Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Scientists, Media and Society

By Peter Pockley

Peter Pockley reports from a conference held by the Australian Science Communicators.

As I start assembling for publication a historical account of the sometimes fractious relations between scientists, media and society, the recent biennial conference of the Australian Science Communicators association provided a window on the current state of play.

First, who does the ASC represent? Of the 257 delegates on the official list, by my count practising scientists (8) and full-time media professionals (13) were very small minorities. There were only three teachers.

The largest contingent of 59 covered institutional public relations/communications in research organisations, followed by 38 PR consultants and 35 in government employment. PROs in universities (12), museums (10) and independent agencies (10) formed another block.

Thus, the ASC covers a substantial group of operatives but at the interstices of the scientists/media/society triangle. They are a keen bunch committed to improving, for example, the coverage of science in the media. Dominantly though, they are expected by their employing organisations or clients to promote their "brand" in outlets to the public, rather than articulating, in the broad, the nature, values and verities of science for countering the current antagonism towards science in public, such as regarding climate change.

That the role of the dedicated scientist/communicator needs promotion was highlighted by Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, in his opening address. In a keenly critical justification for more effective "science communication" Chubb concluded: "The communication between the science and the media is patchy — the effective use of the media to get the message out is uneven. That does mean that we have to do better. The UK's Science Media Centre's philosophy sums it up perfectly: "The media will do science better when scientists do media better".

In response to my question, Chubb agreed that ways must be found to support scientists as ongoing public champions and role models of science, not merely deliverers of short quotes or sound bites. He is developing proposals along these lines for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council.

Two contributors drew on their research for PhDs in the ANU's Centre for the Public Awareness of Science that highlights the fundamental barriers that the numerous scientists they surveyed expressed about their willingness and capacity to commit to significant activity as public expositors of science.

Among 1,521 respondents Suzette Searle found that the vast majority (90%) agree that "scientists within the public and private sectors have a responsibility to ensure timely communication to the public of research results are in the public interest".

But, the practicalities of a career in science inject a massive barrier. Asked "Is communication with the public part of the job?", 66% said no and only 27% agreed. Of the respondents, 55% said they “were hindered from communicating with the general public in the way they would like”, the dominant reason being "lack of time".

In her PhD work Bobby Cerini explored the role of "science heroes" in the public arena on a global scale. In conversation with me she welcomed Chubb’s embrace of any scheme to support the emergence of a cohort of science champions in Australia. Her prime qualification reflects Searle's findings, saying that those willing to serve cannot be expected to graft significant and publicly visible work on to existing commitments unless they are actively supported by dedicated agents for seeking and securing engagements and supporting their presentations with aids and effective publicity.

Future blogs will develop this theme. Comments welcome.

© Peter Pockley — scicomm@bigpond.net.au