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!

Bernard Schiele on the challenges of science communication

Bernard Schiele is a Researcher at the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie (CIRST), and Professor of Communications at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

Professor Schiele frequently teaches and lectures in North America, Europe, and Asia. He has been working for a number of years on the socio-dissemination of science and technology. He played a significant role in the creation of the master’s program in museology at UQAM as well as the development of an international PhD in museology in partnership with the Université d’Avignon et des Pays de Vaucluse (UAPV). Professor Schiele is a member of several national and international committees and is a regular consultant on scientific culture matters to governmental bodies and public organizations. He is a founding and current member of the scientific committee of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST). He has chaired the International Scientific Advisory Committee for the China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing and the scientific committee for the 2012 International Conference on Science Communication in Nancy, France.

In 2012, Professor Schiele was recognized with the Annual International Achievement Award from the International Council of Museums Canada (ICOM).

We sat down with Bernard to chat about his research and find out more about his involvement with science communication.

ASC: How did you find yourself in science communication?

Bernard: I am not in science communication per say. I am an observer of science communication: I try to understand how it works, what its features are, and the processes at play. I came to science communication by studying the representation of science on television, how it was presented to the public, and how it shaped the image that each and everyone had of it. Afterwards, this interest expanded to science museums and science centers. If television remains the single greatest source of information for the majority and a way to interpret the world, museums are appreciated by the public. In short, what drew me towards science communication was this question: how do knowledges – plural – circulate in society once they are beyond the control of specialists? This question entails another one: how does the public appropriate these knowledges, and how, once shared, do they transform our understanding of the world?

ASC: Why is science communication important to you?

Bernard: First, the global impact of science and technology upon society, environment, labor structures, and daily life today is such that no one can remain indifferent. In our modern world, the development of science and technology is the main dynamic behind social transformations and nothing remains immune to it. But science, once synonymous with progress and hegemonic in a world permanently changing, is now viewed as ambiguous as its many promises entail an element of risk. This is why some consider that society’s relationship with science is in a critical phase.

Second, in parallel — and probably as a result — we observe a legitimacy crisis of authority figures, including scientists. Therefore science communication is now synonymous with the involvement of the public. A public that does not want any more to be kept apart from the decision processes that may affect it, especially those involving social choices. The public is not naive : what are usually advertised as purely scientific or technical questions usually involve questions of a social, economic and ethical nature. To exclude them from the debate only fosters doubt and resentment. When facing their consequences, no one as a greater say than any other. The issue is thus no longer about an impossible rise in the individual and collective level of knowledge, but about the impacts of technoscience’s encroachment on society. This is why the debate nowadays focuses more on issues of participation and dialogue, rather than on diffusion. Furthermore, the idea of dialogue implies reciprocity. In other words, it involves equal partners. Thus, it is not enough to be a scientist or an expert to be listened to, let alone to have the final say. The mobilization of the public has become a major social phenomenon.

ASC: What challenges have you faced in talking about science?

Bernard: I had two main challenges. The first was to explain pervasiveness of communication technologies result in a constant flux of information that not only subvert traditional forms of communication and dramatically increase the number of – often contradictory – information sources, it also results in the creation and development of new forms of participatory collaboration. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate information and knowledge from opinion and judgment. This proliferation of immediately accessible discourses by web users, regardless of their actual location, far from allowing the expansion of knowledge, tends on the contrary to limit them to their function as sign. Unless, they actually engage themselves in a systematic and critical investigative process. The second challenge was to explain that nowadays new knowledge is constantly produced in all fields at an ever-increasing pace, forever widening the gap not only between scientists and publics but also between scientists. How can we then expect the public to acquire an all-encompassing scientific culture? Thus, a lack of scientific culture is the dominant feature of our ever more specialized modernity, and this ignorance cannot but further increase. The issue has thus shifted from raising the level of scientific literacy at least to the bare minimum required to become a credible interlocutor, to involving citizens. It is only collectively, with the participation and involvement of each and every citizen, regardless of background, that we will find solutions to the problems we face. It is thus the mobilization and involvement of the scientific community and of all social actors, invited to work alongside each other, that must be encouraged and brought about.

Bernard will join our rejection of science panel at the ASC Conference on March 11 in Brisbane. 

Chatting with Christine O’Connell about science communication

Dr. Christine O’Connell is the Associate Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and a faculty member in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. As a scientist with an extensive interdisciplinary background in policy, outreach and communication, she brings a unique perspective to the Alda Center. She received her Ph.D. in Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, and her B.S. in Natural Resources from Cornell University.

