Live-Blogging #ASC2012 – Monday Morning At The Australian Science Communicators National Conference

Firstly, there’s a diverse range of footwear at this event.

So far I’ve spotted tennis sneakers, Chanel ballet flats, Converse sneakers, court shoes and high heels. I’m glad that I’m not underdressed, I was worried it was a “bring your own labcoat” kind of gig.

I’m next to Dr Paul Willis and Michael McRae, up in the “Gods” area – got a good view. It’s not a particularly full room, but there’s quite a few iPads glowing around the arena. Please to not crash the system by downloading every back-issue of The Infinite Monkey Cage. Paul has distracted me by pointing out what happens if you put “Santorum” into Google.

Rod Lambert is doing the intro – CPAS – acknowledging the sponsors and the escape vents from this rather oddly shaped building. We are listening to Donna Ingram, who is giving the traditional welcome.

Next we’re hearing from Jesse Shore, who is the ASC National President. Nice fellow, interviewed him a while back for the podcast. “Communicating science has never been more important or difficult… Communicating science effectively is basis of a knowledge based society,” and how pleased he is that there’s state representatives for all the states present. Science and society has become increasingly complex and politicised. Many thanks for making the conference happening and how sci comm is a relatively new profession – acknowledging the important people in history and the field. He’s now introducing Robyn Williams. He even has a star named after him, apparently!

Robyn Williams with the opening Plenary. “A quick trip through a small career,” he starts, discussing the beginning in April 1972 with Apollo 16 and his first science show in Vancouver in August 1975 (he got to fly first-class back then – indeed, different times). He did interviews with Gerard Piel, the former publisher of Scientific American who said that young people weren’t interested in science and Lord Richard Caulder, who said that he was worried about fossil fuels and the effect it might have on climate. Apparently he said that they have known about it since 1961 and horrified that in 1975 they weren’t doing anything!

Now he has returned from a conference at Vancouver and mentions of a number of people who have left science communication – and how Eugenie Scott says that the concern about science in schools and subverting efforts to teach evolution is ongoing. Now there’s a new trend, a “systematic PR, an assault, a sustained assault on the facts about climate change” – on the Heartland institute and how his report about the issues will appear on the Science Show this week.

How have things changed? The assault on science – asbestos, cigarettes… it’s a continual effort to get the facts about science out there to the public. The “And Finally...” syndrome, putting science programs at the end (Gillard /Rudd continually) – and how it’s almost an afterthought. He’s put forward material three times to the media and it’s gone nowhere. He’s suggested a program on H5N1 and the new strains that can travel in air and how that wasn’t of interest (sheesh). But people are familiar with this kind of struggle. He points out there are successes – the Aust Science Media Centre. The five minute thesis performance – and putting it on the science show – and how social media helps get the message out (particularly podcasting).

Don’t talk down Science – it is essential,” – there are trends away from science, but there are successes. He quotes “Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out,” (Oscar Wilde) and encourages us to keep on going. Forty years for him – so let’s keep on going.

Now the Plenary 1 – On Science and Science Communication in Australia: the View from the Chief Scientist of Australia. With Ian Chubb and Rod Lamberts as the moderator. “It’s not a given that people will see Science as a good – a continual struggle – think of awareness of climate change then and now,” he’s given over fifty speeches around the country and in many of them he’s urged the scientists present to go forth and communicate; why it’s important that they do it. “The media will do science better, when the scientists do media better.” The world is different now and our expectations are higher – the need to explain what we do for the money we get must be done and done convincingly. There are now many more ways of getting our message out. Still fringes, but now empathy from our colleagues. We can’t avoid trying. “I must admit that the modern ways of communication confuses me” and he doesn’t know Twitter. He’s come to realise that Facebook isn’t just cyber-voyerism and how Julian Cribb’s Science Alert, started in 2004 is regarded as valuable. When Chris Cosello (?) on Facebook – as of last Saturday 1 million followers worldwide. Puts them in the best Facebook pages out there – up with BBC World News and Fox News. 90% of fans between 13-30, most are outside of Australia (Find These Stats).

