Tag Archives: Australian Academy of Science

Decision-making

Decision-making with science

Many scientists are keen to communicate research they believe can help inform decision-making, from public opinion to the policy of our governments.

But the will of scientists to abandon intellectual “ivory towers” does not in itself ensure a more prominent role for science in any decision-making.

Consider the appointment of a climate change sceptic and an anti-vaccination proponent to the new White House administration of US president Donald Trump.

Does this signify a prioritisation of emotions, personal beliefs and social media savviness above facts? If so, then ensuring a role for research evidence in decision-making may be one of the greatest challenges facing the science community.

A risky and uncertain world

In July 2016, we attended a think tank with a group of early- and mid-career peers, at the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) in Canberra.

One aim was to better understand and improve on how scientists from many disciplines can communicate their research to decision makers, including any risk and uncertainty.

science in decision-making
Cover of the report from our think tank discussions. Australian Academy of Science, Author provided
A detailed report, Living in a Risky World, from that think tank meeting is released by the AAS today. We have compiled a technical summary and here are some of highlights.

Which evidence to consider in decision-making?

All scientific research is subject to varying degrees of uncertainty. This can arise from a number of issues such as incomplete knowledge or variability in the phenomena being researched.

A goal of research is to reduce any uncertainties through study and experimentation, and to improve the accuracy by which uncertainties are defined.

Even the most scientifically-informed decision-making contains positive and negative risks resulting from the uncertainty.

The extent to which this uncertainty influences decision-making is often unclear and difficult to evaluate.

For example, published uncertainties in climate change projections have been used to rebuke and discredit scientific evidence and delay policy action.

Uncertainties associated with environmental health risks and future earthquake risks have been used to justify health, engineering and land-use policy developments of a precautionary nature.

Reporting on the status of the Great Barrier Reef in the past has omitted any form of uncertainty.

The importance of including an uncertainty assessment has now been recognised in advice to the Queensland Government. But it remains unclear how best to quantify the uncertainty and communicate it in a way that helps decision making.

The challenge for scientists

Scientists see it as best-practice to characterise and include any uncertainties in their research when publishing in peer-reviewed journals. But the scientific community lacks consensus about the most effective way to communicate science and uncertainty to decision-makers.

For example, are absolute or relative probabilities more effective when publicly communicating risk? Should uncertainties be included in weather forecasts, bushfire trajectories or tsunami inundation predictions?

Our discussions revealed that our risk communication experiences and perspectives varied across our diverse fields of expertise.

This included our use of language, our target audiences, the types of risks we communicate (economic vs life and death) and the cultures and protocols of our host institutions.

But we also found consensus. We do not live in a “post-truth” world where science evidence is offered but not considered. Nor do we live in an “ivory tower” world where science evidence is needed but not offered.

Rather, we live in a world with increasing diversity and complexity in decision-making. This world offers real challenges.

However it also provides opportunities for scientists with diverse skills and priorities to communicate and engage with decision-makers. This includes those who acquire, interpret and communicate scientific data, through to those who engage in science arbitration and advocacy.

How to improve communication with decision-makers

In our report we recommend a new plan for scientists to adopt when doing any evidence-based communication with decision-makers.

A key element of this plan is to develop a common language on risk and uncertainty communication. This will make sure lessons learned may be more easily translated across distinct scientific disciplines.

We recommend that scientists explicitly state the motivations that underlie their scientific experimentation and modelling processes. That way decision-makers can better understand the role of the science in assisting with any decision they make.

We also recommend that both scientists and decision-makers keep a record of how research evidence and uncertainty was considered in any decision-making scenarios. This should include whether the research was asked for or offered, how the evidence and uncertainties were communicated, and how all this was received and considered.

The need for feedback

If the research did influence any decision, then it will be important to know how. If the research was not used in the decision-making process, it will be important to understand why.

Was it because uncertainties were not understood, inadequately represented, or exceeded tolerable thresholds?

Perhaps the models themselves were not easy for decision-makers to understand? This could mean modifications are needed to increase their utility.

Were other societal, political or fiscal factors prioritised? Are all of these factors able to be objectively analysed and justified?

And what approaches are available to scientists who conclude that research has been unjustly used by decision-makers?

In our experience there is a large variability in the way decision-makers provide documentation on how scientific advice they received actually informed the decision making process.

Both the public and the media have a role to play in encouraging these forms of documentation.

The uptake of any science evidence and the understanding of scientific uncertainty by decision-makers remains sparsely documented. This includes any influence of public and media communications, structured science communication workshops, involvement in science advisory panels, and other science engagement strategies.

So hopefully our plan for a more unifying language across the science community, and a concerted effort to document communication experiences, should help scientists who want to contribute their work to any decision-making processes that may guide future policies.

