Time is running out!

For those of you who need a reminder, time is running out to add your science engagement activities to the national survey. We want to get a good snapshot of the diversity of activity in Australia and we need your input. Activities will be represented in an interactive on-line map and other data visualisation tools. So don’t be camera shy, fill in the survey and become part of the big picture.

Grab yourself a few moments and fill out the survey at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/scienceengageaudit.  It closes 30 June 2012.

You can be in the draw to win a prize, and help make science communication and engagement more effective.

Send me an email if you have a long a list of activities and need some data entry help: president at asc.asn.au

Once again, here is the description of the project:

The biggest snapshot of science engagement in Australia

It’s a picture as big as Australia. A flash of light illuminating how people are getting science out there. And it’s the first time it’s been done.

The picture shows everyone who is engaging people with any science, from anywhere, any organisation, even into the future—that’s the goal.

Inspiring Australia wants to create a snapshot of all of the diverse science communication activities and programs going on between January 2011 and June 2013, and we need the help of anyone doing science engagement across the country.

People can help by filling out a survey about the science engagement that they’re a part of. We’ll put the results into a visual national online database that anyone can explore. The database is part of a national audit that will help us all understand:

  • who are Australia’s players in science engagement—internationally, nationally, regionally and locally
  • where and who is missing out on science engagement
  • if and how Australians respond to science engagement activities
  • how people can link their activities or ideas together
  • how people are evaluating their engagement activities, or not
  • how we can create better tools for evaluation
  • the bigger picture of science engagement in Australia—with lots of opportunity for research.

The survey and database are being created in response to the Inspiring Australia Expert Working Group report Developing an Evidence Base for Science Engagement. It’s the first of a suite of projects tackling the report’s recommendations.

As well as the survey, we will do personal interviews and a desktop review to make sure that we capture as many activities as possible.

The team comprises Jenni Metcalfe (Econnect Communication), Kristin Alford (Bridge8), and Jesse Shore and Kali Madden (Australian Science Communicators). Nancy Longnecker (UWA), Rod Lamberts (ANU) and Joan Leach (UQ) are advisors for the project. The data will help develop a national evaluation tool for science engagement activities—another initiative in response to the report’s recommendations.

The audit will help science communicators to be seen as part of the big picture of science engagement in Australia and their standing with respect to the world.

This Inspiring Australia initiative is supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research & Tertiary Education in partnership with Econnect, Bridge8, ASC and UWA.

Fill the survey out at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/scienceengageaudit   It closes 30 June 2012.

Jesse Shore
National president

Clean Energy Future: Using market research to inform strategy (ACT event)

27 June 2012
6:00 pmto8:00 pm

Join the Australian Science Communicators Canberra Branch and CSIRO Discovery for a session with Trish Johnston from the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

Trish was part of the team that carried out extensive market research to inform the communication and advertising strategy around climate change and the Clean Energy Future campaigns. Hear about what her team did, how the research informed the communication strategy, how things have played out, and the communication challenges and opportunities ahead.

This event is for communicators wanting to know what it’s like to be working with one of the most complicated and politically-charged topics of our time.

Date: Wednesday 27 June.
Time: 6pm for a 6:30 start (will finish about 7:30pm).
Venue: CSIRO Discovery, Black Mountain (map and parking directions here).
Catering: Nibbles and drinks provided.
Cost: Free for members. Non-members gold coin contribution.
RSVPs required by 25 June: http://ascact20121.eventbrite.com.
Enquiries to: asccanberra at gmail.com or 0413 883 414.

Trish’s bio:

Trish Johnston is the acting Director of the Campaigns and Engagement Team at the  Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. Trish is a communications specialist with almost 20 years experience in developing, implementing and evaluating Australian Government communications campaigns. Trish started her career with the Department of Health working on social marketing campaigns on issues as diverse as childhood immunisation and recruiting doctors to rural areas. Trish spent several years as a senior communications advisor at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet where she provided advice to the Government and government departments on best practice approaches to communications. Trish has led workshops on the use of market research in Government campaigns and how to write effective communication strategies. In her current role, Trish leads the team responsible for the recent Clean Energy Future advertising campaign. The team is now working on a range of other related community outreach initiatives. Trish has an abiding interest in what makes people tick and how effective communication and social marketing interventions can lead to meaningful change.

