In this edition

Quotes from the conference

“Plain English is a very very important tool that people should develop.”

— Prof. Aidan Byrne, CEO of the Australian Research Council
“We need to start to think differently.”

— Prof. Warwick Anderson, CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council, commenting on the “extraordinary reach of non-evidence-based science” such as the anti-vaccination campaign
“The science tells you what will happen, not what you should do.”

— Dr Fabien Medvecky, The University of Queensland.


Welcome to our February 2014 newsletter: Take-aways from the 2014 Australian Science Communicators conference

Last week we attended the 2014 Australian Science Communicators national conference (ASC14) in Brisbane. For those of you who couldn’t make it, we offer you a few insights into what each of us took away from the conference.

You can also listen to podcasts of conference sessions and a social media storify is available for many of the sessions.

Were you there? What did you take away? Let us know via Facebook, Twitter or email us.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam:

The value of visuals

By Robbie Mitchell

3 things about visual communication really stood out for me at ASC14.

Balance accuracy with artistry

Drew Berry, biologist and biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research explained that the secret behind his incredible DNA animation (4 mins) was getting the right balance between science and art.

He tried to be as true to the science as possible in terms of the structure of the cell, while using colour and sound to help bring the visual to life. In reality, the cell components are the same colour and there has been no research on sound within cells.

Drew says that using colour makes it easier to talk to during the animation, using less jargon and fewer words.

Drew Berry visualised and animated this horse-like protein, called a dynein, from what scientists could only speculate.

Show the value of the cost

Animations don’t come cheap.

Bobby Cerini leads the visualisation and science promotion team at Geoscience Australia. She says we need to do a better job of justifying the costs of expensive communication tools, to persuade potential funders.

Geoscience Australia recently spent $30 million on a scientific and visualisation project which they predict will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in mining investment for the government.

Shut your eyes and visualise

We need to learn from Hollywood scriptwriters when we try to visualise the science, according to Dr Shilo McClean, a filmmaking and digital effects author and lecturer.

The first thing we should do is shut our eyes and visualise what ‘it’ would look like, or might look like, if we were to zoom in and see how it works. We can then use this mental picture as a basis for how we recreate it in our visuals.

Follow the social media storify for the visualisation session.

Networking for introverts

By Sarah Cole

During a break at ASC14, I overheard an emphatic assertion that all science communicators are natural extroverts. Later, I heard someone make a similar claim during a session.

But as I looked around, it seemed to me that some of my fellow delegates were more interested in their phone, or the floor, than in meeting other delegates.

I suggest that talking to people—especially at a conference—is nurture, not nature. That it’s practice, not providence.

Networking can be daunting to an early-career professional. Here are 5 tactics I’ve used to develop my networking skills:

  • Join a group of people with a person you know in it. Approach the group, smile at the person you know as your ‘in’, and listen a while to get your bearings in the conversation. I’ve never stood by a group of people who didn’t let me in.
  • Assume that people will be at least a bit interested in what you do. I found networking got a lot easier when I took this audacious step. People nearly always are interested. On the occasions someone wasn’t, it was soon apparent and still easy: people are only too happy to tell you all about their own work.
  • Ask people you know to introduce you to people you have seen them with, or take a leap and ask if they know that researcher you really want to meet. If they don’t, they may suggest other great people in that area they could introduce you to.
  • Tweet or email ahead to meet up with people you already know in a quiet corner or café. If you’re worried about spotting someone in a large crowd, this planning can often help.
  • Go somewhere quiet for a one-on-one discussion if you really connect with someone during your networking. Conference sessions can be very useful, but continuing that conversation might be more rewarding. You may discover a new collaborator, client or colleague.

Do you have a tip that really changed your attitude or approach to networking? Tell us about it!

Listening when you first join a group of people can help you join the conversation.
Image shared with permission from the Australian Science Communicators Conference 2014. Photograph by Dave Vagg.

I f**king love singing

By Tom Dixon

Science communicators, it seems, don’t just f**king love science—we also f**king love singing.

Never have I seen such a wonderful collection of singer-songwriter-scientists peddling their wares with such harmony than at ASC14.

The standout of the conference for me was plenary speaker Lloyd Godson’s BIOsub song.

A marine biologist, Lloyd sang about how he lived in his ‘submarine’ in a lake in Albury, NSW, for 2 weeks to raise awareness of environmental issues.

His song was simple and catchy, so I remembered it and googled it later. And that’s really the point, isn’t it?

Lloyd Godson generating his own electricity inside the underwater BIOsub where he lived for almost 2 weeks. 

And how will I ever forget about string theory after seeing Tim Blais sing Bohemian Gravity, “by far the geekiest Queen cover you’ll ever hear, and it’s probably one of the best you’ll find, too”, according to inSCIder.

Anyone who says ‘Guess Einstein’s theory wasn’t complete at all’ deserves a mention, in my book!

I still have no idea about string theory but the song got me thinking about it. And for quantum physicists it probably all makes perfect sense.

I think the world needs more scientists like Lloyd Godson and Tim Blais—they communicate, they grab the attention of the public, and they offer plenty of links for us to find out more.

For more physics-inspired fun, check out Tim’s YouTube channel, A Capella science.

Follow the social media storify about Lloyd Godson’s speech.


Critical thinking

By Jane Ilsley

Engaging teenagers in science was the subject of a conference session at ASC14. We discussed critical thinking, and how we can teach children to think scientifically.

One delegate had visited a year 4 class (age 9) to run an astronomy workshop. Before she arrived, the children had watched a movie clip on conspiracy theories about the 1969 moon landing (there are many on YouTube).

To her dismay, 50% of the children believed the conspiracy theories, which made the astronomy workshop difficult to facilitate!