– Mark Quigley, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne, Adrian Ickowicz, Research scientist, Data61 et. al. For the full list of authors, click here.

This article was first published by The Conversation on 1 February 2017. Read the original article here.

SAGE pilot

Men of history, women of the future

The modern disciplines and industries of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have developed over centuries, from the natural philosophers of the Renaissance to the multi-billion dollar global enterprises of today. With only a few exceptions – Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin among them – men have dominated the institutions of STEM, brought new technologies and innovations to market, and inevitably reaped the recognition and the rich and varied rewards.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the structures and processes that underpin STEM today have evolved in a way that strongly favour men. Reflecting on my own career, I well remember my surprise at being asked to change a regular Saturday morning departmental staff meeting to a time more compatible with the family responsibilities of some of my female colleagues. The request was eminently sensible, but such considerations were only just beginning to register with STEM leaders of the 1990s.

Fast-forward to 2016, and while many of the policies and procedures that support hiring and promotion practices have improved, there remain significant structural and cultural problems that need to be overcome.

There is a sharp and in some cases growing discrepancy in representation of women and men across the academic spectrum, with women holding more than 50% of junior positions across most STEM disciplines, but fewer than 20% of full professorships.

Professor Tanya Monro, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia spoke on this issue with Professors Nalini Joshi and Emma Johnston at the National Press Club in March 2016. She described the ‘motherhood penalty’ that has been shown to affect income, career advancement and perceived competence relative to men and to women without children.

Catherine Osborne also spoke on the ABC Science Show about how the lack of flexibility and the short term nature of contracts offered to early and mid-career scientists – particularly women – forced her out of her chosen profession.

In an effort to address these issues, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering joined forces in 2015 to launch the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative that is piloting the Athena SWAN Charter; a UK-based accreditation framework that rewards universities and other research institutions on the basis of how much they do to improve gender equity in STEM.

Thirty of Australia’s 40 universities have now joined the SAGE pilot. So have a number of medical research institutes and research agencies, CSIRO among them. The Academies are grateful to the Australian Government for their support of this initiative through the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

However, the efforts to change the many structural barriers to gender equality in STEM are only the beginning. More insidious, and therefore more difficult to overcome, are the significant cultural norms and unconscious biases that affect day-to-day interactions between men and women working in STEM, as they do throughout society.

There is clearly much to be done. Forward thinking organisations are setting targets for achieving gender balance in senior STEM roles by 2025 or 2030. Between now and then, programs like the SAGE pilot, Male Champions of Change and the Panel Pledge will make a difference, but true change will require leadership and commitment from us all.

Professor Andrew Holmes AM

President, Australian Academy of Science

Read next: Dr Saraid Billiards of the NHMRC sheds light on funding reforms that are vital to the retention and progression of women in STEM.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on the SAGE pilot using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

science graduates

Science graduates high risk or high reward?

The employment prospects of science graduates are called into question by a report published by the Grattan Institute.

Studying science will get you a job – just not the job you might expect.

Industry and high placed academics have decried the results of a report declaring science to be a ‘high risk’ degree.

Such results fail to represent career prospects for those working outside of traditional science roles, say a cohort of Australia’s leading science experts.

Last week the respected Grattan Institute think tank’s Mapping Higher Education report warned that science was a ‘high risk’ study choice and that many recent science and information technology graduates are failing to find full-time work.

It’s not wrong, but it is near-sighted, say university and industry experts.

The report, released last week, concludes that a bachelor science degree is “high risk for finding a job” with “poor employment outcomes”, warning 51% of science graduates looking for full-time work in 2015 had found it four months after completing their course, 17 percentage points lower than the national average.

There has been a 20-year decline in participation in science at college.

But thinking of science as a one-track path to the lab fails to take into account the broader benefits of a science degree, says Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Greg Hunt.

Professor Les Field, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UNSW Australia and Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science, says STEM-based education gives students a “versatile, flexible, problem-solving, technology-literate grounding, which is what you need for life and employment in the modern world”.

Science graduates have higher rates of employment

The Chief Scientist’s March 2016 report, Australia’s STEM workforce, shows that over the medium term, people with STEM qualifications have higher rates of employment than graduates from other disciplines, Field points out.

“A survey of 466 employers across various sectors [STEM Skills in the workforce: What do employers want? March, 2015] have also shown that many employers expect to employ many more STEM graduates over the next five to 10 years, and around a quarter are already struggling to recruit people with appropriate STEM qualifications,” says Field.

“There is some mismatch between employer requirements of STEM graduates and the skills and experience with which they are coming out of universities. We should advocate that more industry placements and internships form a stronger part of university education.”