ALSO ** coming soon ** events calendar for rest of the year!!

ASC Canberra Committee: http://www.asc.asn.au/state-and-national/act/
Join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/#!/ASC.Canberra

The pseudoscientific merry-go-round takes another turn

Dr Rob Morrison writes:

The endless debates about climate change in the media could lead you to think that it is the only important issue on which science is trying to make some headway with a skeptical (if not antagonistic) public.

Not so. Try health or, more specifically, the various health “treatments” that are offered to a public that seems, at best, confused about what treatments work, which don’t work, what has scientific validity and what can legitimately claim to be evidence-based.

This all promises to offer a new, rich field for controversy, as the federal budget, cutting left and right, has at last decided to make some cuts that are long overdue; requiring the Chief Medical Officer to determine what “natural” health treatments are evidence-based. There is a year in which to conduct this review, after which the Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, says that “The Private Health Insurance Rebate will be paid for insurance products that cover natural therapy services only where the Chief Medical Officer finds there is clear evidence they are clinically effective.”

The kinds of “treatments” cited include homeopathy, Reiki, aromatherapy, iridology, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, kinesiology and Rolfing. I could add a few others, but these would at least be a good start. Many people don’t know what is involved in most of these. Have a look at Wikipedia, or the websites of the people that offer such stuff, and you are in for a sobering read.

I have more than a passing interest in all of this. At the end of 2011, five of us, disturbed by the number of Australian Universities that were offering courses in pseudoscience and calling them science, formed Friends of Science in Medicine  www.scienceinmedicine.org.au  Very quickly we have gathered more than 700 supporters, mostly distinguished academics, scientists, medicos and consumer advocates; many of them international and including some influential organisations. They  support FSM’s aims which are, broadly

  • maintaining tertiary educational institutions free of health-related courses not based on science;
  • engaging regulatory authorities (and other responsible health care bodies) to reduce the real and potential harm from ‘complementary and alternative medicines’ (CAMs) not based on science;
  • publicly challenging non-scientific principles of many practitioners of CAMs, revealing their covert attempts to deceive the public;
  • engaging the broader public to help clarify the exciting potential of more science for better medical care and
  • educating the public to help them understand how to receive evidence-based health care and how to avoid misleading and sometimes dangerous alternative CAM practices.

Our first attempt has been to clarify which universities are offering pseudoscientific courses of this kind. It is harder to do this than you’d think, and certainly harder than it should be when taxpayers’ dollars are used to fund such courses. Some universities are quick to deny that they offer these courses, some do not reply, others do so in terms so ambiguous that it is impossible to know what they offer, and their websites (in most cases) don’t give much away, but it looks as though about one third of Australian universities are teaching pseudoscience as heath science. Others claim to be doing research into what alternative treatments and medicines actually work – laudable if true, but sometimes a cover for teaching the stuff as if it is true.

At a time when scientific research funds are being cut, and demands on valid medical services are greater than ever before, it is extraordinary that taxpayers should still have millions of dollars of their taxes wasted annually through the funding of spurious university health courses and rebates for pseudoscience health “treatments.”

You can never know what your influence has been, but it is heartening to see, in the four months that FSM has been highlighting the absurdity of treating and funding these pseudosciences as if they were legitimate and evidence-based procedures, the NHMRC, Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and now the federal government have all taken steps to move against them.

Not before time, but the vested interests are already making waves, and you can bet that a new science/non-science controversy will erupt around the scientific validity or otherwise of these alternative practices. FSM has already received many such criticisms from the alternative brigade. We are accused of not having open minds, ignoring the fact that some of these treatments have been used for hundreds of years, that they must work because millions of people use them, that they helped a family member, etc, etc.

