President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the update.

Still taking the conference in…

I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years and fashions in conferencing certainly change—there is a ‘pre-conference’ mania, the 4 day multi-streamed headspin, the International plenary shock-and-awe—and this year the ASC went for a one-day plenary with wide but high-quality programming, association with the World Festival of Science, and opportunities for networking. I haven’t had that much fun and been so engaged in a conference in a fair while.

I am still sitting with a copy of David Throsby’s “Economics and Culture”—in a great session curated by Lisa Bailey at RiAus, Professor Throsby and colleagues, Professor Julian Meyrick and Dr Tully Barnett—really put the question to science communicators about how much our industry is worth and how best to express that (hint:  not in dollars).  This question of the value of science communication and value in science communication is just so important.  I’m reminded of Dr Melanie McKenzie who said to me, “and who decides what value science communication has, anyway?” Indeed. I’m sorry she isn’t alive to help me in my reflections on that conference session, but for me, it was a turning point for the field. WE need to articulate our value—in a narrative—and not be bullied by dollar signs.

I’m also really appreciative of the session Heather Catchpole curated with the best of new modes for doing science communication—in video, through art, in journalism, with obvious passion.

You can read our Chief Scientists opening speech here, but what you can’t read is the obvious affiliation he has with science communication. Sometimes we need to recognize when we have an advocate who ‘gets it’. Our current Chief Scientist ‘gets’ science communication.

What next?

We’d like to come off this high of this conference with a plan for the next.  So, if your organisation would like to make a day-plenary conference happen again, let us know. We’re looking for bidders for the next ASC conference.  Multi-streamed, shock-and-awe, plenary…pitch us!

ASC National Conference 2016 – Keynote address from Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel AO

Below you will find the transcript from the keynote delivered by Australia’s eighth Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel AO at the 2016 ASC National Conference on March 11 at the Queensland University of Technology.  

To win hearts and minds

The engineer who spells

I’m a stickler for spelling and grammar. It irritates my wife, my children and my staff no end.

“Alan, you’re an engineer,” they tell me. “You’re supposed to spell like someone who’s really good with numbers but communicates in grunts.”

I tell them they’re wrong. I don’t care about language in spite of the fact that I’m an engineer. I care about language because I’m an engineer.

After all, what do engineers and scientists love best?

Systems. Structures. Algorithms. All frameworks that deliver reliable outcomes with minimum waste and maximum precision.

And what is language but the delivery vehicle for the most important raw materials of all?

Language is the freight-way of ideas. It is the optic fibre our ancestors used to communicate to their descendants. Indeed, language is the greatest civil engineering project of all time.

We needed language when we were making clothes out of bits of woolly mammoth. How much more do we need it when we are writing algorithms ‑ the clearest of logical thinking that must follow explicit rules?

The grammar of algorithms is important because the hardworking computer operating systems on which they run are completely bamboozled by the simplest of spelling or grammatical mistakes. Engineers have no choice but to care about getting it right.

We even care about split infinitives. My staff might urge me to boldly go, but on my watch, we’ll be going boldly.

The principles of good writing

Just as there are principles and forms for words and sentences, there are principles and forms for writing.

We know this because we can teach those things to robots – or, more accurately, we can program robots to learn them from us.

I’m referring, of course, to artificial intelligence, or AI.

Consider the company Automated Insights, with its software programme ‘Wordsmith’. Wordsmith takes anything you can put on a spreadsheet and turns it into an article or report. Think stock market summaries, annual reports, football re-caps, real estate reviews.

Thus far Wordsmith has created more than a billion automated articles and reports, for clients including Associated Press and Yahoo. And it’s not the outer limits of what AI can already do.

Google, for example, is working on software that writes city guides based on the billions of images tourists upload to the web. Imagine what more we could do with image recognition in future. There are 1.8 billion images posted online every day that reporters never see. What stories could AI find that we’ve never told?

Or imagine what a robot could learn about ‘speaking human’, by trawling every work in the literary canon – or every sentence ever tweeted – in every language we have ever recorded.

Could that robot ever compose the line… “I have a dream”?

They say that speechwriters to the US President are called the ‘White House ghosts’. Are we spooked by the coming army of robot ghosts?

If you’re feeling threatened, you’re possibly in the wrong room. If you’re already thinking through the consequences, then we need you.

Embracing the AI opportunity

The consequences of AI will be an opportunity for high quality science communication if we human writers meet the revolution with the qualities we celebrate in our craft.

Passion. Rigour. Flair.

I’ve got three reasons why we should be optimistic.

First – AI is not an existential threat. In fact, it’s probably the best argument I’ve ever seen for your continued existence.

Bear with me here.

Yes, AI can recognise and generate a gee-whiz, click-bait headline. And yes, it can churn out workmanlike text. If that’s your sole definition of good writing, then you’ve just been displaced.

But it’s not my definition – and I hope it’s not yours. Good writing doesn’t measure its success in eyeballs engaged but in minds inspired.

It dares us to think, with the oldest human technique of all – the story.

There’s no AI on the market that can match it – and I don’t expect to see it anytime soon.

