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June 13th, 2011

Science communications gets fresh (and smart) down under

Published on June 13th, 2011 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Can you explain your research to a coworker? That’s probably fairly easy.

How about your spouse? Or your parents? Get’s a little trickier, doesn’t it? But, of course, they know your educational background and have probably heard you drop a few technical terms here and there, so it might not be too much of a stretch.

Let’s take it a step farther. Could you explain your work and its importance to a group of random college or high school students — and keep their attention? Maybe not so much.

I’ll crank it up one more notch. What if we switch the venue and audience to a bar or pub: Do you have the confidence and spiel to survive the ultimate “tough crowd?”

If Australia’s Fresh Science program gets hold of you and runs you through its four-day “bootcamp” the answer will be “yes” to all of the above.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Fresh Science before I received a news release from the group last week about the work of young researcher who went through the bootcamp, Louise van der Werff. Van der Werff has developed a “smart bandage” textile system.

Back to my original point, what really caught my eye is that organizers of Fresh Science mention among other things that participants are expected to present their discovers — in verse — at a Melbourne pub.

Van der Werff is one of 16 early-career scientists who began presenting their research to the public for the first time last week thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Australian Government. The release doesn’t mention anything about doing an oral presentation at a pub, but it does say that she and the others will present their work:

  • In verse at Tech on Tap, part of AMP’s Amplify Festival tonight in Sydney;
  • Over dinner with Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, in Melbourne; and
  • To school students in Melbourne and Bendigo.

Sounds like fun!

After doing a little digging, I discovered that Fresh Science has been around, in one form or another, for 14 years. The website describes it as a government-funded national event (that also receives support from New Scientist magazine) meant to bring together scientists, the media and the public. It is designed to “enhance reporting of Australian science; highlight and encourage debate on the role of science in Australian society; and provide role models for the next generation of Australian scientists.”

From what I gather, the basic idea is to identify annually in each Australian state (via nominations) a group of early-career researchers doing work in Australia from a cross-section of sciences. The group is then put through several preliminary communications “bootcamps” where they are coached in how to present ideas clearly to a general audience and the media. From among these “state finalists,” a group of judges comprised of scientists, journalists and science communicators select the “national finalists.”

The national finalists then receive several days of advanced media and communications training, help draft a media release about their discoveries, practice presenting their research during school talks, dinners and, let’s not forget, “pub events.”

It appears that the professional support for the bootcamp and other Fresh Science activities is provided by Science In Public. SIP describes itself as a “science communication company” that “helps scientists and science organizations present their ideas in the public space.” SIP also provides media training courses and strategy develop programs around Australia for scientists, so it is something of a cross between Futurity and a typical PR agency.

I think the basic ideas behind Fresh Science are pretty smart. Like it or not, researchers have to realize that they have an enormous stake in explaining what they are doing, not only to the public, but more importantly, to the various legislators, agency heads, aides, that provide the funding. In addition, we have a national problem with attracting students to careers in science and engineering. The best and most efficient way to tell stories about research is to engage the researchers themselves rather than relying on some intermediary PIO or university-level communications department staffer.

I do know that there are supporters of the researcher-as-communicator approach among many U.S.-based science groups, such as the National Science Foundation, and later this year ACerS will once again be helping the NSF ceramics in a special two-day principle investigators workshop that contains nearly a full day of communications training. Hopefully the Fresh Science examples will spur us to reach even higher.

And, while we are on the topic of materials science “Down Under,” don’t forget about the ACerS PACRIM9 meeting coming up in Cairns, Queensland in mid-July. Let us know if you hear of any materials-inspired pub poetry!


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