How do Australians engage with science?

Thank you to Dr. Suzette Searle for preparing this survey summary.

Does it surprise you that friends and family, and CSIRO were equally the most trusted sources of accurate scientific information volunteered by respondents (12%) in a recent Australian survey? What about the 21% who didn’t know who to trust, or the 9% who trusted no-one? Are those findings a cause for concern or an opportunity for you as a science communicator?

What is clear from this survey, however, is that most Australians value science and scientists in this society. For example, most (80%) agreed that, ‘science is very important to solving many of the problems facing us a society today.’ Most (88%) also agreed that ‘a career in science is a good choice of a career for people these days’ and scientists were ranked third, after doctors and teachers, in terms of the importance of their positive contribution to society.

I actually didn’t know what to think when it was found that 51% could not identify any Australian scientific or technological achievement. Of the 49% who could name something, however, most thought of the Cochlear ear implant, followed by the cervical cancer vaccine, “spray-on skin”, penicillin, Wi-Fi, the black box flight recorder and discovering the cause of stomach ulcers. Medical achievements were the most frequently mentioned, and in answers to other questions, it was clear that many people wanted to know more about medical science and technology.

There are many such insights that range across Australians attitudes, behaviours and values about science and technology to be found in ‘How do Australians engage with science’. This survey was designed to inform science communication practitioners as well as science policy decision makers and leaders of science in Australia. It was supported by Inspiring Australia, designed by CPAS ANU* and conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs.

This survey was based upon a questionnaire answered by 1,020 adult Australians over the telephone in February 2014. It describes their engagement in terms of how often they encountered science and technology information, how often they searched for information about science and technology, their participation in science-related activities and events within the previous 12 months and their attitudes towards science and technology. Both ‘science’ and ‘technology’ were defined and asked about separately.

Preliminary results, including analyses by gender age and location (major cities, regional and remote), segmentation by frequency of interaction, and the questionnaire are now available online.


President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the President’s update.


Did you survive (and thrive) during National Science Week?

I feel that I’ve just recovered—a week later—from National Science Week. It was a rather impressive spread of activities going on around the country. I was very lucky to participate in Adelaide with a packed house who came to both learn and give their views on the future of food. Professor Rachel Ankeny, Dr Heather Bray and and Peta Callaghan put together quite an impressive evening of experts—and gourmet samples. The experts gave overviews of the issues arising with native foods (small acreage growers, unknown potential for over 6000 varieties from Davidson plum to pepper berry), with functional foods (do we want to invest in making food less allergenic, have more vitamins, include vaccines?), with GM (the GM banana went over quite well!); and what about these new ‘old’ varieties of grains where, in some cases like chia and freekeh, demand far outstrips to supply? In addition to discussion, the SA team did a bit of research using ‘keepads’ to poll the audience as they tried each new food. I look forward to seeing more of the results but, for me, this was a great evening of science communication as well as research…and I did eat a lot of freekeh salad.
We’d love to hear more about your involvement with National Science Week and are happy to dedicate some Scope space next month to reports from colleagues around Australia as we all digest what just happened!

Proactionary or Precautionary?
When I wrote for the July issue of Scope, I was just headed for a conference where a key topic was ‘Should the precautionary principle be overthrown by a proactionary imperative?” The precautionary approach has been a guiding principle for much science and technology innovation—and has impacted science communication as well. Historically, the principle comes out of environmental law; the Rio Declaration put it like this, “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.” But, the usual interpretation of the precautionary principle focuses more on caution in the face of uncertain science, a kind of ‘ounce of prevention’ or ‘look before your leap’ response to scientific risk. There has been a lot of credence given to this approach by science communicators who have (quite rightly in my view) wanted to carefully weigh scientific evidence and risk before communicating it to others.  But, if we go back to the Rio Declaration, the emphasis is a bit different.  Basically, in the face of uncertain science, you may still have to ACT to avoid calamity in the future. The Proactionary imperative takes this a few steps further. It argues we shouldn’t be afraid of scientific uncertainty or risk.  We should be ready to innovate and even push boundaries. Proponents (Steve Fuller is one) argue that this will lead to some failures, but also serious innovation. However, they argue that the ‘check’ on this boundary-pushing should be the capacity for the risk-takers to compensate for any damages their failures cause.
Now, I’m still not sure where I sit on this debate, but I don’t think this is going to go away. It’s an important notion that guides our practice—are we communicating how to be safe from science or are we communicating to advance science (and do these have to be exclusive?). That’s a lot to think about, but it’s a debate that has gotten my attention.   I’m going to follow this up on 2 October for a Science Communication Roundtable: Communicating Humanity 2.0. It’s part of the International Communication Association Asia-Pacific meetings in Brisbane. I’d love to see colleagues there.

