The Big Science Communication Challenges: Alison Leigh

This post is part of a series which asked past presidents of ASC: What are the biggest science communication challenges Australia faces right now and over the next decade?
Response from Alison Leigh


When I was ASC president 25 years ago , my day job was running Quantum,  ABC TV “s iconic science program, so my perspective on science communication is from the point of view of a science TV producer .

Back then it was already becoming clear that the biggest issue of our time , and the biggest issue for science communication was the threat to the environment on all fronts: global warming ,mass extinction of plants and animals, dwindling water resources, deforestation, soil degradation, air and water pollution, the list goes on. We launched a sister series  A Question of Survival , which aimed to go beyond doom and gloom and tell stories about potential solutions – renewable energies , recycling waste materials , habitat protection , resource management  and so on.

At the time a dedicated audience of around a million a week used to tune in to Quantum, so on the face of it we were in a good position to reach the hearts and minds of a large proportion of Australians.

But it turned out that we were stymied by what turns out to be the biggest challenge for science communication then and now – people are tribal. We identify with the belief systems of our cultural groups. We get stuck in our own echo chambers. Our ABC audience was already interested in and curious about science – so we were preaching to the converted , but when people are confronted with scientific evidence that appears to undermine beliefs associated with their group identity – they refuse to accept it.

Of course the internet has revolutionised science broadcasting , which in theory means that  we can reach broader audiences these days. Anyone can be a broadcaster any time any where. And consumers of information can pick and choose. But now we are up against fake news , and filter bubbles. If you want to hear that human induced climate change is a load of nonsense, sophisticated algorithms will continue to connect you with  information and opinions that conform to and reinforce your beliefs.

The extent of the deliberate misinformation that these algorithms can draw on is staggering and depressing.

A few months ago a working group of ASC past presidents agreed on some initiatives that we would like to push to communicate the  impending global environment emergency. The trouble is we have no budget. Compare that to the billion dollar climate denial campaign run for the last three or four decades by  the late and unlamented billionaire David Koch of Koch Industries, whose main business is the processing and selling of fossil fuels. A combination of  Koch funded lobbying groups, think tanks , political donation and even university centres have convinced a series of USA governments not only to refuse to consider action on climate change but continue to deny that the problem is real. *

As in  the USA,  similar campaigns in Australia  are many and varied. We are being governed by vested interests.

The big challenge for Australian  science communicators everywhere is to convince the public  of  the integrity of the science that tells us the old playbook is dead and we have to change course.


*: See Christopher Leonard

Mr. Leonard is the author of “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America.”




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