Science in the spotlight

June 13, 2016

Executive Director & CEO of the Australian Museum Kim McKay AO explains why it is truly a wonderful time to be working in science communication and education.

science in the spotlight

There has never been a better time to work in science communication, but as the Executive Director and CEO of the Australian Museum – Australia’s first museum and second oldest science institution – I may be a little biased.

The popularity of science is growing thanks to the rise of social media. Translating this increased street credibility into tangible, sustainable benefits for both the Australian Museum and the scientists we employ is high on my agenda – because we can’t ask others to innovate if we aren’t innovating ourselves.

Most people only see the public facing side of the Australian Museum, for example the exhibitions and collections that are open for public viewing, and don’t know about the tremendous scientific research undertaken by the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI). The AMRI conducts research into pests and invasive species, which provides vital information and solutions to common problems that impact on our agricultural industries. It is also home to one of the most advanced wildlife genomic laboratories in Australia, and its experts work with customs and quarantine departments on cases involving illegally imported and exported species.

Despite the manifold practical applications of the research we conduct, many people still don’t realise that museums are deeply engaged in science and science education. Naturally, some scientists are reluctant to champion and promote the vital work that they do.

As the first person from a marketing and communications background to take the reins at the museum, I am firmly focused on communicating the work of the AMRI and the public programs at the Australian Museum. It’s my job to help identify the stories that put science in the spotlight, to educate the public on the value of science.

Forming strong relationships with the media and collaborating with the corporate world – to not only generate revenue but also to put STEM on the agenda beyond the usual circles – is a smart strategy.

The AMRI works with the airline industry on tackling problematic bird strikes by analysing tissue samples of bird remains to identify the species and determine whether the flock can be safely relocated. Recently, the Australian Museum Lizard Island Research Station, located 270 km north of Cairns, assisted climate scientists to identify the worst coral bleaching event ever reported on the Great Barrier Reef.

In the past, scientific institutions may have been reticent to form mutually-beneficial partnerships with industry, but I believe that sponsorship deals and philanthropy are key to the long-term relevance and viability of scientific organisations.

In many ways, the collection at the Australian Museum reflects the work and research we undertake. We have more than 18 million specimens and a cultural collection of more than one million objects from Australian Indigenous cultures, the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia. We also have the largest Egyptian collection in Australia.

But today, it isn’t enough to let your work do the talking. To ensure innovative STEM solutions spark ideas in the wider community and create a snowball effect, it takes the active communication of scientific research and the benefits it can provide – both from a sustainability and economic perspective. The STEM community must continue to share news of its work, to inspire and foster innovation in future generations.

Kim McKay AO

Executive Director & CEO, Australian Museum

Read next: Robert Hillard, Managing Partner of Deloitte Consulting, on Disruptive STEM.

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