This story reminded me of my 7-year-old son and his struggles with ‘the truth’. He automatically believes anything anyone tells him (especially the tall stories his friend spouts!) and is beginning to learn that not everything is true.

It can be amusing, and tempting to take advantage of, but he is gradually learning to ask the right questions and look for evidence.

As the conference went on, it was evident that it is not just 7-year-olds who are struggling. With the rise of bloggers, some claiming to be scientists when they are not, we all need to question the reliability of our sources.

There are tools out there to help.

RBUTR is a browser plug-in which tells you if the web page you are viewing has been disputed, rebutted or contradicted elsewhere on the internet. It is described on Tim Farley’s Skeptical Software tools, which addresses misinformation on the web generally.

And the Australian Science Media Centre is soon to launch a ‘science media exchange’ website—a place where you can find reliable media stories.

Where are your trusted sources of information?

Was there some critical thinking going on in the conference debate: Social media in science  hero or villain? Maybe, possibly, definitely.
Left to right: Jenni Metcalfe, Tamzin Byrne, Rod Lamberts (villains and winners)

Mad. Sad. Glad.

By Alison Binney

During the close of ASC14, delegates were asked to reflect on what had made us mad, sad or glad during the 3-day conference.

MAD – What made me mad was that in 2014 we are still lamenting the massive changes in the media terrain instead of charging forward with solutions.

SAD – I was sad to learn that about 1000 Australian journalists have lost their jobs in the past year or so.

GLAD – I remain glad that the new social media amplifies the public voice, and that our relatively small professional circle still has the potential to blaze a trail in its quest for advancing public discourse on the pressing scientific issues.

We just need to shift more weight to the front foot, right now.

When asked what the future of Australian science journalism will look like in 5 years’ time, Leigh Dayton, former science journalist for The Australian, quickly pointed out: “I have a Sydney mortgage. I can’t wait 5 years. I have to do something else.”

So let’s focus our conversation on dissecting solutions for the sake of finding out who (or what) will be reporting science objectively to Australians in 2020 and beyond.

For example, I would love to have heard Natasha Mitchell, Ian Townsend and Graham Readfearn talk in depth about their audience, their income, their successes, and their ideas on sustainable science journalism.

And I would like to discuss internet pay walls and the demographics of the people who are seeking out and referencing science news in Australia.

‘Mad, sad and glad’ was inspired by No funny business.

The story effect

By Mary O’Callaghan

In informal situations, we spend 60–65% of our time talking about who did what to whom, according to Shawn Callahan of Anecdote who delivered 2 sessions on storytelling at ASC14.

Some might call it gossip; Shawn calls it storytelling.

But in formal situations our stories evaporate. Why do we think our stories are not fit for formal situations?

It’s because some people associate stories with fairies, says Shawn – make-believe, fiction, lies.

But stories have ways of sticking with us.

Stories are memorable because we remember images and we remember emotions.

And emotion, not facts, drives action, says Shawn.
I still remember The Girl Effect (3 mins) which Queensland Chief Scientist Geoff Garrett shared with us at the ASC conference. I remember the cute graphics and orchestral strings. But more than that I remember my tears; I had a hard job keeping them in my eyes.

I also remember the NHK TV story of why fried chicken wings are so tender and delicious (it involved collagen and a woman dressed as a dinosaur).

It’s ridiculous to think that stories are only for the general public, Shawn Callahan says, and I agree. At Econnect, we often try to make the abstract concrete through stories, whether it’s for policymakers or schoolchildren.

Stories about impact, not about the “fascinating science”, are CSIRO’s communication focus, Oona Nielssen, Head of Communications, told delegates. “Delightful words” along with images and infographics are “core communication skills”, she said.

CSIRO’s honey-bee research has been hugely popular recently, Oona said. Whatever emotions the mysterious disappearance of honey bees stirs up in you, this bee-tagging story comes packed with delightfully vivid ‘picture words’—5000 honey bees, tiny sensors that work like a toll tag, glue, tweezers, hair, shaving. I found it impossible not to visualise.

But will the honey bees live happily ever after?

Spotting stories

By Mary O’Callaghan

Here are some tips I picked up at ASC14 from Shawn Callahan of Anecdote.

Spotting a story

  • An opinion is not a story. A story may contain opinions, but an opinion in itself does not make a story.
  • Facts are not a story. A story may contain facts, but… you get it.
  • You know you have a story if it starts with a time marker e.g. “Yesterday, I…”, “Six years ago, we…”.
  • Stories can also start with a place. “Berlin was an interesting place to grow up in…”.
  • To test your skills at spotting stories, take The Story Test.

Triggering stories
Anecdotes can add colour and interest to an oral presentation. More importantly, they can connect you to your audience.

They can be about your personal experience or about other people. A personal anecdote can tell people a lot about you.

We did a 5-minute exercise with Shawn Callahan where we looked for stories in our life. I panicked for a minute, thinking I didn’t have any stories to tell. Shawn gave us some prompts:

  • Where did you grow up and what key memories do you have from these years?
  • Early in your career, what events influenced you (mentors, successes, failures)?
  • Have you had any near misses?

Reflecting on these 3 questions triggered lots of stories in my memory. And from a few of these stories, I gained an insight about myself—I learn from failure.

It’s a good idea to categorise and file away your stories so that you can draw on them when you need to, Shawn said. I now have 3 stories about learning from failure stashed away.

If you think you haven’t got any stories, or you’re trying to elicit a story from someone else, try Shawn’s guidelines for triggering stories:

  • Ask why and you’ll get opinions.
  • Ask who/what/how and you’ll get facts.
  • Ask when/where and you’ll get stories.