Science communication stars at the Eurekas

Thank you to Bianca Nogrady for this article.

It’s fitting that, at the so-called Oscars of Australian science, your entrée is described as a ‘gastronomical geode’ that must be excavated from a box of edible dirt.

The Eureka Awards

Eureka winner Renae Sayers

As amusing as that was, it was but a minor moment in a night that delivered plenty of rousing cheers for the science communication community. The highlight was ASC’s very own Renae Sayers, whose Fireballs In The Sky citizen science project rightly earned her and colleagues at Curtin University the inaugural Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science. In true science communicator fashion, Renae delivered the most passionate and entertaining thank you speech of the evening.

Another highlight was, as always, the Eureka prize for science journalism, which was won this year by Wain Fimeri, Sonya Pemberton, Dr Derek Muller and Steve Westh for their documentary Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail. Sonya Pemberton took the opportunity on stage to call for greater support of science journalism and science communication in Australia, although she was nearly drowned out by the infernal music designed to usher excessive talkers from the stage.

The fabulous astrophysicist Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith from CSIRO took home the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science Research. She also earned the greatest number of celebratory tweets, which is equal testament to her popularity and reach.

And the winners and runners-up of the two University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize showed that the future of science communication is in capable hands. Hayden Ingle from Banksmeadow Public School channelled David Attenborough in his documentary on The Bluebottle and the Glaucus, which took the primary school prize. Claire Galvin and Anna Hardy from St Monica’s College Cairns, undertook a painstaking reconstruction of the animal skeletons extracted from owl pellets to explore their significance in conservation and ecological studies, in Owl Pellets: A Postal System to Scientists.

It was a night to remember, and not just for the eye-watering pink-and-purple colour scheme of the Town Hall lighting, or the smoked potato masquerading as a dragon’s egg in the edible dirt.

The science communication community was out in force and in finery, filling the room with familiar faces and strong voices. The pomp and ceremony, and several speakers, also sent a clear message that Australian science are alive and kicking, despite best political efforts to the contrary.

All the 2016 Eureka Prize winners are listed here.

Image credit: Australian Museum Eureka Prize

ASC reflection: Deceptology

ASC member Sarah Turnbull won free tickets to Nicholas J Johnson’s show (also an ASC Member), Deceptology, as part of the Melbourne Magic Festival in July. She wrote up this reflection of attending:

When Nicholas J Johnson opened his act by making his head expand and then shrink, I found myself giggling with delight.

Deceptology, which was part of the Melbourne Magic Festival, is a mix of magic, critical thinking, comedy and theatre. As the “honest conman”, Johnson uses sleight of hand and mentalism to wow the audience, then educates us about confirmation bias, misdirection, hypothetical projection and how our brains can be fooled.

His skilful interaction with the many volunteers he pulled up on stage was funny without being embarrassing. A rare trick.

The show ended with a change of pace – a shadow-play that stood on its own as a tiny work of art. And if you want to know how Nicholas managed to project it into an audience member’s head, you’ll have to see the show for yourself.

Thanks to Nicholas and the ASC for a fun night out in Northcote.

New global science of learning website launches

International publishing group Nature Research has launched a global online community dedicated to improving knowledge on the science of learning, in partnership with The University of Queensland.

The npj Science of Learning Community website is a space for communicators, teachers, policymakers and scientists working in neuroscience, education and psychology to discuss how to enhance learning in schools.

The website’s launch content includes:

  • An opinion piece from leading education researcher Professor John Hattie
  • Interviews with education thought-leaders and policymakers including Microsoft Corporation Teaching and Learning director Dr Cathy Cavanaugh, Google Australia Engineering Community and Outreach manager Sally-Ann Williams, and social commentator and writer Jane Caro
  • An article by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Dr David Dockterman

The site is a place to discover and share information and news, learn from experts, and collaborate to advance the science of learning. You can explore and share content, follow your favourite contributors, and make your own contributions to the Community.

The website is live now and free to join.

Contact: Donna Lu, npj Science of Learning Community managing editor, d.lu@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3346 6419.

And that’s a wrap! Here’s a story from our day at the beach #scistoryASC

Thanks to Sarah Keenihan for this post

Science is renowned for being factual, emotionless and objective.