Of course I marvel at the progress we’ve made in AI. But I marvel just as much at the limits we’re struggling to transcend. Both the achievement, and the magnitude of the challenge, tell you something about the awesome power of the human brain.

We would be a very sad sort of society if we thought we could get by without great stories and the people who tell them.

AI will do the mundane, the routine, leaving time for human journalists to create vivid word pictures and write the stories we want to read.

In that sense, AI ought to bring out the best in the humans.

Second – we’re sitting on a gold mine. A data gold mine. Scientists are making more of it every day. We’ve just got to get the gold to market.

To give you one example – a story that broke this week from the United States.

Many cynics have suspected for a long time that there’s a lot of recycling of cryptic crossword clues. But no-one has been able to gauge the scale of it, until now.

It took an engineer and a journalist to do it.

The engineer built a database of 52 thousand crosswords, dating back to the 1940s. Then he wrote a program to cross-match every single crossword, against every other crossword.

The journalist found the story in the data.

More than fifteen hundred puzzles from a major publisher were at least 75 per cent similar to previously published work.

So thinking outside the box revealed the dodgy practices inside the grids. Now, it’s spelled out – in black and white.

Further proof that scientists, engineers and journalists are the great defenders of civilisation.

Third – I believe we can adapt to the forces restructuring the mainstream media outlets.

For a long time, the gold standard in journalism was the full-time science reporter – able to assemble the ingredients and produce a masterful cake. As we know, those positions are scarce today – and those that do exist are often insecure.

The science community has responded with clever services like the Australian Science Media Centre, supplying the equivalent of cake mix to the major news desks. It helps harried journalists to deliver a substantiated product, of guaranteed relevance, to mainstream readers.

Today, however, it seems many journalists haven’t even got the time to make up a cake mix. But the hunger for good content remains.

So there are three routes they could pursue:

  • One – the status quo. Take any cake you can get, from anywhere it comes, cost-free. Often, it’s a media release from an interested party – so you can’t be certain of the nutritional quality or the salmonella risk. But we know that a lot of outlets will still swallow them up and pump them out, verbatim.
  • Two – the factory model. Harness AI to make the mass-produced equivalent of the Sara Lee chocolate cake. Sure, it’s a good cake. But it’s the same good cake you ate last week, and the week before. If you ate nothing else, you’d never know how great a cake can really be.
  • Three – the Vera Finkel model, named in honour of my mother. Connect journalists with expert writers who can supply the home-cooked, masterful, one-of-a-kind production. Content with credibility, with style; made available to the mainstream reader.

In future, I think we’re likely to see a combination of all three.

We can wait for the first and second to lower the bar for science communication – or we can take the initiative now to adopt the Vera Finkel model. Even though it is the hardest to resource and make available at scale.

I know that this model ‑ on their initiative not mine ‑ is on the agenda for the board of the Australian Science Media Centre. I expect it will come up in the conversation today.

Let me just repeat my absolute confidence that there is a need and an opportunity for the high-quality work you want to produce. Get the business model right, and the market will respond.

Markets are made by customers, in this case our readers. It should never be forgotten that our readers are intelligent, eager to learn, and responsive to good narratives.

People want to listen

I’ve been thinking about eager, intelligent readers a great deal lately, in the wake of the announcement of the observation of gravitational waves.

If you work in science communication, you know this story. And you will know that it’s the Bermuda Triangle of communication.

Everything difficult in a science communicator’s brief is there:

  • Cosmically enormous, and infinitesimally small numbers.
  • Astronomy, advanced physics and cosmology, combined.
  • Jargon as thick as a physicist’s beard.
  • Acronyms like a toddler let loose on a plate of alphabet spaghetti.

Then there’s the small matter of the Theory of General Relativity and the distortion of the fabric of space time. With a little bit of quantum squeezing thrown in for good measure.

And yet, there it is on the front page of the New York Times. Trending on Twitter. Blowing the cat videos out of the water. Making waves of its own.

Making it easier for me to explain the business case for Big Science.

A professional skill and a critical role

Speaking of which, it’s worth pausing to remember just how influential you really are.

Governments can do many things, but they will never make us reach for things we cannot see.

It’s not government who thought of the LIGO detector for gravitational waves – it was scientists.

Just as it was journalists who explained the results, to inspire people all around the world to dream of the futures that might now unfold.

Of course you can’t do it alone – but you are the critical connecting link. So we need you today, more than ever.

My challenge to you is simply this: help Australians to appreciate science deeply, not just to note it.

The love of science means respect for intellect. The thirst for opportunity. And the determination to put in the effort.

So continue to be determined to make chocolate cakes that will win the hearts and minds of Australians.

Thank you.

BREAKING NEWS: Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to headline #ASC2016

We are delighted to announce that Alan Finkel (Australia’s Chief Scientist) is our keynote speaker for ASC2016!

Dr Finkel commenced as Australia’s Chief Scientist on 25 January 2016. He is Australia’s eighth Chief Scientist.

Alan Finkel - official photo

Dr Finkel has an extensive science background as an entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist and educator.

Prior to becoming Chief Scientist, he was the Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE).

