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

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 [], 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):


Premier science communication and science journalist conference comes to Brisbane

On March 11, the Australian Science Communicators (ASC) will bring together leading science communicators and journalists from across the globe to network and discuss current issues for science communication at QUT University, Gardens Point. 

ASC2016 - March 11 in Brisbane, Australia

Speakers include Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland John Cook, Director of Communications and Outreach at the Australian Academy of Science Kylie Walker, and contributing editor at the Scientific American George Musser. 

ASC President Professor Joan Leach said this year’s conference will provide direct access to leaders from industry and academia.

“This is an important opportunity for busy science communicators and journalists to take a step back and look at the future of communicating science,” said Prof. Leach.

Topics to be presented include understanding and responding to people’s rejection of science, the cultural value of science communication, a look at new narratives in science communication and the future of science journalism.

The ASC National Conference 2016 (ASC2016) is being held in Brisbane to tie in with the first World Science Festival held in Australia. The festival runs from March 9 to March 13.

ASC national conferences have been a regular and important feature of the science communication landscape in Australia since 1996. These events are the premier networking and professional development opportunity for those making science and technology accessible. 

Check out the conference website for more details –

Media enquires:

ScienceAlert: science communication for the masses

Earlier in the year I won a grant from the Australian Science Communicators to fly down to Sydney, and spend some time with the ScienceAlert team.

ScienceAlert has over seven million fans on Facebook. They have over 1000 views at any one time on their website. They are one of the leading science communication channels in this country, and yet the team is just three hard working writers, two freelancers and a programmer who keeps everyone together.

The team was nothing like I expected. Having just spent a week with the ABC as an intern, and one day a week at Brisbane Times earlier this year, I was expecting the science version of that. An office in the heart of Sydney, 10-20 employees all working hard to make science content for the masses. Probably taking shifts to ensure content was always being generated. Instead, I found a tiny group of incredible writers all working from home, each contributing three or more stories a day to make ScienceAlert what it is.

A Master’s project for one of the founding members, ScienceAlert has become something incredible since it was created in 2004 republishing press releases of Australian research. It has grown a long way since then, taking the Facebook and science communication scenes by storm.

Chris Casella, the managing director, flew up from Canberra to see me in Sydney on the first day and we spent the morning discussing the history, my past work and how ScienceAlert works. Fiona MacDonald, one of the editors was there as well, but she still had two more stories to write that afternoon so she was busily tapping away on her laptop at the coffee shop we were in.

Later that day, when Chris went off to meet with a contact from Google, Fiona and I worked in the coffee shop finding stories, interesting pictures and basically just working out how the ScienceAlert system works.

That night we enjoyed dinner and drinks with the rest of the team, and they were just as kind and interesting as Fiona. It was great to get to meet the whole team, and even after a full day of writing, they still seemed excited to meet me and have a good time.

The next day we spent in an open hire office in Sydney CBD, the team incredibly accommodating with my errors or silly questions. Chris headed back on a plane south, and we got into writing.

Surprisingly, I felt like my most intense three days were not the days in Sydney, but instead the days I spent at home, working with them from a laptop.

Since that morning in the office, I have done close to six original articles, one that has been posted on ScienceAlert and about the same amount of reposts of Business Insider and the Conversation, two of their business partners. One of the original articles has been published, and there are more on the way.

I’m finally adjusting to the style guide and the quick paced nature of online publication, and I love it.

ScienceAlert definitely wasn’t what I was expecting and I think it’s better.

The demise of science journalism and rise of science communication?

Are you a science journalist or a science communicator?

For people outside the science communication sphere, this question might seem like an exercise in splitting hairs, but for those of us whose day-to-day lives are embedded in this arena, it’s actually quite important.

However it can be difficult to find clear, unassailable points of distinction that distinguish science journalists from science communicators. Is it who’s paying? Is it the determination of an underlying message? These seem like obvious answers but the often strong underlying agendas of publishing companies make things less clear-cut.

And so it was that we (being the Australian Science Communicators NSW branch) recently assembled a crack team of science journalists and science communicators to help find the answer. Our panel event featured ABC Science editor and journalist Dr Anna Salleh, Regional Executive Editor at Nature Publishing Group Stephen Pincock, media/communications manager for the UNSW Faculty of Science Deborah Smith, and former Sydney Morning Herald science editor Nicky Phillips, now at Nature.

It turns out that the intersection between science journalism and science communication is complex and messy and –particularly in this new era of online media –more important to debate than ever.

The reason is that science journalism – being defined as the kind of ‘objective’, critical reporting and analysis that our panel is most experienced in – is on the decline, at least in the mainstream media. There are fewer dedicated science journalists and editors, and instead the job of writing about science and scientific discoveries is often given to general reporters.