None of these, of course, carry any weight as scientific arguments, and they will all be familiar to those who have ever tried to deal with the creationists who argue against the science of evolution, but they do suggest that, as with those who deny evolution, members of the anti-vaccination lobby and people who call themselves climate-change skeptics but are, in fact, climate-change deniers, we are in for another round of public misunderstanding about, and challenges to, the ways in which science does its business.

Outreach where they least expect it – Guerilla Astronomers

Thanks to Kirsten Gottschalk from ICRAR for contributing this post:

I have a confession – I love astronomy. Something about it has fascinated me ever since I can remember. Understandably then, it’s something I am very passionate about. This is why I was quite taken aback when I heard “People aren’t interested in looking through telescopes anymore,” during a session at the recent ASC National Conference.  From a respected astronomer no less! Luckily for me and my love of astronomy, her experience couldn’t be further from my own.


As part of my role in the Outreach and Education team at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) I take a lot of telescopes to a lot of places and people are always interested to look through them, at them, or just talk about them.


One of my favourite outreach strategies is the idea of ‘Guerilla Astronomy’ – taking a telescope somewhere people will least expect it and introducing them to astronomy with no advertising or attempt to gather an audience.


Myself and a band of ICRAR’s professional astronomers take a small (but still impressive looking) telescope or two out to the side of a bike path, to the middle of the CBD shopping precinct, or to another outdoor event and simply stand next to our telescopes talking to anyone that comes near. People always come near, and the result is something that never ceases to remind me why I do what I do.


From the woman on her evening jog who got straight back in the car after seeing the Moon to go get her kids; to the children who wont let anyone else have a turn because they are so mesmerised by the Orion Nebula; through to a member of the public helping his elderly mother take her first close up look at Jupiter and its moons, and her gasp when the image became clear to her through the eyepiece. Talking with the astronomers who join me on these evenings, we have so many more positive engagement stories like these. To me, this kind of work is the most important and most interesting part of science communication – engaging with the unengaged and giving them a positive experience of science to take away.


There’s probably a large combination of things that make these events so successful – the unexpected experience, and therefore no expectations of what will happen, us being conveniently located where people are already, and in the evening when there’s sometimes a bit more time to spare. But I like to think that the telescopes themselves play a big part in it – they’re an ingeniously simple piece of machinery (just a couple of mirrors and a lens when you get down to it) that pack a big punch and make the previously invisible, visible.  Nothing beats seeing the red spot on Jupiter in person ‘for real’ and knowing that the light has travelled from the depths of the Sun where it was created in a nuclear reaction, all the way out to Jupiter (741 million kilometres) and then bounced off right back into this telescope and then your eye. Or maybe that’s just me?


I’ll admit, sometimes it is frustrating the first question is ‘How much is it worth?’ but there are always more questions, and I like to think that they’re only asking because they think it’s so cool they want one too!


Nevertheless, the benefits to me, to ICRAR, and our astronomers stemming from Guerilla Astronomy are numerous. It never ceases to inspire a researcher to be told their life’s work is utterly fascinating by either a 5 or 75 year old, and they get told often and emphatically at these impromptu events. We’ve also had so many people follow up for more information, attending our other larger events, or even organising us to visit their school or club for a talk stemming from one simple interaction by the Swan River on a Wednesday night.


Our last Guerilla Astronomy event had over 150 people look through our telescopes over the course of two hours, without us even having to put a sign out!


Kirsten Gottschalk
Outreach and Education Officer
ICRAR: Discovering the hidden Universe through radio astronomy


The sky’s the limit for users of theSkyNet

Thanks to Pete Wheeler, UWA for sending in this article:
Thanks to a new initiative called theSkyNet, you don’t need a supercomputer to help collect data for the next generation of radio telescopes.

This ambitious citizen science project uses a global network of privately owned computers to process astronomical data arriving from galaxies, stars and other distant objects located across the universe.

