Moment report notes that “nine in ten Australians agree that spending on research and development is vital to give us a competitive edge”, and yet many are unaware of the true impact of this R&D investment. This clearly shows the current shortfall in communicating the research effort and its impact.

It is our view that effective science communication plays a crucial and yet underappreciated role in facilitating the implementation of the recommendations of the Australian Government’s Australian Universities Accord Interim Report by:

  1. Providing universities with evidence-based practice in engaging communities, policy-makers and stakeholders
    1. Just as university researchers are valued and respected for their high-quality work and research output, similar emphasis is needed for trained professionals and academics whose expertise is in the translation and transformation of technical details of contemporary research into messages that different stakeholders can access: science communicators.
    2. It is essential that communication professionals are considered at the beginning stages of the research process (e.g. during grant development), so adequate funds can be allocated for their time and expertise, and that funding models incorporate provision for communication activities.
    3. Trained science communicators can assist with reporting to funders, research participants and local communities, strengthening the link between research and society.
  2. Linking research to impact
    1. Science communication links academia and the Australian people, including policymakers, industry stakeholders, and the wider community.
    2. Of note, there is specific expertise developed within the field in how best to engage hard to reach audiences.
    3. Effective science communication is vital to make complex research findings accessible and understandable, enabling stakeholders to grasp the potential implications and applications of research outcomes.
  3. Promoting collaboration
    1. Science communication promotes integration within the tertiary system and collaboration between universities, industry, and government.
    2. Effective communication channels share information about significant research problems and capabilities, helping stakeholders identify mutual interest and collaboration opportunities.
  4. Public engagement
    1. Quality science communication helps universities connect with the public, enhancing research awareness.
    2. This fosters a sense of relevance and opens doors for public support and funding opportunities.
    3. By promoting a better understanding of the importance of research, science communication can also help build trust between universities, government, industry, and the general public.
  5. Facilitating policy implementation
    1. Clear communication strategies are crucial for effective policy implementation and public buy in.
    2. Stakeholders need to grasp how research outcomes integrate into policies to effect the desired shifts in higher education.
    3. Science communication can facilitate this understanding and encourage support for evidence-based policy decisions.
  6. Addressing equity and access
    1. The commitment to access for everyone, as mentioned in the report, requires communication efforts to reach diverse audiences.
    2. Effective science communication can play a role in reducing barriers to access by ensuring that information about educational opportunities, research initiatives, and potential collaborations is shared widely and in a way that is accessible to individuals from various backgrounds and communities.

As such, we implore the Accord vision to acknowledge and build in adequate support and resources for roles such as that of the science communicator professional within the higher education sector, along with the researchers who inform their practice.

The ASC has a specific focus on communication in the sciences. While there are specific challenges faced by ASC members, we expect that our recommendations would readily be applied across other fields including the humanities, arts, economics and business, for example. It is the view of the ASC that the Universities Accords should appropriately acknowledge and include the role of these professionals in any forward-looking vision.

A missed opportunity

Further, the ASC adds our voice to others calling for the Accord process to be more ambitious. We specifically echo the statement from Science & Technology Australia in their April submission and their submission in response to this Interim Report:

“To avert a decline in Australian living standards in the next decade, we must use the Universities Accord to make a ‘once-in-a-generation investment in Australia itself.’ At its heart, the Accord should state a bold ambition to ramp up our national investment in R&D and develop the specialised, STEM-skilled workforce we need to control our future.”

Science Technology Australia

Other bodies have provided submissions on STEM-research, social science and R&D investment shortfalls, and we add our voice to their concerns. In light of the ARC’s recent report highlighting the 331% economic returns to Australia from research investment, failing to recommend a more radical review of university sector funding would be hard to justify.

About the Australian Science Communicators

The Australian Science Communicators (ASC) is the peak membership body representing the interests of those who work in, study, teach and have an interest in the field of science communication. The Australian Science Communicators has been bringing science communicators together for 30 years.