“Not a lot of opportunities”

Zara Barger, a first-year biomedical engineering student at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) admits that she is “a little worried” about her prospects. “In Australia it seems as though there is not a lot of opportunities. As part of my degree I have to do two 6-month internships and I think that will give me insight and connections.”

Alecia Newton, a UTS Bachelor of Science student, agrees. “I’m a little bit concerned. I’m planning on getting some experience by volunteering so fingers crossed that will get me a job. But science is a good starting ground – it will give me good knowledge and if it doesn’t work out I will do a Masters in high school teaching,” she says.

Grattan report “surprising”

“It’s surprising to see the Grattan Institute’s claims that are contrary to other reports both here and overseas,” says Jackie Randles, state manager for Inspiring Australia, the Federal Government’s national strategy for engaging communities in STEM.

“The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. By 2020, more than a third of the core skill sets of most occupations will be those that are not yet considered crucial today and likely to involve STEM,” says Randles.

“Closer to home, Australia’s STEM skills shortage continues to be a major risk to our economy with business joining government and academics in calls to redress a worrying skills gap.”

Graham Durant, Director of Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, says graduates with a “good science degree and a balanced portfolio of skills, knowledge and abilities will continue to have good employment prospects but not necessarily as academic researchers.

“The STEM disciplines, including art and design provide very good training for the world of work but degrees should not be regarded as vocational training. A good background in STEM disciplines opens up many opportunities in careers that may not necessarily be regarded as STEM careers.”

Professor Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Education at UNSW and former Dean of Science agrees that the longer term prospects for science graduates are excellent.

“With slightly more people studying science, obviously slightly fewer people will get jobs at once. Science still provides opportunities – all doors remain open to science graduates.”

Heather Catchpole

gender

How to balance gender in STEM

Sobering statistics on gender disparity were released by the Office of the Chief Scientist in early 2016 as part of a report on STEM-based employment. These followed the federal government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) announcement of a $13 million investment to encourage women to choose and stick with STEM careers. So, what are the issues for men and women entering STEM graduate pathways today and how can you change the game?

The rate of increase in female STEM-qualified graduates is outstripping that of males by 6 per cent. Overall, however, women make up just 16% of STEM-qualified people, according to the Chief Scientist’s March 2016 report, Australia’s STEM Workforce.

Recognising that more needs to be done, a cohort of exceptional female and male leaders in academia and industry is developing two strategic approaches that will receive the bulk of the new NISA funding. These are the industry-led Male Champions of Change initiative, and the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot, run the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

SAGE was founded by Professors Nalini Joshi and Brian Schmidt (a Nobel laureate) with a view to creating an Australian pilot of UK program the Athena SWAN Charter. Established in 2005, Athena SWAN was described by the British House of Commons as the “most comprehensive and practical scheme to improve academics’ careers by addressing gender inequity”.

Since September 2015, 32 organisations have signed up for Australia’s SAGE pilot, which takes a data analysis approach to affect change. Organisations gather information such as the number of women and men hired, trained and promoted across various employment categories. They then analyse these figures to uncover any underlying gender inequality issues, explains Dr Susan Pond, a SAGE program leader and adjunct professor in engineering and information technologies at the University of Sydney. Finally, participating organisations develop a sustainable four-year action plan to resolve the diversity issues that emerge from the analyses.

Women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions in Australian universities and institutes, and there are almost three times as many male than female STEM graduates in the highest income bracket ($104K and above). The Australia’s STEM Workforce report found this wealth gap is not accounted for by the percentage of women with children, or by the higher proportion of females working part-time.

There are, however, some opportunities revealed by the report. While only 13% of engineering graduates are female, 35% of employees with engineering degrees are female, so a larger proportion of women engineers are finding jobs. Across all sectors, however, employment prospects for STEM-qualified women are worse than for non-STEM qualified women – a situation that’s reversed for men.

Part of the problem is that graduates view academic careers as the only outcome of a STEM degree – they aren’t being exposed to careers in industry and the corporate sector, says Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea, a senior research leader at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and co-founder of Women in Science Australia.

“There are so many compounding issues in the academic environment: it’s hypercompetitive, you have to be an elite athlete throughout your entire career,” she says. “This impacts women more because they are often the primary caregivers.”

An increased focus on diversity in STEM skills taught at schools, however, is changing the way women relate to careers in the field, Marguerite says.

“There are opportunities for women because, with diversified training, we can realise there is a broad spectrum of careers. A PhD is an opportunity to hone your skills towards these careers.”

In the workforce, more flexible work arrangements and greater technical connectivity are improving conditions for women at the early-career level but, as Marguerite points out, there is still a bottleneck at the top.

“I’m still justifying my career breaks to this day,” she says. “It’s something that travels throughout your entire career – and this needs to change.”

Part of the issue is the way we measure success, as well as gender disparity, on career and grant application review panels – and this won’t change overnight.

