Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Aspiring to Inspire

By Simon Grose

Can the government’s Inspire Australia strategy raise public appreciation of science?

Why doesn’t this magazine sell as many copies as Women’s Weekly? Why isn’t Radio National’s Science Show as popular as Alan Jones’ breakfast show?

These kinds of questions – and the frustration behind them – bother science communicators, science journalists, scientists and others who yearn for a more scientifically literate society. The expectation is that such a society would be more likely to encourage politicians and enterprises to propose evidence-based policies, would be more sensible than superstitious, more sanguine than shortsighted, and could cement this rational refit by attracting more of its citizens to become scientists.

The latest effort to provide answers is the Government’s Inspiring Australia strategy. Its aspirational goal is to create a “scientifically engaged Australia – a society that is inspired by and values scientific endeavour, that attracts increasing national and international interest in its science, that critically engages with key scientific issues and that encourages young people to pursue scientific studies and careers”.

Launched a year ago, it has been followed by a report from an expert working group. Together they generally propose old favourites – media training for scientists, science training for journalists, summits and forums, surveys and portals, ambassadors and champions, programs in schools, and scientists as characters in popular dramas. A truly aspirational goal is that “government-commissioned science reports with relevance to policy be made fully transparent”.

The underlying desire for greater public appreciation of science is akin to that burning in the hearts of aficionados of second-tier sports and religions. Basketball fans reckon they have a really cool game; if only the media gave it more coverage it would attract more spectators. Buddhists probably reckon that if more Australians took up their faith our society would be happier.

So it is for science: the willingness to supply exceeds the public willingness to consume. Scientists and science communicators can’t get the coverage they believe their stories deserve. Science journalists can’t win the space or air time for many stories they consider worthy of publication. Other journalists tend to ignore or cherry-pick scientific information to ensure it doesn’t defuse or complicate what is otherwise a “good story”.

Adding to the frustration is the fact that this is happening in an era when many important political and social issues are rich in scientific content and our population is better educated than ever before.

Will Inspiring Australia break this spell? It’s a bit like pushing a piece of string. The government has promised $21 million to provide the push, likely to be allocated in the coming Budget. Good luck to all who get to put their shoulder behind the string: we look forward to increasing our print runs in response to new demand. Women’s Weekly watch out!