Econnect made our presence felt at the 10th Australian Science Communicators’ conference in Sydney last month, and so this month’s newsletter reflects on the 2018 ASC conference.

Two of our articles are about research informing practice, and the third article urges us to think more clearly about the evidence supporting our practice.

Michelle Riedlinger, an Econnect alumni, is currently on sabbatical from Canada and we welcome her contributions to this and future newsletters while she is here.

As per usual, we welcome your feedback.

Wishing you a safe and pleasant festive season.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam: Jenni MetcalfeSarah Cole (on maternity leave), Jane IlsleyToss GascoigneClaire Heath,  Michelle RiedlingerMadeleine Stirrat.


Do we dump the deficit model?

By Jenni Metcalfe

Science communication scholars talk about the ‘deficit’ model of science communication where science communicators communicate knowledge to a public presumed to have a deficit of information.

Deficit was supplanted by the dialogue model 20 years ago, in response to growing controversies and mistrust in science: GM, nanotech, climate change. But fault was also found with the dialogue model, and theoreticians looked to participatory models of science communication, where both sides had rights and could contribute to formulating the science. Under this thinking, deficit was deemed primitive and even evil.

I used to be in the deficit denial camp, and was reminded at the Australian Science Communicators’ conference when Isabelle Kingsley quoted my report on the Australian national audit of science engagement (2012) alongside a photo of a skeleton:

“Science engagement in Australia is trapped by the 20th Century. It operates under an outdated model that aims to promote and celebrate science, rather than encouraging the public to participate in, and critically evaluate scientific endeavours.”

Image: Pixabay


Isabelle said her research had similarly found that the deficit model was alive and well in national science week engagement events, and discussed the implications.

In some respects, she and my old self are right. Most science communication activities in Australia are pre-dominantly deficit in both intention and implementation. This is not ideal: given the challenges facing contemporary Australia we should have more deliberative science communication.

But more deliberative objectives and activities is only part of the story. In my PhD studies, I have found that:

  • There is nothing inherently wrong with deficit-style science communication. It can meet the demands of interested publics, educate people who need such knowledge for decision making, or promote the excitement of science to interested publics. That is enough to justify not throwing the deficit model out with the “false-facts” bathwater.
  • Most activities have characteristics of deficit, dialogue and participation
  • Most importantly, participants in more participatory activities demand the knowledge which are delivered through deficit and simple dialogue techniques. They want to know the evidence.
  • Participatory science communication, rather than being the evolutionary endpoint, enables more effective use of deficit and dialogue-style communication to create real changes to the attitudes, behaviours and decision-making of both publics and scientists.

So I’d argue we have reached level 4 science communication: from deficit, through participation and dialogue to a combination of the lot. I call it fruit salad science communication.

Image: Pixabay



    Creating the evidence for our science communication

    By Toss Gascoigne

    Sometimes science communicators are our own worst enemy. We work hard, organise good events and publications but then fail to find the evidence or make the case for how effective they have been.

    Lack of evidence = lack of credibility. I’ve long felt that this is why communication staff are low on the totem pole in research organisations.

    The best session for me at the ASC Conference was “Elevating science communication through social science“, produced by CSIRO science communicators Tsuey Cham, Melina Gillespie and Helen Beringen. They used three case studies to show how collaborations between social scientists and science communication practitioners improved engagement with target audiences.

    “Strategies include formulating engaging key messages, identifying appropriate channels/platforms, and using language and tone to meet communication objectives.”

    One of the presenters, Andrea Walton, looked at community responses to coal seam gas development. She used social science techniques to measure what matters to communities: their values, perceptions and concerns; and used the responses to shape messages.

    Engaging with the community. Image: CSIRO


    What? So you work out who you want to engage with, what you want to say (and how you’re going to say it), and the best way to communicate with this group as a first step?

    One would think this fell into the category of the bleedin’ obvious, so why was it an impressive session? Essentially because it stood out in sharp contrast to other sessions which ignored such a logical approach. Two examples:

    The Academy of Science is specially targeting two key groups in its communication: the disengaged and policy-makers. To do this they have built up a strong presence on social media (‘1.2 million Facebook followers”). Impressive.

    Then they showed ASC conference delegates a short video they had released on Facebook. It took a shock-horror approach, heavy-duty music and nasty warnings.The reaction of the conference audience suggests it missed its mark of influencing the disengaged and policy-makers, by a long way.

    The second case was the Sydney Science Festival. The presenters put forward evidence of positive audience feedback in what they termed ‘evaluations’.

    So an innocent question: what were the aims of the Festival? Yes, people enjoyed coming but did the Festival achieve what it set out to do? To evaluate, don’t you have to test if your aims were achieved?

    The answer – and I still find this hard to believe – was that the aims were still being worked out by partners. Post-Festival!

    So, an Aimless Event?

    Time to call in Tsuey, Melina and Helen and their team of social scientists….

    Image: Pixabay



    Check out people’s identities to plan your scicomm more effectively

    By Michelle Riedlinger

    The ideas people have about themselves and the groups they identify with can affect the success of science communication strategies, according to scholars presenting at the recent ASC conference.

    People’s identity, say social psychologists, is determined to a large extent by the groups they feel they belong to, which can be based on age, political beliefs or where people live.

    For example, research examining 500,000 social media messages about space science found that social media users were more likely to trust those who posted messages online if they had a similar online profile to them.

    The presenter, Yi-Ling Hwong, from the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of NSW, said she recognised that this poses significant challenges for scientists, who are likely to have a different social media profile to those they want to communicate with.

    But, she said scientists can have a significant impact on how their communication is received if they carefully consider how they present themselves online. For example, by highlighting other aspects of their identity in addition to their scientific identity.

    Another presenter at the conference, Matt Nurse from the Centre for Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at ANU built on the ground breaking work conducted by Dan Kahan and others on motivated numeracy. Matt wanted to see if he could get even the smartest people among his research subjects to disagree about cold, hard, numerical facts.

    In a randomised controlled experiment, Matt found that highly numerically-literate One Nation supporters were less likely to interpret CO2 data in the same way that climate scientists would interpret the data. One Nation supporters downplayed the positive impacts of industry regulation associated with reducing climate change.

    Matt also found that when the information was flipped, numerically-literate Greens supporters didn’t do much better at interpreting numerical data correctly.

    On climate change, Matt says, if you need to persuade people with a right-leaning identity, don’t tell them that they don’t understand the science of climate change. Tell them success stories of businesses that install solar panels–and how this can reduce electricity prices for consumers.

    Anna Attard from the University of New South Wales found that people living in different coastal areas of New South Wales (e.g. Byron Bay compared to Port Macquarie) had strong associations with their own particular place and interest groups. This meant they assessed the future rate and impacts of sea level rise very differently and had vastly different communication needs.

    Anna is developing an online resource pack targeting various types of end users to help them develop their own group-based solutions to address coastal erosion.

    Researchers know that focussing communication strategies on science-based messages alone can increase public polarisation on controversial issues such as climate change, so making science communicators aware of this important area of social research is needed now more than ever.

    Know your identity. Image: Pixabay

    Quote of the month


    “One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore.
    “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”

    ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

    Image: Pixabay