WA’s Science and Innovation Minister, John Day, launched theSkyNet in September 2011.

The project soon attracted almost 20,000 hits to theSkyNet.org website, and nearly 3,000 members in the first day. A few weeks later, the website surpassed 100,000 hits and 5,000 members.

Members sign up and donate their spare computing power to theSkyNet, an activity which is not only rewarding, it’s also fun. Members receive “credits” for processing data and donating time on their computer, which earns them trophies they can share with their networks through Facebook. Users participate in the project as individuals but can also form or join alliances to help process data as a group.

There are also some very real-world rewards on offer, with the most attractive being the opportunity to visit the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in the Mid-West of Western Australia. This remote and radio-quiet site is home to several next generation radio telescopes and is earmarked as the potential site for the proposed Square Kilometre Array.

With support from the WA State Government, theSkyNet is an initiative of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture of Curtin University and The University of Western Australia.

According to ICRAR’s Outreach and Education Manager, Pete Wheeler, the project aims to involve people in the discovery process while also raising awareness of radio astronomy and providing a real resource that astronomers can use to advance our understanding of the universe.

“This is a very exciting project for us as it’s a unique opportunity to bring our research and public outreach activities together and get the public involved in science,” he said.

“We were hopeful that the name of the project would generate interest, but the level of interest and uptake we experienced so soon after launch was beyond our wildest expectations.”

So far, theSkyNet has been using data collected by the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales to refine the system and demonstrate that the results produced by theSkyNet are scientifically useful and accurate.

Next, theSkyNet will use a reprocessed version of this data to create a new catalogue of radio galaxies before moving on to larger data sets in preparation for the enormous volumes of information that will flow once telescopes such as the CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder come online in the next couple of years.

ICRAR Director, Professor Peter Quinn, said: “Radio astronomy is a data intensive activity and as we design, develop and switch on the next generation of radio telescopes, the supercomputing resources processing this deluge of data will be in increasingly high demand.”

At any one time, around 4,000 machines around the world are online and contributing to theSkyNet. On average, the network is performing one million processing tasks per day, placing theSkyNet on par with a supercomputer with between 15 and 20 TFlops of computing power. The cost to build a single supercomputer with this sort of capacity is currently around $1.5 million.

Rather than the cost and years of planning needed to build and run such a machine, theSkyNet runs with only minimal cost and has appeared virtually overnight. Using the power of the Internet to connect people to the excitement of scientific discovery makes cost effective, efficient and environmentally sensible use of readily available computing resources that might otherwise be wasted.

This type of community computing is especially useful when the time taken to process the data is not an issue. Rather than using valuable supercomputing time in facilities such as the iVEC Pawsey Centre in Perth, data that can be processed in “slow time” can be off-loaded to a distributed network like theSkyNet.

“The key to theSkyNet is having lots of computers connected, with each contributing only a little, but the sum of those computers can achieve a lot,” Professor Quinn said.

For further information and to sign up, visit theSkyNet website at www.theSkyNet.org

When energy counts in a changing climate

From Craig Macaulay, CSIRO:

While recent political activity has centred on the passing of the Clean Energy Bills, 170 delegates from 50 countries were meeting (http://www.csiro.au/news/Securing-energy-supply-in-changing-variable-climate.html) away from the limelight in conversations centred on a closely-related subject, energy and climate.

With Australian science heavily engaged at the research coalface in all forms of energy generation, CSIRO has sought to bridge the international gap at the interface with climate through its support of the first International Conference on Energy and Meteorology on the Gold Coast last week.  (http://www.icem2011.org/ICEM2011_Final_Programme.pdf)

The conference brought together scientists, engineers, planners, and insurers to review  the scope for related lines of research that will re-enforce risk management and energy security in weather, seasonal variability and global and regional climate change, as outlined broadly in this interview with the ABC’s World Today program – http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2011/s3358909.htm

The pace of growth in renewable energy and community attitudes towards it, food and biofuel production, forecasting to maximise energy generation, and support for decision-making were common themes in a week that the International Energy Agency also released its 2011 report –  http://www.iea.org/weo/

CSIRO Energy Group leader, Bev Ronalds, provided an opening keynote, outlining what she described as a ‘rainbow’ of options for Australia’s energy mix through to 2050, and the conference closed with a keynote from Energy Tansformed Flagship Director, Alex Wonhas.