Christine teaches and develops curriculum for graduate and undergraduate courses in science communication and speaks at national and international workshops for the Alda Center. She was part of the original group of graduate student scientists trained by Alan Alda in improvisation back in 2009, and manages The Flame Challenge, an international contest that asks scientists to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old.

We sat down with Christine to find out more about her involvement with science communication.

ASC: How did you find yourself in science communication?

Christine: I went to school for science in the 1990’s and got frustrated that my research just ended up on library shelves or in the hands of other scientists. I decided to switch careers and go into environmental advocacy and policy, where I thought I could make more of a difference. After years of doing that, I got frustrated that there wasn’t enough science in important policy decisions and decided to go back to graduate school and get my PhD in the sciences to try and bridge the gap between science, society and policy. That’s when I was asked to be part of the initial pilot group of scientists being trained by Alan Alda in improv techniques to help us be better communicators. I was hooked and have worked with the Alda Center in science communication ever since. This is where I see myself making the biggest difference.

ASC: Why is communicating science important to you?

Christine: Clear and vivid  communication of science is so important for an informed society and for sound policy decisions. Many scientists are scared of the word “advocacy,” but, in today’s day and age, where science itself has become politicized, we must be advocates for science and the scientific process. Otherwise someone else will fill the void with bad science or muddled intentions, and bad decisions will be made. We need to have an informed and inspired public to help build the next generation of science leaders and to make sure we are making sound decisions about our world. Also, not only does effective science communication help with funding important research, educating the next generation, guiding public policy and increasing the public’s understanding of science – it also just makes for stronger science. This is something we hear over and over again after scientists go through our training – it makes them better scientists.  Communication is what makes scientific process work.

ASC: What challenges have you faced in talking about science?

Christine: Jargon. There is discipline specific jargon, where even as a scientist, I find it hard to understand my colleges half the time; and then there is academic jargon. Its important to remember to speak in clear and vivid everyday language. Another challenge is always focusing on my audience and remembering that communication doesn’t actually happen unless they get what I am saying, otherwise I’m just talking. You need to always be listening, even when you are talking. Its hard to keep this level of focus and energy all of the time, but it is so important.

Christine will deliver a keynote presentation at the ASC Conference on March 11 in Brisbane. Find out more on the conference schedule.

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

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:

ASC2016 – Kelly Fielding

Kelly Fielding is a Vice Chancellor’s research and teaching fellow at The University of Queensland. Her broad research focus is understanding environmental decision-making and how to communicate to increase knowledge and change attitudes and behaviASC2016 - March 11 in Brisbane, Australiaour.

Her research has identified ways to communicate to increase domestic water conservation, public place recycling, acceptance of recycled water and, more broadly, actions to reduce individual environmental impact. She is currently conducting research that seeks to understand the roots of rejection of science and how we might communicate to overcome these. She takes an interdisciplinary approach to her research and has worked with local council, State Government, and catchment management authorities to undertake this research.

We sat down with Kelly to find out more about her involvement in science communication.

ASC: How did you find yourself in science communication?

KF: It’s been a serendipitous route into science communication. It developed in the first instance from work I did about public perceptions of recycled water. I got to a stage where I realised we understood what the drivers of perceptions were, but now we needed to move to the next stage of developing effective communication about this water source. It’s also grown out of collaborations that I have with biophysical researchers. I’ve found that they are hungry for input on how they can more effectively communicate their findings and this has spurred my own interest in the area.

ASC: Why is communicating science important to you?

KF: My main motivation comes from my concern for the environment and our need to address the serious environmental issues that we currently face in Australia and around the world.  We need to get more people interested and passionate about these issues and science communication is one route to this.

ASC: What challenges have you faced in talking about science?

KF: From a research perspective the challenges are the ones that research usually presents – what works and what doesn’t, how can we provide the evidence? For example, in relation to climate change – what are the most effective ways of framing the issue to get traction? Personally, the challenge for me is to sit back and listen more and try to find a way to connect with people’s underlying values and concerns.

Interested in hearing more from Kelly? She forms part of our ‘How can we understand and respond to people’s rejection of science?’ panel at the ASC Conference 2016.  