So how on earth can we convince non-scientists that it’s also beautiful, revealing and intimately connected with life?

By creating stories.

On Friday June 3, ASC South Australia was delighted to host the event Storytelling in Science Communication: a day at the beach.

With a full house in attendance, we explored the role of storytelling in science communication, and considered the importance of culture, character, structure, mood, narrative, emotion, vulnerability, voice, crisis and resolution in attracting and enthralling audiences as we write, draw, talk and perform science.

We also discussed how digital tools can be used to support storytelling in science communication, including the creation of well-structured written content, the use of bespoke and meaningful images, putting audience at the forefront of communication design and thinking, the importance of multi-faceted production (audio, visual and textual content) and using social media effectively to attract and sustain audience interest.

A number of links and tools were mentioned throughout the day: here is a reference list to remind attendees and share ideas with others who weren’t able to be there.

Other useful links:

A very big thanks to all our attendees for this event. It was great fun to put together and we hope you found it useful and inspiring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who needs science journalists anyway?

Thank you to Bianca Nogrady for this piece!

According to this report from Undark magazine, the National Association of Science Writers in the US is experiencing an all-too-familiar existential crisis; who exactly are they?

Unlike the ASC – which accepts executive and council members from across the broad church that is science communication and science journalism – positions on NASW’s board are limited to professional journalists.

But that looks set to change with the recommendation from an ad-hoc committee that the executive be opened up to science writers and ‘public information officers’ (who we call science communicators).

Many science journalists within NASW appear to oppose the move, while the majority of science communicators and PIOs are in favour.

This tension exists within the ASC as well. The organisation was founded by a mixed group of science journalists and science communication professionals, and we share a common passion for the communication of, and about, science.

But, as has been discussed a lot lately [see this video of last year’s ASC NSW event on this very topic] , science journalists and science communicators are different creatures, with different and sometimes competing agendas. If we try to play down these differences or pretend they don’t exist, we risk making the ASC irrelevant to one or another of those groups.

There’s no doubt science journalism is on the back foot in Australia, if not the world. We have very few dedicated science reporters in the mainstream media and most of the science journalism is being done by freelance journalists who also derive income as science writers and communicators. It’s worth pointing out that not many of these in-house or freelance journalists are ASC members; something we’re working to change. Cosmos magazine is fighting the good fight to keep long-form science journalism alive in print, but as we heard at the recent ASC conference in Brisbane, it’s a tough battle.

So why should the majority of ASC members, who define themselves as science communicators, care about the fate of science journalists, either within the ASC or outside it?

Because now, more than ever, we need to support, encourage and nurture science journalism in Australia. Who else would be in a position to uncover our own government’s censorship of international reports on the state of the Great Barrier Reef [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/29/australia-covered-up-un-climate-change-fears-for-tasmania-forests-and-kakadu], report on scientific fraud, or get the general public caring about gravitational waves? Science journalists bring science – warts and all – to the general public.

The rift within the NASW is raising the prospect that science journalists will desert that body en masse and form their own organisation. The fact that they have the numbers to even contemplate this is probably only a factor of the sheer population size of the US. In Australia, such an organisation would be dwarfed by the Flat Earth Society or Trump Supporters For Climate Change.

Some might argue that journalists have the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance –the union and peak body for journalists  – so why don’t science journalists stick with that?

Speaking personally; I’d say because it’s boring. At ASC meetings, and get-togethers with fellow science journos/writers/communicators, I have the kind of conversations that leave my brain buzzing for days. As a science journalist, I have so much more in common with someone who works as a PIO for a research organisation than I do with a journalist who works in-house for a metropolitan daily covering the court round.

Science journalists, like science communicators, do what they do because they are drawn to science. Whether they see themselves as a cheer squad, critic or impartial witness, it’s about science.

The Australian Science Communicators was named as such to make it as inclusive as possible. I hope we can keep it that way.


More from Bianca (Freelance science journalist and author):

 

Storytelling in science communication (#scistoryASC): June 3 2016 at Marine Discovery Centre, South Australia

Storytelling can transform dry, technical information into compelling and relatable content that everyone wants to read, watch, listen to and share.