President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for preparing this month’s President’s update.

Precaution or Proaction?
For this Scope update, I’m sitting at the airport in Brisbane with a latte looking ahead to a conference in the US on Social Epistemology (this is an academic way of referring to the study of how knowledge travels in social groups).  I like to think of it as the philosophical arm of science communication.  At the conference, I’m looking forward to a discussion panel on the “Proactive Principle” which Steve Fuller has suggested to counter the “Precautionary Principle.” Some people think that using the precautionary principle to guide action and thinking about science and technology has become, on the one hand, too limiting, on the other, inadequate and reactive to new developments.  Not sure what I think about this yet, but am looking forward to the debate and I will report back via LinkedIn on this one.

Thinking about some professional development?
ASC has just launched a small-grant scheme to support professional development.  Find information on it here.  I’m especially pleased to see the Peter Pockley grant for PD in investigative science journalism.  Peter was a tireless advocate for science communication and I was very lucky to have him as a mentor when I moved to Australia.  He was able to be passionate about science and technology as well as critical of sloppy thinking, greed, and short-termism in the science and technology sector.  I very much miss his voice on the Australian scene but try to keep it in my head as I go about my work.  I hope that one of our members can take advantage of this small grant to support some work Peter would have been proud of.

Results from Inspiring Australia
In this issue of Scope, I’m giving a short summary of some research that was done on science communication in Australia, funded by the Inspiring Australia strategy.  I’m asking my colleagues around Australia who did the research to summarise some inspiring, puzzling, frustrating,  or just fascinating findings from their research over the past few years–we’ll have short summaries of these in Scope for the rest of the year.  I’ll also post these to LinkedIn so we can talk about them.

I’m almost ready to board and will sadly trade my latte for what my partner calls ‘American-style School Meeting in a basement coffee’.  I fear he’s right; let’s hope the discussion at the conference will be better than the coffee.

Inspiring Australia update: Getting a picture of the Australian science media landscape

Thank you to Joan Leach for the Inspiring Australia update.
The Inspiring Australia Strategy put aside some funding for some research into science communication and science engagement in Australia. This is the first of set of ‘at a glance’ discussions of some of the research. Much of this is being further refined for publication, but ASC members get an opportunity to see some of the key findings first.  This will also be put on LinkedIn so discussion is welcome!
One project has tried to characterise the Australian science media landscape. Who are the dominant players? What are the key issues? How does Australia look in comparison to other countries? Some of our research is driven by assumptions (dare we say hypotheses) about how much science content is shared on various media platforms. What about social media?  In some suggestive analysis of a month-long data capture of Australian tweets, we found some interesting things best illustrated by the figure below. The picture below is a “Theme River” and  it gives us a lovely picture of some named entities who are prominent on twitter in Australia. It makes a lovely little graph to muse on. The Twitter data was collected in a collaboration of The University of Queensland and the Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS). The fabulous software (Discursis) we used to make the graph was provided by Dr Dan Angus. More information about the methods, software and research is available from Joan Leach We will be publishing a full analysis and discussion, but the prominent players are interesting for the diversity of what they do in the science communication space and how much ‘breakthrough’ they are getting on a noisy channel. Happy glancing.
 Discursis Theme River showing prominence of various named entities in the Twitter corpus in time (organised into bins of temporally ordered 2500 tweets).

Discursis Theme River showing prominence of various named entities in the Twitter corpus in time (organised into bins of temporally ordered 2500 tweets).

ASC taking LinkedIn to the next level!

Thanks to Kali Madden for this information and for setting up the new members only LinkedIn discussion group!

Did you know that the Australian Science Communicators (ASC) is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year?

As the Australian national industry body for all those who make science and technology accessible, many national and international science communication efforts have been stimulated and nourished by members of the ASC past and present in a myriad of ways.

We are a volunteer led Not For Profit membership association with branches around Australia and strong international links through board memberships and the affiliations of our members.

To cater to the varied preferences of members and supporters the ASC maintains multiple networks and communities alongside numerous gatherings and events, including biennial conferences

Our online communities, networks and resources include:

This month this LinkedIn group reached the 1,000 member mark.