We have the ability to promote science within Australia, leads to collaboration outside Australia and we must take advantage of this ability to access such networking opportunities. We should emphasise the career options that are available, the usefulness of an education in science, the rigour and skills in analysis, fostering in skepticism and rethinking of how to face future challenges (not unlike those in other countries). Research from Norway has suggested that “We have passed the era where physicians, technicians and engineers are not seen as important – who they will be rather than what they will do,” Between 1992 and 2009 the proportion of students taking Physics, Chemistry and Bio have dropped and trend towards losing interest in a irreducible core of science subjects.

Recent study of Years 11-12 showed remarkable little understanding in science all around us – 33% thought it was always relevant to their future. 47% thought it was almost always relevant to Australia’s future. Only 19% thought science was almost always useful in everyday lives. Of those not studying science (1/3 of cohort), most thought it wasn’t important to their lives – only 19% of those students think science is almost always useful in their lives. Uni enrolments have been low and essentially flat – IT enrolments have dropped “like a stone”.

Therefore – reposition, rethink the strategy and whatever it is that we do is to take the community with us – one is the need to understand the natural world and the other is the constructed world, to make life better, comfortable, secure. We do well with the first: 3% of world pop in Australia directly produces 3% world knowledge and we use our expertise to add to the 97% of research elsewhere. This contribution is in our national interest and is what he considers to be the most important contribution; innovate, new industries, new employment and prosperous citizenship.

We should not waste talent – he ponders why Australia is 9th in OECD in employing scientists and equal last in employing women – not because they drop out or fail, but because they don’t enrol in the first place. Give informed decisions as to what to do and what’s important. To ensure higher level of participation of women and their ongoing employment, the benefits and pitfalls, comprehension of the ethical framework – we need cultural change.

It should be clear that the need to understand science will lead to understanding of its value – which will flow to supporting science. “Teachers at the high school and uni level not giving a broad enough understanding as to how scientists they do their research… ignorant of scientific inquiry.” At US high school level he says that education is not giving a broad enough understanding as to how scientists they do their research… ignorant of scientific inquiry (from a quote from Scientific American).

He worries about how science has been lost in the public debate – 40% think that most climate scientists disagree and over a third disagree as to whether human activities are a major contributor to the earth’s warming. (97% of climate scientists apparently agree that it’s anthropogenic warming). Public respect for science is “bruised” – need to present accurate and fairly – getting balance isn’t equal time and space unless the expertise is equally balanced. “Don’t recommend a dentist to fix a broken leg – test the assumption, knowledge, what they really know – where the weight of evidence really lies,” make science and maths interesting enough for all.

Emphasises the importance of the job we do and to “Do science better and the media will do it better” (reemphasised from a point he made before).

Science not taught as it is practiced” is one criticism he has of schools. Expose at a relatively early age to teaching how it is practiced and not as it is “taught as it was 50, 80, 90 years ago” [HANG ON HOW OLD IS HE??].

A few questions from the audience – should we highlight differences between societies to highlight the merits of science? He says show advantages of our society with a focus on science will be advantageous – encourage studies, build up a culture who want to do these studies will feel bolstered to do so.

“How do we get the politics out of climate change?” – but it is a political issue and as soon as one party choose to accept it and another didn’t! Emphasise the science, can reinforce the science in the politics and not let stupid, emotive, bogus claims have sway as the science suffers.

I’ll just edit to add Dr Paul Willis’ question, as he’s sitting next to me and he only just got the microphone. “Picking up on what you’re saying about science higher degree courses as a useful toolkit that’s not picked up on – I reflect on the Arts faculties: how generally they have double the numbers of people taking part in comparison to Science, but few go onto using their degrees as ‘art critics’ or as their eventual career path. It chastens me to say – should we learn from them; should we market science as a tool kit?”

He agrees, with what he says is a prejudice based on experience but limited evidence – we tend in the science areas to be replicating ourselves; our PhDs had the same apprenticeship models. We have begun to change and at ANU there is an element in the PhD about communicating. We are learning but we still have a lot to learn; the notion that science is an education built around a content that is important to know, that it’s a good education in itself, is an important message. Some of the big banks hire mathematicians, but the numbers are vanishing. We need people with interpreting skills, asking questions, looking for the evidence – skills that are encouraged and useful in an innovative workforce. Just because you have Physics degree, not necessarily work in Physics for all your life. That it can be seen as an achievement to work in other fields other than Physics and accept responsibility along with employers as to what a modern education process leads to, with respect to skills and important content.

Now it’s time for a break! Hope you’re following the Tweetstream on #ASC2012. 

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