Dr Finkel was awarded his PhD in electrical engineering from Monash University and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience at the Australian National University.

In 1983 he founded Axon Instruments, a California-based, ASX-listed company that made precision scientific instruments used at pharmaceutical companies and universities for the discovery of new medicines. After Axon was sold in 2004, Dr Finkel became a director of the acquiring company, NASDAQ-listed Molecular Devices.

In 2006, he returned to Australia and undertook a wide range of activities. He led the amalgamation that formed the Florey Neuroscience Institutes; he became Chair of the Australian Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and was a director of the ASX-listed diagnostics company Cogstate Limited. He was Executive Chair of the educational software company Stile Education, Chair of Manhattan Investment Group, Chief Technology Officer of Better Place Australia and Chair of Speedpanel Australia.

Committed to science education, Dr Finkel co-founded Cosmos Magazine, which in addition to magazine publishing operates a secondary schools science education program. At ATSE, he led the development and implementation of the STELR program for secondary school science, which has been adopted in nearly 500 Australian schools. Dr Finkel also established the Australian Course in Advanced Neuroscience to train early career neuroscientists.

Find out more about the conference (in Brisbane on March 11) on the website

Six questions for outgoing SA Chief Scientist Prof. Don Bursill AM

Thank you to Abbie Thomas for sharing this interview.

After three very successful years as SA’s Chief Scientist, Don Bursill is looking forward to doing a bit of fishing. During his time leading the South Australian science community he has established a State Science Policy, set up Future Fellowships to keep SA’s best researchers from heading interstate or offshore, and founded an Early Career Researcher Network where people from different science disciplines can connect with each-other and with industry.

How much influence does a state Chief Scientist actually have?
When I was asked if I wanted to do it, I thought I’d like to have a go, but the cynic in me said people probably won’t listen to me. But I was very pleased to see that the Chief Scientist position is regarded highly by the government and the beaurocracy. One thing about being a Chief Scientist who has finished their career is you’ve got no career aspirations; you can talk frankly to the premier and the ministers without worrying about your future. I have sat in meetings and heard very senior public servants tell ministers absolute rubbish, and I’ve had to pipe up and say ‘well, I don’t believe that’s right’. I think it’s important that more people understand that science and innovation are really fundamental to making sure that our productivity is fuelled by new ideas and doing things smarter and doing things better in the future. I thought we needed a new Science Strategy which I started working on soon after I was appointed. There were 41 recommendations put through to cabinet this year and they were all approved.

How could Australia do better in building innovation?
I think our culture – not just in South Australia but all of Australia – has a bit of a ‘branch office’ or colonial mentality – we think we are too small and too far away and too insignificant to really matter, and we think that any of the real things that are going to happen will happen somewhere else and we can just buy them. And a lot of our big players – the decisions are made by Boards in other countries, for example in the automotive industry, and our small to medium enterprises are often family businesses that don’t have the technical capacity to really know how to lift themselves out.

Before becoming Chief Scientist, you were SA Water’s Chief Scientist for 15 years. How bad is Adelaide’s drinking water, really?
Every so often, the media set up blind taste testing in Rundle Mall (in Adelaide’s CBD) with water from the various states to see who picks out what’s what. Whenever there’s one that’s a bit on the nose, people always attribute it being from Adelaide! But in fact treatment has improved a lot, and most of the tests in last 20 years have rated Adelaide above average. We’ve come from behind and we don’t quite get to the top of the tree, but it is very high quality and definitely one of most reliable (Australian city water supplies) in terms of public health aspects. In fact we (SA Water) went over to Sydney and helped them when they had a problem with Cryptosporidium.

Australia’s population is projected to double by 2050. How are we going to find enough water for everybody?
We happen to have most of our population living on the coast, and desalination technology is becoming better and cheaper all the time. These have been installed in all the capital cities except Hobart in the last 5-6 years, and it can all be supported by renewable technology which has a very low carbon footprint – quite different from what is often portrayed in the media. But I personally have a view that it’s about time we started to develop a different economic model than the one we have which says GDP has to keep growing every year. This predisposes our resources will be bottomless pits. If any other organism was expanding at the rate of the human population we would call it a plague and we’d be out with the pesticides!

What are your tips for successful science communication?
The importance of science and the fun that can be conveyed in it are very important – to be honest with people is important. I do lots of talks to all sorts of community groups, especially on water issues, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there. So I do a list of dot points which I call ‘Your water supply – the myths and the realities.’
I show the things people think are true (based on what they’ve heard in the media), then I give them some of the facts – but I invite them to verify each fact for themselves. I bring them all along because they have the information to enable them to make the right conclusions.

Does Australia need a Science Minister?
The important thing about having a Minister for Science is that, come Budget time, they will argue for science even if no one else does. At least at the moment Ian Chubb is still there – he’s trying to establish things on a good strategic foundation and I think if he had more support this country would be doing better. But if he goes and isn’t replaced, then that would be a real disaster; it would be time for us to start getting a bit more active. We can’t not have a vigorous research and innovation program in this country – we are already right down near the bottom of the OECD with respect to industry participation in research. We can’t let that stay that way; we have to turn it around.