Australian Science Communicators (ASC) Conference 2023
Canberra, Australia, 15–17 February 2023
Almost thirteen years to the day since Australia’s national strategy for public engagement with the sciences, Inspiring Australia,1 was announced at the 2010 ASC Conference, 140 members of the Australian sci-comm community gathered in the ‘Martian Embassy’2 at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra for the first national in-person conference since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The theme for the conference — ‘Hindsight, Insight, Foresight’ — allowed us to reflect on the past decade of Australia’s national science communication strategy, provided opportunities to share our current successes and challenges, and to consider how we might shape the future for the science communication sector. Here we focus on three of the key themes that were raised several times over the course of the three-day event.
1 Science engagement strategy for Australia: can we have a ‘vegemite’ approach with a ‘nutella’ outcome?
Government approaches to supporting science engagement featured in two plenary sessions. Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Cathy Foley, in discussion with Prof. Joan Leach from Australian National University (ANU) in the opening plenary, revealed that the current government will shortly be reviewing the National Science and Research Priorities.3 This will involve a protracted period of engagement and consultation, but one of the big challenges for Australia’s science and innovation system, observed Dr. Foley, is that it is fractured and spread thinly “like vegemite4 [on toast]” rather than in a thick satisfying layer like nutella. With our limited resources, how can we get a nutella outcome with a vegemite approach? When pressed further on how science communication features within this consultation process, Dr. Foley responded that we have an important role in identifying audiences and understanding how to engage them. However, there seemed to be an underlying assumption that our key role is in communicating the ‘wonderment of science’ to young people so they see the importance of science and STEM skills, and then their appreciation of and support for science will translate into economic prosperity. Although emotions like wonder are known to play a role in instilling a lifelong interest in STEM [Valdesolo, Shtulman & Baron, 2017] and as such will always be a part of what we do as science communicators, this was disappointing to many in the room who feel that our field has moved away — at least somewhat — from this ‘one-way’ or ‘first order’ [Irwin, 2021] picture of science communication. Inspiring curiosity in young people is important but is a small part of our collective repertoire of skills that extends into the complex engagement required as part of Responsible Research and Innovation [Long & Blok, 2017].
This theme was continued when Prof. the Hon. Kim Carr addressed the audience on day two [Carruthers, 2023]. Prof. Carr was instrumental in developing the Inspiring Australia strategy which initially included recommendations to develop the evidence-base for science communication. Although that research agenda was not supported for very long, other key pillars of the strategy, such as celebrating science achievement through the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, and the National Science Week program remain prominent events on the Australian science engagement calendar. There are rumours that the current government will revisit this strategy, and throughout the conference our current ASC presidents, Jirana Boontanjai and Dr. Tom Carruthers, reminded us that we need to show how science communication in Australia is about more than ‘wonderment’ and demonstrate our key role in the science engagement landscape in Australia if we want a broader role in ‘Inspiring Australia 2.0’.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the conference to turn to the rise of the chatbots, with the Chief Scientist citing the rise of ‘AI expertise’ as one of the challenges for science communication. No matter what the impacts will be, AI is something that science communicators will need to know how to work with. Discussions explored the impacts on assessment within education, authorship and AI-generated works, and practitioners embracing AI as tool for ideation or even content generation. Jasmine Fellows, business manager and former editor of Double Helix magazine, gave an example of a recent Double Helix edition featuring AI-generated images and text. The discussions raised more questions than answers: how do we acknowledge the use of these tools? What happens with issues of attribution and compensation for images generated using algorithms trained on huge repositories of artwork without the artists’ permission? What role should science communicators have in developing ethical frameworks for use of AI? Will the innovations of AI exacerbate social inequalities?
A third recurrent theme throughout the conference was the importance of a network like Australian Science Communicators and the opportunity that a national conference brings to reconnect. The last time we gathered was in February 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our inter-state borders. As such the additional social activities like the pre-conference science demonstration extravaganza, the gala dinner at the National Gallery of Australia and the post-conference networking opportunities, presented welcome opportunities for forging new connections and catching up with old friends.
