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March 2020 – Reflections on Australian science communication

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The year 2020 has been a challenging one for Australians with bushfires then floods, and now globally we’re facing the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in strong calls for people to self-isolate and act responsibly. Never before has there been such a need for effective science communication.

And, in the middle of this, in mid-February, the Australian Science Communicators had its 11th national conference.

This month’s newsletter reflects on Australian Science Communication 2020:

We hope you enjoy this newsletter and welcome your feedback. We particularly appreciate an article from guest author Louise Ralph, a past Econnect consultant. Louise writes on achieving behaviour change, which is topical to dealing with Covid-19.

If any of you have any great examples of Covid-19 science communication, we’d love to hear about them and will provide a collation and analysis in our next newsletter.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam: Jenni MetcalfeToss Gascoigne, Claire Heath, Michelle Riedlinger & Madeleine Stirrat.

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Participatory science communication is all about the Ps

By Jennifer Metcalfe

I chaired a session at the recent Australian Science Communicators conference on participatory communication. Five of us gave case studies and talked about the challenges and ingredients for success.

I talked about the Climate Champion program with Australian farmers; Rod Kennett about Questacon’s ‘Born or Built’ interactive; Jennifer Manyweathers discussed how participation among diverse stakeholders examined whether we were ready for foot-and-mouth disease; Anne Leitch related her involvement with participatory Indigenous story-telling on climate change; and Michelle Riedlinger talked about public mobilisation and advocacy.

Our session ended by summing up our shared learning with a series of Ps (thanks to Anne for starting this off):

  1. Purpose – ensure participants have a clear and shared purpose to their interactions.
  2. Power – relinquish power so all participants, including scientists and science communicators, are jointly directing the interactions.
  3. Parity – make sure that participants have an equal opportunity to interact.
  4. Pain acknowledge the pain that some participants may be feeling as they interact on difficult topics.
  5. Personal – support the development of relationships of trust between participants.
  6. Practice recognise the time and resources needed for participatory science communication projects.
  7. Provocation welcome debate as part of the process and don’t always seek to reach consensus.

One of the secrets to successful long-term participatory programs is ensuring participants have time together where they can develop relationships of trust. In the current crisis meaning social isolation and distancing, one big challenge for science communicators is to find ways to support the development of relationships using digital tools rather than face-to-face interaction.

The history of science communication

By Toss Gascoigne

Jenni Metcalfe, Michelle Riedlinger and I discussed a new book at the conference. It’s the story of how modern science communication has changed and developed over the last 30–50 years, with interactive science centres, new courses and research at universities, and the birth and growth of associations, journals and conferences for science communicators.

Michelle was an author of the chapter on Canada, and Jenni and I wrote the Australian chapter.

Thirty-nine countries tell their stories, and they range across the world. All continents and many cultures are represented. Five are Muslim-majority countries: Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia. Five are from Africa, seven from the Americas, 11 from Asia and the rest from Europe and Australasia.

They also range across the financial spectrum, with 11 outside the top 100 in per capita GDP, with Uganda, Ghana and Pakistan having the lowest incomes. The graph below shows the difference between the lowest income (Uganda) and the highest (Norway) is a factor of 127.


2018 per capita GDP (produced from World Bank data

That suggests a huge difference between the science communication issues these countries would address: Uganda focussing on basic information on health and agriculture, while Norway has more concerns about the way citizens can get involved in science and help shape the research agenda.

The book is full of stories. One concerns Mongkut, king of Thailand from 1851 to 1868. He predicted a full solar eclipse two years before the event. 100 years later the date of the eclipse was chosen as National Science Day. King Mongkut built on his fame in the West as the subject of the Broadway show and film The King and I.

Then there’s an account of drumming for science in the villages of Uganda; a polio campaign in Nigeria which had to be put off because Muslims were concerned it was a plot to sterilise their children; and a Russian science magazine which made an appearance in the Guinness Book of Records.

The book, Communicating Science: A Global Perspective, is published by ANU Press and will be launched in May. It’s open access, so people can download individual chapters or the whole book free.

A matter of influence: applying behavioural change to science communication
By Louise Creely

As science communicators, we work from the logical process that knowledge creates attitudes, which influence behaviour.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Things get in the way, disrupting that process and creating a gap between what people know and what people do. That’s where the insights from behavioural science can help us communicate more effectively.

At the recent ASC conference, BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) researchers Kun Zhao, Mark Boulet and Geoff Paine did a brilliant job on applying behavioural change to science communication. They explained that behavioural scientists look at actions they can see, what causes someone to act the way they do, and how we can leverage that to create behavioural change.

They took us through the group’s new Comms Mini Method, which begins with understanding what influences behaviour – and what gets in the way of people acting on what they know.

These are things like biases (unconscious drivers of behaviour), habits (unconscious repetition of behaviour) and even opportunity (the chance to act) and capability (the ability to carry out a behaviour).