Convenor, CSIRO’s Alberto Troccoli, said he hoped that from among the extensive range of presentations given, there would be a wealth of seeds sown to generate collaborations and relationship to further bridge the energy and climate sectors, with CSIRO as a potential leader in the process. The Climate & Atmosphere theme of CSIRO was a major sponsor of the event.

Timing is everything

From Craig Macaulay, CSIRO:

Depending on where you source your news, the November 18 release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on weather extremes (http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/) attracted a mixed response in Australia.

This can be partly attributed to the leaking of a draft report earlier in the week, a pre-empting of the report outcomes based on documents held by the BBC but more particularly the timing of the release by the IPCC’s Chris Field at 1.30 pm in Kampala, Uganda – 9.30 pm on Friday evening AEST, a time convenient for US and European media but when most Australian newspapers had been put to bed.

Contributing through the CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, Kathy McInnes was the only Special Report co-author on the ground in Australia and accessible. The other Australian co-authors, Neville Nicholls from Monash and John Handmer from RMIT, Melbourne, had been in Uganda and were en route back to Australia.

The full report can be found at – http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/ – and a separate assessment of the treatment can be found in The Conversation by former CMAR scientist Roger Jones – http://theconversation.edu.au/spinning-uncertainty-the-ipcc-extreme-weather-report-and-the-media-4402

 Extremes report key findings

For Australia, it is very likely that there has been an overall decrease in the number of cold days and nights and an overall increase in the number of warm days and nights,

There is low confidence that any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity are robust, after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.

It is likely that there has been an increase in extreme coastal high water related to trends in mean sea level in the late 20th century.

It is likely that anthropogenic influences have led to warming of extreme daily minimum and maximum temperatures on the global scale. There is medium confidence that anthropogenic influences have contributed to intensification of extreme precipitation on the global scale. It is likely that there has been an anthropogenic influence on increasing extreme sea levels via mean sea level contributions. There is low confidence in attribution of changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences.

It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur through the 21st century and it is very likely that the length, frequency and/or intensity of warm spells, including heat waves, will continue to increase over most land areas.

IPCC terms | Virtually certain:  99-100% probability | Very likely:  90-100% probability | likely:  66-100% probability | About as likely as not:  33 to 66% probability | Unlikely:  0-33% probability | Very unlikely:  0-10% probability | Exceptionally unlikely:  0-1% probability


Virtual Farm Project

By Julian Cribb

Here is an Australian science communication project with potential to make a difference to human history.

It’s called the Virtual Farm and it proposes the universal sharing of the word’s food production knowledge in real time and at lightspeed, in order to prevent famine and food insecurity.

I have lately been discussing it with leading European banks, the Vatican, the Gates Foundation, key NGOs and aid agencies and certain heads of state.

I’m looking for highly talented science communicators, especially with skills in IT and virtualisation, and a strong sense of commitment to the human future, to help make it a reality.

Read a text only version of the Discussion Paper here or email me for a full copy.

If you’re interested, please contact:

Julian Cribb FTSE


Julian Cribb & Associates

ph +61 (0)2 6242 8770 or 0418 639 245

Virtual Farm Project – Discussion Paper


By 2060 the world needs to double its food production – in a time when all the main things we use to produce food are becoming scarce: land, water, oil, fertiliser, technology, fish, capital and stable climates. The only way we will achieve a sustainable food supply in the mid century is through the greatest knowledge-sharing effort in human history, reaching out to 1.8 billion farmers and food producers globally in real time and at the speed of light.

The goal is achievable.  This paper outlines how.