Oftentimes a science communicator finds themselves working alone, and it can be lonely. We need networks of support for improving practice, building businesses, and for our own wellbeing. In the session on embedding science communicators in research teams, Rachel Vorwerk, science communicator with the Integrated Photonics and Applications Centre at RMIT University, gave an outstanding example of the value of a dedicated science comms practitioner in a research team in building the Centre’s profile to the point of a successful Centre of Excellence bid. Her take-home message, the importance of being proactive to build a network of science communicators, was also reflected by Kate Bongiovanni, science communicator with the Bureau of Meteorology, whilst speaking on emerging science professionals. The importance of networks was also highlighted by Abigail Goff from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronic Technologies reflecting on the benefits of institutional support for sci-comm development of postgraduate students, and also in the Friday panel on communicating research infrastructure in Australia, where an informal community of practise network has sprung up between nodes of Australia’s key research facilities.
Those in the freelance space also spoke about the importance of interconnected networks in the ‘Business, Brilliance and Battle Scars’ session, with business owner and former ASC president Claire Harris convening a panel of business experts from a range of communications and technology industries to share strategies for issues like isolation, the role of mentors, and ethical practise.
Conferences provide a rare opportunity to celebrate the achievements of science communicators in Australia. Lyndal Byford, Director of News and Partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre received the Unsung Hero of Science Communication award for 2023 for her incredible work improving both the quality and quantity of science media coverage in Australia. Her address to the conference drew attention to a worrying and increasing trend of personal attacks directed at scientists engaging with the media, especially on topics like COVID-19 [Nogrady, 2021].
Overall, the 2023 conference provided a wonderful opportunity to reconnect and reflect on the impact of Inspiring Australia, the legacy of COVID-19, and the rapid pace of change within our sector. In the lead up to our next conference, the ASC will continue to support and advocate for the work of our 400-plus members who make science accessible. It is more important than ever to demonstrate to our communities that we are about more than inspiring wonder for economic prosperity; we are process-specialists who understand how and with whom to communicate with in times of complexity and change, and as such we have an important place in Australia’s science ecosystem.
Carruthers, T. (2023, March 16). A scientifically engaged Australia. Australian Science Communicators. Retrieved from http://www.asc.asn.au/blog/2023/03/16/a-scientifically-engaged-australia/
Irwin, A. (2021). Risk, science and public communication: third-order thinking about scientific culture. In M. Bucchi & B. Trench (Eds.), Routledge handbook of public communication of science and technology (3rd ed., pp. 147–162). doi:10.4324/9781003039242
Long, T. B. & Blok, V. (2017). When the going gets tough, the tough get going: towards a new — more critical — engagement with responsible research and innovation in an age of Trump, Brexit, and wider populism. Journal of Responsible Innovation 4 (1), 64–70. doi:10.1080/23299460.2017.1319036
Nogrady, B. (2021). ‘I hope you die’: how the COVID pandemic unleashed attacks on scientists. Nature 598 (7880), 250–253. doi:10.1038/d41586-021-02741-x
Valdesolo, P., Shtulman, A. & Baron, A. S. (2017). Science is awe-some: the emotional antecedents of science learning. Emotion Review 9 (3), 215–221. doi:10.1177/1754073916673212
Dr. Lisa Bailey is a science communicator and Program Manager with experience
in cultural institutions both in South Australia and the U.K. Lisa is currently
Exhibition and Experience Design Manager at MOD. at UniSA — Australia’s leading
future-focused museum, provoking new ideas at the intersection of science, art
and innovation. Lisa was president of Australian Science Communicators from
@lisushi E-mail: email@example.com
Dr. Heather Bray currently leads the Science Communication program at the
University of Western Australia including coordinating the Master of Science
Communication. She has over 20 years of experience in science communication
as a practitioner, scholar, teacher, and researcher. Heather’s research explores
community understandings of, and attitudes to, the role of science and technology in
food production, and inclusion and participation in science communication.
Heather is an active member of the Australian Science Communicators, and has
been on either South Australian or Western Australian branch committees since
@heatherbray6 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2The Shine Dome is affectionately known as the “Martian Embassy” in Canberra; see https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6095568/strange-but-true-facts-about-canberras-martian-embassy/.
4Australians learns at an early age that vegemite should be spread thinly on toast.