The factors that influence behaviour. Source: BehaviourWorks Australia.

They pointed out that the people you are trying to influence are not like you, so it’s vital to understand their barriers and drivers. They shared BWA’s tried and tested approach to behavioural change with us, and say we often go straight from the problem to the solution and miss the ‘deep dive’:

  1. Exploration phase (problem focus) – what do you want to happen as a result of your communication? Who you want to do what differently based on the information?
  2. Deep dive phase (behaviour focus) – what are the drivers and barriers your audience faces in doing what you want them to do, and how doing it will benefit them?
  3. Applications phase (impact focus) – what communication channels are open to you and, based on your deep dive, what’s the best match for your audience? How will you craft your messages based on your goals, their barriers and drivers, and the comms channels you’ve chosen?

Once you’ve gone through these phases, it’s time to put your communication into practice – and then there’s the evaluation process. But that’s a story for another time.
            _______________________________________________________

Louise Creely is a science communicator at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart, Tasmania. She works on the award-winning Tuna Champions project, a national engagement and education program encouraging recreational fishers to use the best fishing practices for southern bluefin tuna and to become stewards of the fishery.

#sciart: creating content with audiences
By Madeleine Stirrat

Organisations devoted to communicating science at its intersection with art are popping up all over the world. Science Gallery Melbourne is part of an international network of galleries working in partnerships with researchers, students and industry to engage audiences in science, art, design, tech and innovation.

At last month’s Australian Science Communicators conference, Tilly Boleyn and the team at Science Gallery ran sessions focused on co-creating content and engaging young people in science communication.

Science Gallery works as a cooperative between three groups; the Leonardos, the gallery’s ‘brains trust’ of industry professionals; the Mediators, often graduate students who are self-confessed ‘science nerds’; and the Sci Curious, a team of 15- to 25-year-old content advisers. These teams work in tandem to engage science-curious minds in creative ways.

The galleries play a bit of a recruiting role for the universities, hoping to tempt millennials into STEM careers. Adelaide has its own science gallery in MOD with UniSA, catering to all ages but also targeting the 15–25 age group.

Past Science Gallery exhibits centred around themes of reimagining waste; the mathematics, physics and tech in our quest for human perfection; and a part-exhibition, part-experiment on the mysteries of blood. The public input into the development of gallery programs and their use of creative communicators on the floor leads to a deeper engagement with the science behind the pieces.


The pop-up Urinotron, featured in Science Gallery Melbourne’s 2019 exhibition Disposable: Reimagining Your Waste.

Science and art are traditionally seen as ends of a spectrum, but they are companionably creative and exploratory fields. These kinds of exhibitions exist in those interstices where people can make sense of science in their daily lives and through personal expressions.

In Australia, the theme is growing. Modern galleries like GOMA in Brisbane have run exhibitions such as Patricia Piccinini’s 2018 Curious Affections, which explored ethical questions around stem-cell research. Hobart’s world-famous MONA offered it’s 2016 program On the Origin of Art, in which a group of scientist-curators playing on Darwin’s title explored biological fitness, sexual selection and extended phenotype.

One of these scientist-curators, Mark Changizi, says about art ‘that it exists not because we have an instinct for it, but because it responds to – harnesses – our instinct to engage with other people.’

Using your smartphone to make videos
By Michelle Riedlinger

Jenni and I ran a pre-ASC Conference workshop on using your smartphone to make videos. Here are some free and reasonably priced tools for making your videos professional and engaging.

    1. Excellent sound quality and shot stability are the priorities for keeping viewers engaged. If you have money to invest in video production, then invest in a wireless microphone, such as this one from Rode, and/or a directional mic and multiform smartphone clamp like this one from Comica.
    2. Turn your smartphone into a professional video camera with Filmic Pro. This low-cost professional video app for iOS and Android lets you do things like change the frame rate and shutter speed on what you record.
    3. If you need to record what’s on your screen, then iOS phones have a built-in iOS screen-recording feature. Many Android phones don’t have a built-in screen recorder, but third party apps like AZ Screen Recorder come recommended. Mac users can use QuickTime Player. Windows has no built-in free option for screen recording but Free Cam is good quality and free. Camtasia is one of the best professional screen-recording and video-editing software programs on the market for Mac and PC.
    4. For free or low-cost video editing software, Mac computers and iOS smartphones come with iMovie. Both Mac and PC users can also try Filmora. Filmora also has a free app for iOS and Android phones but the Android version has more editing features. Someone recently recommended Davinci Resolve. This is free, professional video-editing software. We’d love to know what you think of it.
    5. Beautiful and engaging content also needs to be accessible. Caption your videos so everyone can enjoy them, even with the sound off. Video-editing software allows you to add your subtitles and captioning. But YouTube automatically generates subtitles or closed captions that you can edit. Or you can encourage people to add them automatically while watching YouTube. The quality surprised me.


Try YouTube’s automatic captioning function.