To celebrate, and to help us better manage our multiple communities going forward, we have changed this group from a Members-only group (where discussions can only be seen by other group members) to an Open group (where discussions can be seen by anyone on the web and can be shared on other social networking platforms).

For those who have been active contributors in the group to date, THANK YOU! Your interest and contributions make this a valuable and noteworthy group to belong to. Any discussions you created before the group change have been archived and remain visible to existing group members only.

In future, all discussions created by this group are searchable and visible to anyone on the web.

You can learn more about different group types here:

In addition, we are excited to announce a new sub group for current financial members of the ASC. We believe this closed member-only group will support serious on-topic conversations that matter to the paid membership, whilst still allowing the broader general public conversation of non financial members interested in science communication via the open group.

All current members of the ASC will receive a personal invitation to join the new members sub group.

If you are not currently a member of the ASC but wish to be a part of the new member-only sub group and other ASC online communities then you may join online here:

We have not yet developed community guidelines for our ever growing community, but ask that for now you consider these ones from the Conversation:

We will use the guidelines above to moderate this group where appropriate and look at creating custom community guidelines in the near future.

If you’d like to contribute or comment please email

Event review: PCST conference—Brazil inspires science communicators

Thank you to Christine Ross for sharing her experience at the PCST conerefence.

The first PCST conference to be held in Latin America focused on science communication for social inclusion and political engagement. As the ancient capital of Brazil and a former slave trading port, host city Salvador was a living, breathing reminder of the country’s colonial past. The contrast of a sometimes brutal history with the beauty and spirit of the predominantly Afro-Brazilian population was a perfect backdrop to the conference proceedings.

In a programme with many highlights, the stand out moments for me were other people’s experiences of the universal communications challenge; how to reach our most ‘difficult’ audiences. Difficult, or hard to reach, being defined by your particular topic or social problem.

Maybe it’s trying to explain birth control to a community whose dialect has no words for reproductive anatomy. Or provide role models in science for girls who have never seen anybody like themselves in a professional career. As Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala says, not many chemical engineers look like her.

And language matters. It influences access, ownership and how you get through. In some cases, not only are we speaking the ‘wrong’ language, we are also failing to comprehend a different world view. When we look up at the sky, you see stars in the daytime and I worry about being blinded by the sun.

Illustrating this point, Professor Yurij  Castelfranchi discussed his work with indigenous communities more attuned to the environment than those of us whose senses have been numbed by ‘modern’ life may believe possible. Professor Castelfranchi notes that having data and theory does not mean that we can control the world around us or foresee events.  In my personal opinion, the compelling question for science communication is how do we reach those who by birth or culture or choice exist in an atmosphere outside of our own?  Of course, there is no generic answer.

Dr Suzette Searle focused on measurement, the eternal quest for practitioners and researchers alike. Presenting results from a recent survey of public engagement with science in Australia, Dr Searle revealed some intriguing findings, including just over half of survey respondents being unable to report a recent Australian scientific development.  Through the looking glass from New Zealand, Australia’s investment in research of this sort highlights the value placed on science in society at a National level. We are also watching for the outcomes of the Inspiring Australia project with interest.


Christine Ross, Dr Suzette Searle and colleague


The conference organisers are to be congratulated on a substantial, stimulating and enjoyable programme, examining the theme from many different angles. As always, this event provided a forum to reflect and debate the issues of the day. Many will be looking forward to PCST 2016 in Istanbul.

President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for providing us with the President’s update.

I’m writing this ‘on deadline’  for the editor of SCOPE as I needed her to ‘just give me a few more days’. The reason for this wasn’t entirely the usual pressure of work, but rather the moribund state into which I fell after the Commonwealth Budget was delivered. My worry stems from the emails, the social media, the analyses that I’m trying to get my head around. I have shaken this off and had the opportunity to talk with a range of ASC members. Of course, the budget plans are not yet finalised and there are many uncertainties. We’ve started collecting views and experiences of members on our new ‘members only’ LinkedIn pages; there are also some good links on the open LinkedIn group to impassioned responses from our science sector. Please get online, join us on LinkedIn and help me (and the rest of the ASC) make sense to any impending impacts (positive or negative) you see in your area/organisation/sector. I’ll be advocating as loudly as I possibly can for science communication and for science communicators.