The Virtual Farm

Throughout the history of agriculture most farmers gained most of their farming knowledge from other farmers – rather than from scientists, extension workers, companies, teachers or publishers.

The Virtual Farm is a place where farmers from all regions, nationalities, cultures and climates can meet in real time to share their knowledge with one another at lightspeed, using the internet. These meetings can be ‘face to face’ using the avatar technology now universally employed in internet gaming and scenario development.

The Virtual Farm is a place where farmers can visit one another’s ‘farm’, exchange experiences and ideas, discuss mistakes and try out different farming approaches and methods in a virtual environment, where there are no penalties for failure. Where advanced farmers can share their technology experience with smallholders in developing countries – and smallholders and organic producers can share their own farming wisdom with advanced farmers.

The Virtual Farm is a place where scientists, agricultural input suppliers, advisers, extension workers and farmers can gather for farm ‘field days’ to discuss and learn about new techniques and technologies and again, learn from one another’s mistakes – without leaving their farms, homes or offices.

It is, in short, a continual online worldwide conversation about how to produce more food, more efficiently, healthily, sustainably and safely.

Left: screenshot of a virtual farm in Second Life. The VF version will be more complex, based on real farm planning software.

The VF is open to anyone who farms or who works in the food sector – or, indeed, anyone who eats.

The main barrier to entry is the local availability of the internet – and this can be overcome through aid and philanthropic investment, almost anywhere on Earth.

This conversation can be carried on verbally, in written form, via videolink and through the sharing of data. It is accessible to farmers both literate and non-literate. It enables the sharing of common agricultural knowledge across common language groups globally.                Virtual cropping scenario.

 The Farm Knowledge Bank

The Virtual Farm contains a library or knowledge bank which aggregates the best available farm extension material and advice from the world’s best agriculture departments, agricultural input corporations, farm advisers and teaching institutions. Whatever is available within countries or internationally now can be aggregated and made searchable to any participating farmer, for free. It will need a very powerful, farmer-friendly search engine.

It can also be an archive of all of the world’s public-domain agricultural science. It will not establish this de novo, but rather by aggregating what is already available on the internet and making it accessible.

This is, in effect, a ‘Library of Alexandria’ of the world’s most trustworthy and up-to-date farming knowledge, technical and scientific information.

It can be coupled with a blogging system which allows individual farmers worldwide to discuss and report their own experiences with different systems, technologies and approaches, thus sharing practical field experience of new (or even old) methods.

Left: Global knowledge hub compiled for the poultry industry. The VF would aggregate similar sites globally.

 Who can use it?

Any person with access to the internet can use the Virtual Farm.

It is founded on the ethical principle that human knowledge belongs to humanity and should be freely available to all.

That to solve the massive food challenge that lies ahead, we need to co-operate in knowledge sharing, rather than exploit one another through exclusivity. That new times demand new models for knowledge management and dissemination, not those of the C19th and 20th.

The virtual farm

The Virtual Farm itself is a place where all the best public domain farming software is available, free, for any farmer to use in planning or managing their enterprise. This would include everything from paddock histories and livestock breeding records, fertiliser records, marketing information, farm business management software, farm planning software and, especially, farm modelling software.

This will allow farmers to create virtual models of their own enterprises, large or small, which enable them to test different production scenarios or enterprise combinations and see what they deliver in terms of income and sustainability – without having to first run the risk of a real-life experiment. They can discuss the outcomes online with colleagues, farm advisers and experts.

Left: example of farm planning software

It is also a meeting place, where farmers can gather in groups of shared interest – for example  producers of the same crop or commodity, a local catchment group, a group interested in a new crop, technology or farming system, a group interested in co-operative marketing or buying, a group interested in developing links with like-minded farmers (and consumers) all over the world.

These meeting can take place in text, as in the Twitter #agchat sites, as avatars using a suitable program (based on current gaming technology) or via videolinks such as Skype.