“How we define merit may be different if there are more women in the room,” Marguerite adds. “There will be a more diverse range of ideas. Collaborations and engagement with the public may be valued more, as well as your ability to be an advocate and be a role model to other women in STEM. Paired with essential high-quality research, it could provide a broader lens.”

-Heather Catchpole

This article was first published on Postgraduate Futures on 29 May 2016. Read the original article here.

Women in STEM: Mathidle Desselle

Women in STEM: Mathilde Desselle

Featured image above by Nathan Barden

Desselle is a programme coordinator for outreach for the Community for Open Antimicrobial Drug Discovery (CO-ADD) at The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience. She is looking for the next antibiotic in engaging academic chemists worldwide in an open-access compound screening program and setting up international partnerships. Desselle has eight years’ experience driving engagement strategies for medical research programs and facilities. She is passionate about finding innovative approaches to drive transformational change and solutions to diagnose, track and treat infectious diseases.

Desselle is a board director for the Queensland-based Women in Technology peak industry body for women in science and technology careers, and for the Tech Girls Movement foundation, promoting positive role models to encourage and raise awareness of STEM careers for girls.

Desselle completed a double Masters degree in bioengineering and business from the Catholic University of Lille and a Masters of International Economics from the University of the Littoral Opal Coast in France in 2008.

What do you think is the most important character trait in a successful scientist?

“I would say having a drive. It takes passion, tenacity, and a vision to lead successful research initiatives, and I believe having an articulate “why” is essential to feed them. Don’t we always go back to what drives us when celebrating successful outcomes and overcoming rejection and failures?”

What is one thing you would change to improve the gender balance in senior ranks of scientists?

“Ending the ‘manel’. I would ask the 32 Australian universities and research institutes who are part of the SAGE pilot, an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering that addresses gender equity in the science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) sectors, to make the following pledge: striving to achieve gender balance in all conferences and panel discussions they are hosting and organising.”

What support structures did/do you have in place that have facilitated your success?

“I will forever be grateful to the mentors who have pushed me outside of my comfort zone. We also have world-class facilities in Australia enabling ground-breaking research and innovative collaborative projects. I am looking for the next antibiotic to combat drug-resistant infections, and it takes advanced scientific, technological and administrative systems to function.”

If at times your confidence is a little shaky, where do you turn?

“I can count on a very supportive network of women and men around me, on their experiences and their expertise. There is always someone I can turn to for addressing concerns or uncertainties. I also practice mindfulness and Harvard Business School social psychologist Professor Amy Cuddy’s “power poses”. Watch her Ted Talk on body language and challenge your inner wonder woman!”

What is your ideal holiday – and do you work on your holiday?

“My ideal holiday is being out horse riding on trails or beaches all day in New Zealand or in the USA. After I get off the saddle, I still follow up on pressing matters, and never lose an occasion to meet or connect with someone I could follow up with for professional matters, so I guess I rarely completely switch off.”

Follow Mathilde Desselle on Twitter: @mathildesselle

This article was first published by Women in Science AUSTRALIA. Read the original article here.

annual honorific awards

Annual honorific awards

Scientists who are leading the world on solar energy efficiency, helping to develop one-shot flu vaccines, and making portable biosensors to detect viruses are among the winners of the Australian Academy of Science’s annual honorific awards.

Each year the Academy presents awards to recognise scientific excellence, to researchers in the early stage of their careers through to those who have made life-long achievements.

This year’s announcement includes 17 award winners across astronomy, nanoscience, mathematics, chemistry, physics, environmental science and human health.

Professor Martin Green, sometimes known as the “father of photovoltaics”, has won the prestigious Ian Wark Medal and Lecture for his world-record breaking work improving solar efficiency.

annual honorific awards
Professor Martin Green

Dr Jane Elith and Associate Professor Cyrille Boyer, who recently won awards in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, will be the recipients of this year’s Fenner and Le Févre prizes.

annual honorific awards
Dr Jane Elith
annual honorific awards
Associate Professor Cyrille Boyer

The Academy President, Professor Andrew Holmes congratulated all the award winners for their work.

“These scientists are simply inspirational. They are working at the leading edges of their fields and of human knowledge, and they are developing innovations that will change and improve our society, our economy and our health,” says Holmes.

“This list of winners represents the best of Australia’s leading and emerging scientists; from researchers doing fundamental research to those building next generation technologies,” says Holmes.

The awards will be formally presented at the Academy’s annual three day celebration of Australian science, Science at the Shine Dome, in Canberra in May 2016.

Read more about the awardees and their research here.

This article was shared in a media release by the Australian Academy of Science on 23 November 2015. Featured image above: Aerial Shine Dome May 2015 credit Adi Chopra.