In the short term, I’m going to follow some inspiring advice I heard last week at the “Women in Science Communication Breakfast” in Brisbane, organised by Pahia Cooper for the SE Qld branch. Professor Suzanne Miller, CEO of Queensland Museum and Director of the Queensland Museum Network very wisely talked about the need to keep pushing the ‘value proposition’ of science communication. The political and institutional contexts of our work change. That doesn’t mean that our work no longer has value; it means that we need to re-interpret our value for these changed contexts. She said that she makes it a priority that each week there is some ‘story’ about her work context that articulates the value of what her team does. Now, of course, ‘good news’ stories can make their way in the world quite readily. But, even complex and difficult stories about our work can articulate the value of science communication.

Her example was as amusing as it was instructive. When she was working at the National Museum of Scotland, they were moving a bit of their collection around. The ‘bit’ they were moving were the elephants and elephant skeletons and they needed to be bubble-wrapped and removed from sight. This caused quite a bit of disappointment to people (including determined 4-year olds desperate to see elephants). So, she took one of these determined 4-year olds to view the bubble-wrapped elephants. The boy was amazed at the size and asked (as you would), “how much bubble wrap does is take to wrap an elephant?” This question caused a buzz at the museum and around Scotland—it was a question that resounded across media, across ages, among a range of audiences—and it gave the Museum an opportunity to articulate the value of its collections even as they were being wrapped up and becoming temporarily unavailable. If you want to know how much bubble wrap it takes, Professor Miller gave the equation and promises a reference to a peer-reviewed paper.
Now, I don’t want to see science communication under bubble-wrap, but the key message I took from this story is that sometimes you need to reconsider your situation and re-articulate the value of what you do accordingly. I’m once again grateful to ASC members, in this instance for the inspiration and pep-talk that I received at that breakfast. In Australia, we have a seriously talented pool of professionals in Science Communication at all levels. That will not be difficult to communicate.

Event review: CRCA conference—Innovative with Asia

Thank you to Adam Barclay for sharing his CRCA conference experiences with us!

The 2014 CRC* Association Conference was always going to be interesting, coming off the back of a federal budget that announced $80 million in cuts and the cancellation of the 17th selection round. A back-of-the-envelope estimate for the cost of bidding for a CRC is between $0.5 million and $1 million dollars in cash and in-kind (predominantly staff time). With the original round-17 deadline barely a few weeks after the announcement, several bid consortia were feeling understandably grumpy. Fortunately, existing CRCs were not affected.

Sure enough, the budget cuts dominated conversation despite – or perhaps especially because of – the presence of The Hon Bob Baldwin MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, who attended the conference dinner and presented the government’s STAR Award, which recognises CRCs for engagement with small and medium enterprises to drive innovation. (Congratulations to the CRC for Sheep Industry Innovation, which won the STAR Award for work that is helping farmers improve flock management.)

Nevertheless, the budget talk failed to drown out some excellent presentations on the conference theme of Innovating with Asia. Highlights included Dr Thomas Barlow, author of Between the Eagle and the Dragon, who spoke on ‘Global Trends in Innovation – The Shift to the Pacific’, and Peggy Lui, Chairperson of the Joint US–China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), who presented ‘A path forward in the battle for a liveable China’.

CRC CARE Managing Director and CEO, Prof Ravi Naidu, with The Hon Bob Hawke AC

CRC CARE Managing Director and CEO, Prof Ravi Naidu, with The Hon Bob Hawke AC

Another obvious highlight was the Ralph Slatyer Address on Science and Society – named after the late former chief scientist who was the chief architect of the CRC Program in the early 1990s. The 2014 speaker was none other than The Hon Bob Hawke AC, former Prime Minister and school friend of Mr Hawke at Perth Modern School. Indeed, it was under Mr Hawke’s leadership that the CRC Program was established.

As well as reflecting on the history and impact of CRCs, Mr Hawke used the address to put forward his controversial assertion that increased uptake of nuclear energy is essential in the face of climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, and the proposal that Australia is the best option for solving the major challenge of a successful nuclear program – the safe storage of spent fuel. Mr Hawke’s full address is available via

Also of note, was the respect afforded to Mr Hawke from former political allies, particularly the Hon Tony Staley AO, CRC Association Chairman and former Fraser government minister. Introducing Mr Hawke, Mr Staley reflected that the Liberal Party was thwarted at several elections because the former PM was “too bloody popular”, and that regardless of one’s political stripes, Mr Hawke should be remembered as one of the country’s greatest leaders. In an era of at-all-costs political rancour it was a refreshing reminder that our elected leaders are more human than they sometimes appear.