This is not to say these people don’t do a good job, but it means there’s a greater risk that a science story will be a rehashed press release, will be sensationalised, will be click-bait, because the reporter doesn’t have the experience to know that a study in ten people is not the final word, that a cancer cure in mice does not translate to a breakthrough in humans, or that a fifty per cent increase in relative risk does not mean everyone has a one in two chance of getting the disease.

What we are seeing instead is a lot more good quality, well-written science communication going on. Defining exactly how this differs from science journalism is tricky, but science communication covers everything from the Neil Degrasse Tysons and Derek Mullers of this world to the I F**king Love Science website to science blogs to podcasts like Science Vs.

We’re also seeing research organisations investing more time and money into producing high-quality communications about their science. It may be a glossy, self-produced magazine produced by a custom publishing company, written by journalists, illustrated with professional photographs. Even mainstream publishing companies such as Nature Publishing Group are providing that service independent of their traditional publishing arm.

This rise in ‘native content’ – advertising content designed to match its publishing surroundings – does create some dilemmas both for publishers and journalists. If the content is not clearly marked as being paid for, it risks diluting the publisher’s brand, which means publishers like Nature take a very ‘church and state’ approach to their traditional and custom publishing arms. For journalists, particularly freelances, it can lead to conflicts of interest if one is asked to write a critical news piece about a research organisation that one also writes content for.

More than ever before, there is a wealth and diversity of great science communication happening, mostly online but also in print, audio and on TV, by experienced science communicators who present the science in context and in proportion.

From the perspective of a more science-literate community – something I wholeheartedly support – this is an overall positive development. As a freelance writer, it is also the source of a good chunk of my income, as research organisations look to science journalists to help develop this content to appeal to a general audience.

The downside to this transition away from science journalism to science communication is that we are likely to see less of the critical, independent reporting and analysis that science – as with any other human endeavour – should be subject to. It still happens in science magazines such as Science, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American and Cosmos (long may they survive and thrive). But here again, the internet is delivering new approaches that don’t rely on the traditional publishing model, such as the Retraction Watch website.

I’ve been asked a few times lately if science journalism is dying in Australia. The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is that it’s not dying, but it is undergoing a metamorphosis. What will emerge on the other side of this process is anyone’s guess. Most likely we will see a far a greater diversity of science communication choices available for the general public, but like all things internet, the challenge will be sifting the gold from the dross.

If you want to see the video of our science journalism vs science communication panel, watch it here.

Journos get confident with data with new online training


Lyndal Byford Media Manager Australian Science Media Centre

Lyndal Byford Media Manager Australian Science Media Centre

Some of our nation’s top science journalists and communicators have produced a new online resource to support journalists reporting on complicated scientific issues.

The open-access website called SciJourno ( has been developed to help all journalists and journalism students with their day-to-day science news gathering. It is not just for those on the science round.

When science hits the headlines, whether it’s climate change, vaccination or coal seam gas, journalists increasingly have to get their heads around complicated scientific concepts with few resources and under stringent time pressures.

Liz Minchin, Queensland Editor of and former environment reporter for The Age, said job cuts in the media mean fewer specialist reporters.

“General news reporters are increasingly asked to cover incredibly complex topics, on everything from what causes bushfires, to how the National Broadband Network works,” Ms Minchin said.

“Journalists need to know where to find good experts, what to ask, and how to best communicate what they find out, including through social media. And we also need scientists and technology experts to be able to explain their work and why it matters in clear, plain English.

“There’s a huge public appetite for science stories; the challenge for everyone is to tell those stories well.”

Funded by The Australian Government’s Inspiring Australia programme, it is hoped that SciJourno will be used by working journalists, needing to brush up on their science knowledge as well as post- and undergraduate journalism students and lecturers/teachers of journalism courses.

The topics covered range from what makes a reliable scientific source, through to working with big numbers and data, and what to do when science gets politicised. The six units include videos, practical exercises, tips/tools, links and resource lists.

Contributors to Scijourno include:

  • Paul Willis, Director of the Royal Institute of Australia (and previously a reporter with Catalyst on ABC)
  • Mark Suleau, recently retired from Channel 10 after more than 40 years as a journalist
  • Liz Minchin, currently Queensland editor of The Conversation
  • Graham Readfearn, independent journalist and blogger
  • Natalie Bochenski, a senior Brisbane journalist currently working with Queensland Times.

For media interviews or more information

Dr. Joan Leach, Senior Lecturer in Rhetoric and Science Communication
The University of Queensland, Brisbane
07 3365 3196

Jenni Metcalfe, Director
Econnect Communication, Brisbane
07 3846 7111, 0408 551 866

Lyndal Byford, Media Manager
Australian Science Media Centre, Adelaide
08 7120 8666

Scijourno was a collaborative project between The University of Queensland, AusSMC (Australian Science Media Centre), Econnect Communication, and with advice from the University of Western Australia