So how can we harness storytelling techniques to improve science communication?

The SA Chapter of Australian Science Communicators is hosting a one-day mini-conference for those interested in learning more about storytelling.

Participants, we’d love you to capture and share the day though social media! Others across South Australia, Australia and the world will be interested to hear your reflections and experiences of this event. Using the hashtag #scistoryASC, you may choose to share via Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, SnapChat or other media as a way to summarize, highlight, excerpt, review and critique the presented materials.

Of course normal good manners and conference etiquette apply: please ensure the author or speaker is referenced and cited appropriately, do not share material in full and please do not audio- or video-record presentations.

PROGRAM

9.00am: Coffee/tea and mingling

9.30am: Welcome and introduction
Rona Sakko
President of ASC SA
Coordinator of Bright Sparks Science Club

Professor Chris Daniels
Award Winning Science Communicator
Biologist at UniSA
Marine Discovery Centre Patron  

9.40am: Opening address
Dr Kristin Alford @kristinalford
Director of UniSA’s Science, Creativity and Education Studio (SciCEd)
Futurist and Founding Director at Bridge8

10.15am: Where is the storytelling? Critical analysis of communication case studies
Chair: Sarah Keenihan (Freelance Science Writer) @sciencesarah
Panel members:
Katrina McLachlan, Director and Senior Journalist, Stories Well Told @storiesWT
Joost Den Hartog, Channel Manager, RiAus TV @RiAus 
Dr Tullio Rossi, Animator and Illustrator @Tullio_Rossi

11:15am: Morning tea

11.45am: Wonggayerlo – Footsteps in the Sand
Karl Telfer (Kaurna leader and cultural bearerMarine Discovery Centre Patron@winda8) and Michael Mills (Heaps Good Productions, @Heapsgood) present a story about ways of understanding our relationship to the natural world. A performance piece exploring where science meets culture.

12.30pm: Beach walk
Experience real-time science communication from different points of view amongst the sands.

1.15pm: Lunch 

2pm: What is a story?
David Chapple is Writing Development Manager at the SA Writers Centre (@sawriterscentre). In this workshop David will take you through a hands on exploration of how the narrative techniques of fiction can make non fiction writing sing. Participants will play with ideas of character, setting, story structure, metaphor and descriptive writing to tell the story of their practice in more engaging and dynamic ways. Workshop includes 2 hours of practical exercises and literary tricks. Bring your favoured writing device!

4pm: Drinks and networking

President’s Update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the President update.

Can it be prize season again?
As much as it terrifies me that another year has come round, I’ve spent some time over the last week looking at nominations for some of the national prizes — the Eurekas, FameLab — to just name two. It’s pretty inspiring what is happening in Australia — I’m genuinely keen to hear who is going to win the inaugural prize for innovation in Citizen Science. The bar is getting higher and the communicators associated with the projects that I’ve seen have been doing a stellar job, and one that should be rewarded (as well as awarded).

Glass ceiling for science communicators?
The point about rewarding science communication was put to me rather pointedly this last week when a colleague mused that he thought there was a ‘glass ceiling’ for science communicators’ remuneration. Once you get to a certain level, you really can’t go further and need to branch out (into consulting for example) or re-orient your work (into science policy, say). This is as discouraging as the award season is encouraging. I’m interested in how this looks internationally and will have a look around and find out if anyone has any data on this — if you are aware of any, let me know! (president@asc.asn.au) I hope to report back in next month’s SCOPE.

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.

President’s update

Thanks to Joan Leach for the update.

The Conference is just about now!

I spent a very productive hour this week listening to the new Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, AO, give his maiden speech at the press club. I’m now looking forward even more to his plenary opening of the ASC conference in Brisbane on the 11th… 11.00 am. Actually, it strikes me that the national press club has not one, but three (!!) featured science sessions this month. After the Chief Scientist, Alan Alda is speaking. Finally, there is a ‘women in science’ panel to round out the month. Science meets Parliament also looked to be a big success again this year. And the World Festival Science is heating up. Then, there’s the gravitational waves that must be coursing through us even as you read this. So a lot of buzzy things happening. I hope to see you in Brisbane!