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.
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.
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.
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.
Featured image above: Inspiring Australia supported the development of The Medieval Bundanon, a performance held on the banks of the Shoalhaven River that explored the work of Wollongong based geomorphologist Dr Tim Cohen. Credit: Mark Newsham.
There are many people who don’t know what scientists do or why research matters.
A 2013 CSIRO survey of more than 1,200 people found that only 53% of the respondents reported being interested in science. Around 40% of respondents reported being disengaged and even wary of science, with half of those people found to actively mistrust scientists. This lack of understanding between scientists and those who don’t trust their motives perpetuates a divide.
The general lack of awareness and understanding about the place of science in society is accompanied by poor scientific literacy.
In 2014 the Academy of Science found that large numbers of respondents to a survey of 1500 people answered basic scientific questions incorrectly. For example, only six in ten of respondents knew that the Earth takes one year to orbit the sun. Men, younger people, and those with higher education levels were more likely to know the correct answer: 68% of men knew the Earth takes a year to orbit the sun compared with 50% of women. More than a quarter of survey respondents – 27% – believed that the earliest humans live at the same time as dinosaurs.
These results were broadly similar to a similar survey conducted in 2010. Interestingly, knowledge levels amongst young people dropped more than other groups over the previous three years. For example, there was a 12% reduction in the proportion of 18–24 year-olds who know the earth orbits the sun in a year (down to 62%).
While knowledge of science facts cannot be considered a genuine sign of scientific literacy, it does tell us something. Looking at the 2013 CSIRO data that identified that 40% of the Australian public are disinterested or wary of science, Dr. Craig Cormack conducted focus group studies with this cohort and found some interesting and unexpected common themes:
Nearly all reported a negative experience of science at school.
The word “technology” was more appealing than the word “science”.
People didn’t want to know about how a technology worked – they just wanted to know that it did work, that it was safe, and that it would solve the problem that it was intended for.
When asked who they most trusted to tell them about science or technology, focus group members cited friends, relatives and even talkback radio hosts. They did not refer to scientific experts.
Another survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for Inspiring Australia in 2014 looked at how frequently Australians interacted with information about science and technology. Only half of the population could recall listening to, watching or reading something to do with science and technology, or even searching for science and technology information, at least once a fortnight. And 14% of respondents had much less frequent interactions with science and technology information.
We can assume that large numbers of people continue to be disengaged in science, and that politicians and policy makers are among the scientifically disinterested.
With this in mind, Inspiring Australia encourages scientists from all disciplines and at every level of their careers to help us ensure that more Australians understand and value of what they do.
The story of you
There are three main reasons why we encourage researchers and academics to take the time to develop an interesting story about what they do.
1. It’s good for the community
Sharing stories creates connections. A memorable interaction with you might have a positive impact in someone’s life later on. They may learn something new and be prompted to find out more – this can lead to increased scientific literacy. They may consider going into a STEM career. They may be more inclined to support public funding for the work you do, or talk to other people about how interesting your work is.
Take Lena, a young woman from near Wollongong whose family and school community were convinced that she should be a hairdresser. A chance encounter with an engineering outreach program led her instead to pursue an engineering degree, much to the surprise of everyone she knew. No one in her immediate environment would have made this suggestion. Today Lena is a fourth year honours student at UNSW Engineering. If there were 100 other young women in a similar position as Lena, and if one in 10 had the same response as she did, Australia would have ten new female engineers.
As why this is important, a serious STEM skills shortage has been identified in Australia. The problem begins at school, with Australia lagging in maths and science on many international benchmarks. Gender equity is also an ongoing issue, with fewer women pursuing STEM degrees than men. Each time researchers discuss their work with non-scientists, they provide role models for young people and their advisers.
2. It’s good for science
Researchers have an important role to play in helping improve awareness of Australia’s research capability. While research and academia are at the heart of Australia’s innovation agenda, scientists are not yet prominently featured alongside entrepreneurs and start-ups in public discourse. There’s an opportunity for academics and researchers to make much more noise about the research and teaching that goes on in universities. This is where Australia’s capability in science, technology, engineering and maths is developed. PWC reports that if just 1% of the workforce moved into a STEM role, Australia could boost its GDP by $57.4 billion dollars. Academic work is crucial in developing talent and skills.
3. It’s good for you
New opportunities unfold when you meet people from other sectors and get involved in new things. This sounds like more work – and it is. But the benefits are worth the effort. There’s huge value in developing new networks; it gets your name out there, you receive more invitations to participate in interesting initiatives and it can be good fun. Universities are also beginning to reward academics and researchers who become advocates and role models by speaking to the public.
Who could you talk to and why?
