Tag Archives: science communication

Science communication in the “alternative facts” era

Panel members (left-right): Ketan Joshi,  Heather Catchpole, Lucinda Beaman and Amy Coopes,

From climate change to vaccination and alternative medicine, researchers face problems when they seek to turn evidence into actions through science communication. On the 1st June, 2017, Macquarie University held a public workshop called “Science, Misinformation, and Alternative Facts”.

The interdisciplinary workshop brought together a diverse group of panelists to discuss science and media in our “post-truth” era. Panelists included Ketan Joshi, a communications consultant specialising in clean energy technologies; Heather Catchpole, founder of STEM content producer Refraction Media; Lucinda Beaman, editor of FactCheck at the Conversation and Amy Coopes, journalist turned medical student and cancer researcher.

The panelists discussed the challenges of science communication and potential strategies for closing the gap between evidence and public opinion.

They described how the emergence of anxiety-inducing terms such as “post-truth” and “fake news” have influenced how the general public perceive scientific information, as well as the increasingly curated nature of news by social media. Further challenges discussed included the use of facts out of context and the increasingly politicised nature of science, particularly in climate change and health.

One of the most important takeaways was the emphasis on building relationships between scientists, academics and journalists in order to make the best decisions on how to assess and report scientific information. The panel members also recommended that teachers focus on helping students understand the scientific process so that the next generation is equipped with critical thinking skills.

The recording of the workshop by Jon Brock is now available via the link here. The workshop was coordinated by the Macquarie Research Enrichment Program and co-sponsored by the Faculty of Human Sciences, the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders.

Read more about the workshop at Inspiring Australia.

Make your expertise available

Featured image: President of Science & Technology Australia, Professor Jim Piper (left), hosts a meeting between Science meets Parliament delegates and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) in 2016

Darren, what’s your particular area of research and how can it help to inform policy in Australia?

I am a medical researcher, working to understand the biology of cancer and neurodegeneration, and use that knowledge to design new therapies. Both diseases have a huge health and financial impact in Australia and internationally, and with an ageing population this impact will only increase, with obvious implications for health funding and policy.

When you first attended Science meets Parliament, how did you prepare for your research pitch?

I really didn’t know what to expect so I was actually pretty underprepared. I won’t make that mistake this time!

Did your pitch have the desired outcome? What would you do differently next time?

I had a great discussion with a Greens senator from Western Australia who had a strong interest in environmental issues. We talked about the importance of science in understanding the environment and gathering data as a foundation for drafting good evidence-based policy in areas such as fisheries management and forestry. In some ways I didn’t really have to do much convincing! 

This time I plan to research the electorate of the parliamentarians I’ll meet and the issues that might be important in that context. I’ll make sure I understand the issues they have flagged as important to them and think about how my background and research interests might align with those issues. I also plan to ask them questions to find common ground for discussion.

Describe your experience at Science meets Parliament (SmP). What did you think of the event?

I was really enthused by SmP, and impressed by the level engagement of the politicians and policymakers who attended. I found it an invaluable learning experience and a fantastic opportunity to meet scientists across a broad spectrum of specialities.

Seeing the workings of government up close (if only briefly) was a real eye opener and the various briefings and workshops were constructive and informative. I still draw on the things I learnt there.

In many ways it was a catalyst to me becoming much more interested and active in science policy and communication.

What advice do you have for other researchers who are trying to turn their knowledge into action?

Keep a constructive mindset and focus on how science might help, rather than just presenting a list of problems or complaints.

Listen to the concerns and issues that are important and make yourself available as a source of expertise and advice on the process and outcomes of science by fostering relationships.

Be aware that politics and policy development work to different timelines and use different language to science.

Try to take a bipartisan approach.

What have been the major challenges in getting your science heard by policymakers in Australia, and how have you overcome them?

The most difficult barriers to progress have been the relatively regular turnover of ministers, a challenging funding environment (which always seems to dominate discussions) and hostile attitudes to evidence and rejection of “expertise” in some quarters. 

Overcoming these is really challenging and incredibly time-consuming. My approach is to attempt to build dialogue wherever possible, and to be proactive in making science relevant and interesting to the general public.

I take every opportunity I can to tell people about the outcomes and process of science. Public support for science might eventually translate into it being heard at the policy level.

How do you think the relationship between science and politics in Australia compares with other countries, and what lessons could we take from overseas?

I believe we can learn a lot from other countries. For example, we could benefit from aspects of science and policy partnering schemes employed in the UK, science diplomacy schemes in the US, and the appointment of ministers with relevant experience and qualifications in places like Canada.

Most government departments in the UK have a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to provide scientific advice and PhD students can undertake three-month internship placements in the Government Office for Science.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have a Centre for Science Diplomacy which aims to use to promote scientific cooperation as an essential element of foreign policy.

What are you most looking forward to at Science meets Parliament this year, and what do you hope to see more of in the future?

I look forward to meeting interesting and driven people, gaining new insights and hopefully gaining some traction with politicians about the importance of science and its ability to help drive the health and prosperity of Australians.

Click here to find out more about Science meets Parliament.

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.

Virtual diving with David Attenborough

Award-winning naturalist David Attenborough has brought some of the world’s most remote environments into our living rooms with documentaries like Planet Earth and Life.

But now you can be side-by-side with Attenborough as you are immersed in a prehistoric ocean and the Great Barrier Reef in two virtual reality films screening at the Australian Museum.

The virtual reality experiences were created by innovative UK-based studio Alchemy VR and are presented at the museum in partnership with Samsung.

In First Life, viewers travel back 540 million years and come face-to-face with ancient sea creatures such as giant shrimp-like predator Anomalocaris and the spine-covered Hallucigenia. While Attenborough guides you through the seamlessly animated ocean, you can explore all 360 degrees of the visuals.

But in Great Barrier Reef Dive things get even more real. Filmed at the museum’s own Lizard Island Research Station as part of David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef  TV series, viewers explore the world’s largest reef system in a bubble-like submarine. Turn to your right, and David is seated next to you gazing at the multitudes of fish, sharks and coral surrounding the submarine. The real-world footage also gives viewers a glimpse at the devastating effects of coral bleaching.

While virtual reality is still seen as a novelty by many, Kim McKay, CEO of the Australian Museum, says the technology is a game-changer for engaging the public in museum experiences.

“Virtual reality is a powerful new way of transporting us to the most extraordinary places on our planet, and David Attenborough is the perfect guide,” says Kim McKay, CEO of the Australian Museum. “It revolutionises the way people experience museums.”

The virtual reality films are also setting a new benchmark for educating viewers about the natural world in a compelling way.

“VR is opening up new frontiers for how Australians create, consume and interact with content,” says Phillip Newton, Corporate Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Samsung Electronics. “What better way to be fully immersed in our innovative technology than through these experiences?”

The two films are showing at the Australian Museum until 9th October 2016.

– Gemma Conroy

Featured image credit: Alchemy