With the ubiquitous availability of camera technology in mobile phones, farmers can exchange images and video of actual farming systems and experiences to share their learnings.

The value of mistakes

Most farm extension tends to emphasise the benefits of success – but in reality most farming knowledge is founded on mistakes and what farmers learn from them.

Real-time knowledge sharing allows farmers to compare personal experiences and share them with audiences of dozens, hundreds or thousands of their peers, locally, nationally and globally.

By sharing our agricultural ‘mistakes’ globally and at lightspeed we can potentially dramatically improve farming efficiency and sustainability.  This is especially important in cases such as lifting water use efficiency in irrigation systems, preventing soil loss and degradation, improving carbon storage, increasing nutrient efficiency and managing grazing pressure.

In irrigation, for example, the best farmer often achieves up to seven times more food per unit of water than the least efficient farmer. If the ‘secret’ of how this is achieved, and the pitfalls to avoid, can be shared at lightspeed, progress worldwide in saving precious water will be faster.

Speaking with experts

The virtual farm makes the world’s leading technical and scientific experts and farm advisers available, potentially, to farmers all around the world, instead of just within a country or local area.

It enables them to run farmer field days, conferences or group meetings locally – or globally.

It enables agricultural input suppliers to introduce new products, equipment and technologies to producers globally – and received direct farmer feedback on their experiences from different regions and climate zones.

It supplements the crippled agricultural extension services of both developed and developing countries with a new, more rapid and efficient way of sharing knowledge and technical information.

It supplements the crippled agricultural education systems of both developed and developing countries with a new paradigm in education – one where farmers educate one another, facilitated by teachers, farm advisers and technical experts or scientists.

It allows the experts to reach the ‘early adopters’ among farmers much faster – while the R&D is under way – to dramatically reduce ‘lag’ in the >20 year process of developing and adopting a new farming system or technology. It then allows the early adopters to share their experience of new systems and technologies with the other 95% of farmers at a much faster rate and much more widely. It thus telescopes the whole process of knowledge diffusion within agriculture.

The virtual farmer’s market

The virtual farm also allows farmers to buy and sell things globally.

It allows groups of farmers to form internationally to purchase farming inputs in bulk at more affordable prices, thus reducing their on-farm costs.

It allows groups of like-minded farmers to ‘shop around’ for the best corporate customer for their commodity or product and cut the best deal.  Such deals could include requiring the purchaser to supply capital or technology for the further development of efficient sustainable agriculture – thus obliging large food companies to take a more active interest and position in sustaining efficient farmers and farming systems, instead of merely exploiting them and the environment that produces the food.

It allows farmers globally to negotiate the sale of their produce and supply it direct to users and consumers, such as restaurants, buying groups or even individual households. This is very important in redressing the current serious erosion of farmers’ market power by global corporations and middlemen, and returning sufficient income to farmers to enable them to safeguard the world’s soils, water, biodiversity and other scarce food resources.

Left: example of an online farmers’ market, where consumers can order low-priced and organic foods direct from producers.

It also allows agribusiness suppliers to network with increasingly large groups of farmers worldwide, rather than one country at a time, so increasing the rate of technology diffusion.

Collateral benefits


The Virtual Farm has the potential to revolutionise the existing, centuries-old, educational paradigm replacing the pupil-pedagogue-classroom model with one in which people learn in ‘communities of interest’ or profession, worldwide, via the internet.

This does not exclude the teacher, but allows them to evolve into a different role, as guide and facilitator and include other experts such as scientists, farm advisers, agribusiness, finance and technical experts into the ‘virtual classroom’. (In fact the word education is derived from the Latin educo, meaning “I lead out”. Contrary to common practice, it is not derived from intrudo, which means “I thrust in”). The Virtual Farm is all about reaching out to fellow farmers, food producers and specialists.

Right: virtual class in Second Life, with the avatars of real people taking part.


