A scientifically engaged Australia

This speech was delivered by Prof. the Hon Kim Carr FAHA FTSE to the Australian Science Communicators at the 2023 national conference at the Shine Dome, Canberra, 16 February 2023

Late last year, the Bureau of Meteorology tried to rebrand itself.  They issued statements insisting that we should now refer to them as ‘The Bureau’, rather than the BOM.  This somewhat bizarre campaign took place in the middle of a flood crisis across eastern Australia.  This odd idea, combined with poor timing, highlighted a particularly stark example of poor communication.  

The BOM – and I shall stubbornly continue to use what remains a widely popular name – is one of the most recognised and valued public science agencies in Australia. This fact only added to the unpopularity of the name campaign. Such a misreading of the popular mood, and a failure to prioritise what really matters, is a prime example of poor communications which can reflect a deeper problem within our public services.  

As Minister Tanya Plibersek pointed out, “with the severe weather we’re experiencing right now, what matters is timely weather information for communities. Lives are at risk. My focus and the focus of the BOM should be on weather, not branding.” In other words, the reputation of the Bureau of Meteorology has everything to do with the quality and value of its service, not the affectionate nickname which Australians have given it with characteristic brevity and a bit of cheek.

Good science communicators should take note of this unfortunate example.  

Our challenge is not to promote fancy branding and sanitised names – our challenge is to build genuine respect, trust and confidence in science: expressed through our scientific institutions, agencies, research and practitioners.

Many of the pressing problems that confront us, as Australians and as global citizens, will require us to make choices about what to do, when and by whom. To do that well, we need information, and we need it presented to us in a clear, concise and meaningful way.

How can we make intelligent and informed decisions if the information, arguments and options are held tightly by a bunch of experts?  How can we understand the depth and breadth of the challenges we face, if scientists are more worried about what their peers will think of them than in providing fearless and courageous advice?

Science communication is about getting the messages out – early, frequently, and in a language an interested but non-expert can access. 

Science communication is not about dumbing things down; rather it is about taking the community along for the journey at a pace they can keep up with.

Over the last decade, we have seen the merchants of doubt cynically argue against expertise. 

We have seen disturbing trends in the public discourse – trends which should be of concern not just to the science community, but to policy makers, innovators and leaders across all sectors of society.  These trends include:

  • An undermining of public confidence in authority generally;
  • Hostility to science: for example in regards to vaccines and climate change science to mention only two,;
  • McCarthyist smears against some researchers and academics, particularly in regard to China; and
  • an undercurrent of resentment directed at universities and other institutions with specialist expertise.

We need to ask ourselves what role science communication can play in restoring trust not just in science and research, but in public institutions more generally.   

We have to consider how science communication can assist in equipping our community for dealing with rapid change.

In the face of acute and seemingly intractable problems, it is all too easy for some people to succumb to pessimism.  

Today I wish to concentrate on science communication as a means of lifting public engagement, of enlightenment and strengthening a sense of wonder about scientific discoveries and ways of looking at the world. 

My simple assumption remains – that good science and research can move people, can influence attitudes and change behaviour.  Back when I launched ‘Inspiring Australia’ at your conference on the 8th February in 2010, I argued that good science can build confidence in democracy.  I stand by that even today.

Reversing the decline in trust in public authorities, in government, in business and in civil society should be a matter of priority for our entire democratic system of government.  

The current government recognises that trust remains the great fault line in modern politics, and that it is why it is so determined to implement its election promises. Politicians know that the ‘trust crisis’ runs deeper than that, with few quick fixes available.

Those of us engaged in scientific pursuits cannot be complacent about how much the work is recognised or valued by the broader community.  Trust in expert knowledge is far less stable than it once was. 

While scientists, researchers and academics still have high levels of authority and credibility, the value of science is not uncontested in the public mind. Think about the ease with which politicians openly acknowledge that scientific advice is no longer the primary determinant of public health responses to ongoing levels of Covid 19 infections. 

In the US, survey results in 2022 by the Pew Research Centre suggested a ten per cent drop in the level of public trust in science and medical scientists from the beginning of the pandemic. In Australia, last year’s 3M survey highlighted a six percent rise in public scepticism about scientific advice.

However, despite this trend, there is still a relatively high level of public support for science. And that gives me confidence that scientists can play an important role in defining what sort of society we aspire to, what sort of society we could be, and in rebuilding economic prosperity and social justice. 

We know that scientists have earned this support through well- grounded research expertise, evidence-based advice and leadership. We know that scientists have a vital role to play in the formulation and implementation of public policy. 

Scientific communicators need a sharper set of tools than ever before. They need to speak and write clearly, so that people from all walks of life can hear and understand the messages, without being patronised or taken for granted. 

This is not just a responsibility to the scientists and institutions we represent, but a civic responsibility to a more democratic, more informed society.

Given the impact of fake news, and the power of social media, it is not surprising that the trust deficit has grown.  This is the evidence of overwhelming survey results both here and abroad.  We have so many examples in recent times of how the power of misinformation and right-wing conspiracies can have frightening and even tragic consequences.  We need look no further than the protests during the height of the pandemic against masks and vaccination, and even more recently, the shocking shootings of police in Wiembilla, Queensland.   