If you wanted to talk about your scientific research to a broader audience, what would you want to achieve as a result of this communication? It’s important to have a clear purpose on what you hope to achieve as this will guide what you decide to do.
Ask yourself these questions – in this order – to help shape the next steps.
Who could you talk to? And why them?
What do you think they might be interested to know?
What could you say to them?
How would this communication help you fulfill your purpose?
There’ll probably be different kinds of audiences you’d like to reach, so you’ll need to develop slightly different approaches. Each audience and what they might be interested in should guide your content. What would be the main thing you’d want a particular audience to remember about your work? ONE big idea. Consider this before you craft your message so you can talk about something the audience is likely to be interested in.
What’s a point of common interest you could start from? Physicist Professor Brian Greene, who founded the World Science Festival in New York, talks about building bridges. He says you need to engage people with familiar concepts before you take them somewhere very new.
Astronomer Dr Amanda Bauer suggests you treat people as if they are intelligent and curious – they may not have an in depth knowledge about your topic, but they are interested to learn. And when your enthusiasm for your work shows, the audience will be inspired to find out more. They may not understand everything you’re talking about, but they will enjoy hearing you express a point of view with passion – even if it’s a controversial.
Personal anecdotes are another way of making a story more memorable and interesting. As does any information that shows the human side of being a scientist – disappointment, setbacks, mistakes and unexpected twists. Dr Jordan Nyguen’s two-part Catalyst program ‘Becoming Superhuman’ was really effective in showing how technology doesn’t always work as it’s supposed to. It’s reassuring for an audience to know that you don’t have all the answers.
Make your story simple enough for someone not only to remember it, but to also be able to tell someone else. Limit yourself to one big idea and no more than 3 points. Invite audience participation via questions. Consider using a prop – stick insects are always good – or even a rock. Professor Kathy Belov takes baby devils to her talks.
Finish your talk with a call to action and something that the audience can do afterwards. This is another great way to keep the engagement going.
Once you’ve got a story to tell, practice it!
Notice your body language by doing your talking in front of a mirror. Performance coaches recommend adopting a stately posture to combat nerves and even feeling your voice in your whole body. Your voice is stronger when it comes from your belly rather than your throat, and your words should be aimed towards the back of the space you are in. If you record yourself speaking, you’ll notice where your voice might need to be modulated. Or where sentences are too long and need to be shortened to accommodate your breath.
Get help crafting your story
Talking about yourself does not come naturally to everyone, but these skills can be developed and there are people who can help. Most universities have professional staff and science communicators who provide advice and training for academics.
If you want to try your hand at media, a good way to start is by developing an 800 word article for the Conversation or for publication on your university’s website. Once your article is published, you can send it to the local community radio station. Regional radio is another great avenue for honing your media skills. Staff in your university’s media team will be able to advise the best course of action.
Dr Cameron Webb is a Medical Entomologist at the University of Sydney and NSW Health Pathology who makes regular media appearances. He understands how the media works and recommends anyone interested in doing media interviews should first listen to the radio a lot to understand how journalists package information.
Note what you like and dislike about others being interviewed. Listen to how people respond to different types of questions. Cameron also advises you keep track of all your media activity to build a showcase of your ability to promote science – a valuable skill to note in job applications, requests for promotion and grant applications.
There are lots of online resources available to help you pitch a story and make it newsworthy, prepare for a media interview and build useful relationships with journalists. For starters, look at sciencemediasavvy.org and scijourno.com.au.
Talk to the public
Once you’ve got a story to tell, get out there! Make contact with the people who deliver events and public programs at your university and let them know you are keen to talk to the public.
Start with your institution’s open day. National Science Week is another great opportunity for researchers to connect with the general public and many libraries also welcome talks from scientists. It’s best to approach someone who might host you with an idea that is well developed rather than a vague interest in wanting to get some communication experience. Have a title, event description, target audience and few lines about why this topic may pique interest, and with whom.
Participate in panel discussions. Get involved in a science pub night. Join the audiences on ABC’s Q and A. Get out of your bubble! Share your story with people outside your peer network and you might be surprised to see how interested they are when you take some time to let them in.
– Jackie Randles, Manager Inspiring Australia (NSW)
Inspiring Australia works with scientists around the country to create memorable events and activities designed to engage everyday people with science, technology and innovation. Programs include theatrical performances, citizen science, community festivals and artistic collaborations that bring science and technology to life and tell intriguing stories about the amazing things that scientists do.
This is an edited version of a keynote presentation delivered to the 2016 Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education on the theme: The 21st Century Science and Maths Graduate. The Conference was held on 28–29 September 2016 in Brisbane at the University of Queensland.
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.