The objection will be raised that farmers speak many thousands of different languages, and this too can be pointed out of Facebook, Twitter and SMS (texting). However as people become more accustomed to using these tools for global communication they are also evolving a hybrid language which enables meaning to be shared even though the interlocutors speak different tongues. As “farming” is in a sense already a common language (in that there are common concepts, principles and practices in most regions of the world), it is not hard, over a generation or two to imagine the main language groups used on the Virtual Farm merging into a lingua franca that enables greater dissemination of food knowledge.


Since war is usually a product of fear, and fear is often a product of ignorance about other countries and cultures, an ongoing worldwide conversation among farmers can contribute, in no small way, to dispelling tensions, hostilities and misunderstandings. After all, one in five of the world’s people are farmers – and they share many experiences in common.

There is thus an unquantifiable, but real, peace dividend to be reaped from the Virtual Farm. Most recent wars have taken place in regions which are food-land-and-water insecure: conversely there have been virtually no wars in regions which are food secure.

It will be of material value in helping to bridge the gulf between different nations, cultures and creeds, and of bringing humanity to a common focus on one of the greatest challenges to the future existence of civilisation: the sustaining of a food supply sufficient to feed 10 billion people over more than half a century.

Development and prosperity

The antidote to food insecurity is knowledge. The antidote to poverty is knowledge.  The antidote to bad government is knowledge.

No country can establish a stable government, or a democracy, if it is food insecure. Food insecurity brings down governments (eg Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Rwanda) quicker than almost any other factor. Conversely food security and a successful agricultural system lead to stability, improving governance, development, reduction of poverty and ultimately prosperity. It follows that farming knowledge is the best way to found the stability necessary to govern well.

As most of the world’s very poor are farmers, agricultural knowledge is key to ending poverty and initiating the development cycle.  The economic miracles of China and India today are founded originally upon agricultural success which laid the ground for wider industrial and economic progress.

Sharing knowledge among the world’s farmers at lightspeed will make a material contribution to ending global poverty, broadening sustainable development and achieving the MDGs.

Conclusion: towards a new humanity

Universal knowledge sharing in farming and food is one of the great opportunities to unify and harmonise humanity in a century of growing resource scarcity and climatic instability.

The knowledge already exists.  It is mostly free. All we have to do is create the vehicle or vehicles to share it – and the technology to do this now exists in the internet and social media.

In the second trimester of a baby’s gestation a marvellous thing happens.  The neurons, axons and glia in the embryonic brain begin to connect – and cognition is born. A mass of cells becomes a human being capable of thought, imagination, memory, feelings and dreams.

Today individual humans are connecting, at lightspeed, around a planet – like the cells in the foetal brain.

A higher understanding, and potentially a higher intellect, is being born – capable of tackling and solving our problems at supra-human level, by applying millions of minds simultaneously to the solutions and generating wider, faster consensus on what needs to be done.

It is entirely fitting that agriculture, which first gave rise to civilisation by enabling one person to feed many, should be the place where Homo sapiens reinvents itself as a wiser being.


NOTE: The ideas expressed in this document are personal views, and not those of any corporation, government, organisation or creed. If you share this ideal and have ideas, skills or funds to make it a reality, I’d love to hear from you.

Julian Cribb

(Author of “The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it”)

SCREN: Science Communication Research and Education Network

Special thanks to Sean Perera from ANU for this contribution.

SCREN is a network of science communication researchers and educators in Australia, and aims to enable members to take part in collaborative science communication research and share best practices in science communication training at tertiary institutions.

Inaugurated in June 2007 under the auspices of the Director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at The Australian National University in Canberra, SCREN’s current membership includes academics from thirteen Australian universities. The Network has been successful in attracting participation from The University of Auckland and the University of Otago in New Zealand.

In April 2011, a collective body of members met over two days at the SCREN Symposium in Canberra to deliberate future directions for science communication research and tertiary training, further to outcomes of the Inspiring Australia Conference (more about that later).

If you would like participate in SCREN or have any question please e-mail here.

Dr Sean Perera

Associate Researcher
Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science
The Australian National University