Science communication needs to highlight that science can:

  • provide real world solutions to problems that recognise real world effects and that can work for ordinary people, 
  • enhance society’s ability to build anew, and 
  • offer hope and confidence in the future

To be effective, science communicators need to have an understanding of how public opinion is formed.  And they need to be patient. 

Indeed, a former Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, once told me that he needed a three-word mantra to match the several of the then Prime Minister. He chose ‘passion, patience, persistence’ as a key to communication and to advice. 

Maybe it’s obvious but let me be clear: there is no point in doing it (or anything of substance) without 

  • passion; 
  • patience;
  • hard work – this is no place for anybody who craves instant gratification;
  • persistence – the work is NOT done by one good speech, press release, briefing or meeting with the Minister.  There is always a need for multiple follow-ups to keep the matter in front of busy people. 

Communicators need to understand the scientific method, to be agile, politically aware and credible.  

There needs to be a blending of scientific knowledge with a deep understanding that science works within the morés of the community:  the social licence to operate; and an acceptance that the social sciences and humanities have a role.  

These are not new problems. In 2010, the Labor Government was trying to address the very same problems when we announced the new national  science communications strategy, “Inspiring Australia”.  

Yes, the problems may now be more acute, but they are not new.  

It is the government’s role to create the climate in which science can prosper.

So, there is value in examining the original objectives of the Inspiring Australia program.  

It is important to note that in 2010 ‘Inspiring Australia’ was just one part of a much bigger science and research agenda for the 21st century, which we called ‘Powering Ahead, next steps for implementing a science and research vision for Australia’.

 The 2010 program was part of an integrated policy response.  It sought to address not just science communication, but research workforce development, research infrastructure, and international science and research collaborations.  

The position put within Government in 2010 was that 

  • Science and research investment paid economic, social and environmental dividends.  
  • attracting young people to science was critical
  • science helped improve productivity and helped new jobs and industries
  • science could help build public debate about intractable problems, and
  • science could aid constructive and mutually beneficial international engagement.

By supporting the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, the longevity of the program was enhanced. Other elements of the program also assisted. Questacon gave Australia a national Science Communications Hub that helped extend the CSIRO, the ABC and the Chief Scientist’s scientific activities.  Commonwealth leadership assisted the states’ networks and assisted the communications in the humanities and the social sciences through CHASS and FAST.  This program helped lock in Science Week and Science Meets Parliament.  The program was strengthened with the Cabinet giving support to bringing on the SKA bid in the 2011 funding cycle.

Science is a long game. 

To have a Minister in the portfolio for a few months at a time is not conducive to the long game. 

Notwithstanding:  the changes since my day: Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison, Albanese and multiple Ministers. in 2023, I find the longevity of our program remarkable.  Not only has it survived the changes in political directions of subsequent Prime Ministers, but also the different interests of the various Science Ministers. 

In the forthcoming period of budgetary ‘fiscal consolidation’ , the science community will have to work hard to emphasise the value of maintaining the investment in this as an ongoing program. 

Furthermore, it will be of assistance in that quest if the original breadth of the agenda was reasserted. 

I will remind you that the 2010 Inspiring Australia program was preceded by a major report in 2009 by the steering committee on the National Science Strategy Review chaired by Patricia Kelly. 

This 2009 report was the product of significant research. broad consultation, and detailed involvement of the CSIRO, ABC, the Chief Scientist , Questacon and community organisations. 

The Kelly Report highlighted the need to replace existing programs which were largely uncoordinated and fragmented. It called for national leadership and coherent action by the Commonwealth in mobilising public engagement across the country. 

It is time for another such substantive review. The program in recent years has lost its core focus and has moved away from Questacon and back into the Department. 

Since 2015 the program has been amended with a series of  ad hoc,  miscellaneous initiatives seeking to address short term political objectives, such as digital literacy, women’s participation, school science competitions and entrepreneurship. 

 It might well be argued that we have seen a return to the uncoordinated and fragmented approach of the pre 2010 period.

Science communication is more than just appealing to policy makers.  Science communicators must reach out to the community at large.

I remain concerned that one great group of science communicators, namely our teachers, have been left out of the science communication equation.

School based science education remains under-funded and insufficiently supported.  It is timely to re-examine this program to ensure that it is fit for purpose. 

While teachers are widely considered crucial to advancing an interest in science, classroom science teaching gets little additional support .

Science week is not enough to help under the pump classroom teachers.

It is timely to genuinely refocus science communication’s ambitions on the national interest by emphasising science’s role in building economic prosperity, social justice and democratic values.  

In this ambition we can help create a scientifically engaged Australia.

Science communicators can seek to build a society that is inspired by and values scientific endeavour, that engages with key scientific issues and that encourages young people to pursue scientific studies and careers.

Prof the Hon. Kim Carr FAHA FTSE, February 2023

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