The Australian government recently undertook a review of all science communication activities in Australia. It was the first time such a comprehensive government inventory had been done here, and the report  was awaited with unusual anticipation. With the ‘emailgate’ affair and other climate scandals, the normally mundane topic of how effectively (or not) scientists communicate their findings to the public was suddenly a hot issue.
The report involved consultations with 230 science communicators, journalists, educators and scientists. It recommended scrapping the current program, known as SCOPE (Science Connections Program) in favour of an all-encompassing national strategy to continue government-funded initiatives deemed to have been successful. It also recommended bringing much-needed coordination to the numerous science communication activities put on by a wide range of organisations, many not funded directly by government.
My interest is in science and the media, so I will focus on this aspect of the review: a new sub-program described as ‘strengthening the media’s role in communicating science’.
Role of the media
The review identified problems with the relationship between science and the media as resulting from a dwindling number of science journalists and a general lack of interest in science in the mainstream media in Australia. The new program would include the establishment of a working group to nut out ways to improve media reporting of science.1
While I agree wholeheartedly that such a working group would be beneficial, I agree less with some of the premises this program is built on. It is true that science journalism, along with specialist reporting generally, has been in decline globally for some time, a reflection of the changing media landscape. But, while we all would like to see better quality coverage of science, I do not accept as fact a lack of interest in science amongst the general media.
At the Australian Science Media Centre, we find enormous interest in science amongst the mainstream news and current affairs media. Ninety per cent of the journalists who register with the centre to receive science information and news are general journalists or specialist reporters in non-science rounds.
When science is provided to news in the context of a breaking story or a major social or political issue, they are all ears. Whether it be an earthquake, a bushfire, the latest political debate about climate change, or angst over stem cell research, vaccinations or GM, there is huge demand for independent comment from credible experts. In a world swamped with PR and people trying to swing debates in certain directions, the need for basic information that has no intent other than to inform has never been greater.
Engage when needed
Too much science communication has become focussed on profile-raising rather than the public’s need to know. Scientists should be encouraged to engage with the public when they are needed most, and not just when they have a new discovery to announce. This means jumping into debates and being upfront and honest about what they do and don’t know. This type of engagement must be rewarded and acknowledged by institutions and funding bodies, and not micro-managed.
So let’s bring on the expert working group to focus on this issue and ensure that its recommendations are evidence-based and not simply about preparing the public to buy the next gadget or accept an emerging technology. Acceptance and understanding are often spin-offs from good communication, but should not be the primary objective.
The only worrying sign from this report is the lack of any substantial funding commitment to ensure that the many good recommendations become more than rhetoric. But at the time of writing, the 2010-11 budget is just around the corner.
1 This would presumably be something akin to the Science and the Media Expert Working Group that produced the report ‘Science and the Media: Securing the Future ’ for the UK.