*The CRC program is an Australian Government initiative that “supports industry-led research partnerships between publicly funded researchers, business and the community to address major long term challenges.” For more info, see

Stories from the Interview Booth—Carbon capture and storage meets dairy farmers

Thank you to Michelle Wheeler for preparing this story from the booth!


As science communicators, we all love to share the latest exciting research and the stories of the scientists who make it their life’s work.

But what if the science itself was dependent on direct help from your audience?

A carbon capture and storage group has formed an unlikely working relationship with dairy producers in Victoria after discovering that the perfect place to research the geological storage of carbon lay beneath their farms.

Geologists at the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies (CO2CRC) began looking closely at the Otway Basin in south-west Victoria as a site for research in 2004 after an Australia-wide search.

The site had the right kind of rocks for carbon storage in addition to a natural source of carbon dioxide generated by volcanic activity millions of years ago.

The only problem was that the lush, green area was covered with small dairy farms.

CO2CRC communications and media advisor Tony Steeper said a lot of work had been done to engage the local farmers.

“We’ve had to bring the landowners with us on a journey, if you like, to undertake the first storage demonstration in Australia,” he said.

“They’ve had to understand how CO2 storage works, how we monitor it, how we know it’s safe, how we characterise the geology so that we’ve got confidence that it’s all going to work.

“That’s been a long process but they’ve been incredibly receptive and very positive.”

Mr Steeper said seismic surveys were particularly difficult for farmers because the scientists had to lay out a grid of sensors across their paddocks and deploy a vibration truck that stopped every twenty metres or so.

“They’ve got to move their cows, they’re worried about crops if they’re growing crops, they’ve got scientists running all over their land so it’s a fairly challenging thing for us to do,” he said.

CO2CRC conducted social research in 2006 and 2011, undertaking focus groups and telephone surveys to see what they were doing well and where they needed to improve.

“One of the things that we got right was employing a community liaison officer, based in the local community, that provides a point of contact for the farmers to go to,” Mr Steeper said.

The centre also distributes a local newsletter and holds public meetings and annual open days.

Mr Steeper said it turned out the scientists had a lot to learn about the dairy industry as well.

“We have had issues in the past where researchers have left gates open and so on and it hasn’t gone so well,” he said.

“Running pre-survey inductions for every researcher that emphasise two-way respect has meant the farmers are pleased with how we operate and the researchers have a better understanding of the requirements of the farmers.”

Stories from the Interview Booth—A disease of poverty

Stories from the Interview Booth showcases some of the most interesting tales presented at the #ASC14 Conference Interview Booth. Thank you to Michelle Wheeler for sharing these stories!

Since being diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease at the age of seven, Carlisa Willika has had four major heart operations.

The 13-year-old has a mechanical heart valve, takes daily blood-thinning medication, requires penicillin injections every 28 days and can’t play contact sport.

Sadly, rheumatic heart disease is preventable.

“It’s a disease of poverty so in most developed countries it doesn’t exist any more,” RHD Australia communications officer Emmanuelle Clarke said.

“In Australia rheumatic heart disease is most common among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and unfortunately most of the cases occur in children between five and 14 years old.”


Pic credit: An RHD Australia doctor supporting rheumatic heart disease control programs – Emmanuelle Clarke.

Ms Clarke faces a tough job communicating information about a disease that affects almost no one in big cities and developed areas.

Doctors and nurses coming from urban areas can misdiagnose rheumatic heart disease and the fact that most sufferers live in remote communities presents a unique set of challenges.

Acute rheumatic fever is caused by the streptococcus bacteria and enters the body through skin sores or the throat.

Ms Clarke said people usually suffer from aches and swollen joints and the disease causes permanent damage to the valves of the heart.

“Once someone has had an episode of acute rheumatic fever, they usually get it again and again unless they receive penicillin injections every 28 days,” she said.

“With each episode it causes more damage to the valves of the heart, which ends up being rheumatic heart disease.”

Ms Clarke said the condition is linked to poor hygiene and overcrowding in houses.

She said rheumatic heart disease can halve a person’s life expectancy and those dying were often young people in their most productive years.

“I’ve heard a story of a young man playing football in a remote community and dying in the middle of the football game due to a heart attack as a result of rheumatic heart disease,” Ms Clarke said.

According to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, 98 per cent of cases of acute rheumatic fever in the Northern Territory are in people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent and 58 per cent occur in children between five and 14 years old.