ASC2016 – Bob Bruce

Bob Bruce is a retired industrial engineer who has worked widely in government and private enterprise. He currently works as an IT Orange Card with Education Qld. He holds a double major in Psychology. He has been President of the Queensland Skeptics Association Inc since the turn of the century.

Bob was ‘the Skeptic’ on 4BC’s Paranormal Panel for over five years. His philosophy is based on the rules of science and believes that science should step beyond its advisory capacity and assume a more determinate role in decision making.

Bob has been involved with the Queensland Skeptics Association since the meetings took place in his lounge room. We spoke with Bob to find out more on why communicating science is important.

ASC2016 - March 11 in Brisbane, Australia

ASC: Why is communicating science important to you?

BB: Science plays a significant role in determining our future. The world must become scientifically literate or we will perish.

The older and uglier one gets the more one can look dispassionately at the world and determine what went wrong. The conclusion one draws is that the ideal pursuit for humanity is the discovery of ‘reality’ because we appear to have been pursuing something else.

Humans have clouded their judgment with all manner of cultural and traditional artefacts that, given our limited knowledge at the time, helped us adapt and survive our environment. But humans also have self-interest and avarice to deal with and foibles like ‘morality’ that tries to make sense of lots of humans acting together.

We have innumerable codes of ethics some based on logic or health and some based simply on the propagation of the species. Polygamy for instance served to ensure that sufficient numbers of newborns reach maturity to maintain the population but close family partnerships were frowned upon because undesirable genetic traits were expressed. We also wrongly assumed that the gods were in charge of the weather and the success or failure of the crops.

We only understand these things now because of science. Science shows us the real world without our biases and prejudices.

Humans relied on intuitive thinking which was often wrong. The taxonomy of the various species was originally done by intuition and was blatantly wrong in many cases. Plants that looked alike (because local environmental conditions shaped them) were unrelated and similarly animals were assumed to have quite erroneous family lineages. There is no taxonomic reason for ‘fish’ for instance. The discovery of DNA and genomics corrected the family tree. It also showed how homo sapiens spread across the world.

ASC: What challenges have you faced in talking about science?

BB: Getting people to understand the perilous state of the Earth is a big challenge.

If you make a statement like “commercial fishing in the Atlantic Ocean has collapsed”, people won’t believe you. Yet, the pH of the sea has fallen 0.1 in 25 years and the sea is destined to become an acid soup. Plankton which produces 50% of the oxygen we breathe is at the very base of the food chain and has declined by 80% in some areas around the Antarctic.

Our biases are embedded in our culture, prejudice and wishful thinking. We cannot be sure of the objectivity of an experiment unless it is triple blind.

Ultimately science and skepticism are seen as downers even though virtually all of the world’s progress is thanks to scientific research.

Information can be very touchy. Science is engaged in a ‘Hearts and Minds’ battle over fluoridation, vaccinations, GMOs and similar issues.

A massive market exists for supplements and health tonics that do very little. This can be regarded as a mild amusement but ultimately it is a sham and a waste of money. As an example public disinterest and the insidious thread of unknowing anti science, look at “Super Foods”. This food movement is media savvy, sensational and often wrong. There are no “Super Foods” and no additional nutritional benefits to organic foods.

As an example, consider the selection of bread…

On one hand we have supermarket bread – a plastic wrapped Supermarket loaf pre sliced, with bread improver, iodised salt, added folates, vitamin C, amino acids, preservatives, anti-oxidants, added flavours and colouring probably leavened with CO2 gas and formulated to stay soft for a week. The dough may be pre-prepared in Holland and shipped frozen to Australia before baking is completed locally.

On the other, we have “Holistic Earth Bread”: It is a crusty high top loaf made from 1000yo variety stoneground wholemeal spelt flour with no preservatives, no artificial colours, emulsifiers or bread improvers. It is low salt.

Consumers tend to prefer the crusty high top as somehow more wholesome, pure and healthy (and more expensive). However, the supermarket bread (which can be, admittedly, pretty basic) is formulated to be healthier; the added vitamins, folates and iodised salt are vital for pregnant mothers and avert birth defects in newborns. The preservatives avoid moulds and fungus that can be poisonous and contrary to popular belief they do not ‘preserve’ your insides (if only). The bread improvers improve texture and shelf life.

To sum up; the challenge of science is to make knowledge accessible, believable and credible (ABC) to the populace.  

Interested in hearing more from Bob? He forms part of our ‘How can we understand and respond to people’s rejection of science?’ panel at the ASC Conference 2016.