Foto: Sigmund

„Science is not always the solution“

What does science communication look like in Australia? Joan Leach talks about the historical development of the field, professional practice, research, challenging issues, the role of indigenous knowledge – and why she thinks it is often nonsense to talk about trust in science.

You edited a book on global perspectives in science communication. If we take a look at Australia: How would you characterize the country’s specific development of the field?   

Joan Leach is the Director of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the Australian National University and former president of Australian Science Communicators. Her research centers on theories of the public in science communication, language and rhetoric in science, and the challenge of ethics in science communication. She studied Biology and English Literature at the University of Illinois and received her PhD in Rhetoric and History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Pittsburgh (USA). Image: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Joan Leach: Science communication in Australia was driven forward by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in the late 1960s, early 1970s – which is quite early. Like in the United Kingdom, science communication in Australia is heavily aligned with science in national policy, which has good and bad aspects to it. 

In one way the roots of science communication in Australia are in a professional practice with helping scientists talk about their work. Besides this, there is another more academic research root. Since the 1990s, colleagues have been interested in looking at the science and society interface. They think of science communication with a more critical understanding as a way of talking about what happens across that interface. There are these two ideas sitting side by side: A very old professional practice but also an exciting research trajectory about understanding science and society issues. Sometimes these two things sit a bit uneasily with each other.

Why is that?

I think in Australia there is a lot of pressure for science communicators to work with what the government thinks of as national strategies and priorities—these priorities can include technology for manufacturing, critical minerals, health biotechnology, and other areas where science intersects with the economy or can have swift impacts. So those areas get a lot of attention. And they can distract science communicators. But, there are other concerns; there are a lot of issues around equity in science that we should talk about. Things like wellbeing or Public Health for example. So, the research suggests alternative priorities. That creates a bit of a tension. 

How is training and education in science communication institutionalized in Australia? 

“It’s not the role of the science communicator to be the researchers’ marketing arm.“Joan Leach
I am the director of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the Australian National University. We are one of the oldest science centers in the world. I don’t know anyone who worked before us. But in the late 1980s, there were many that emerged at the same time. Since then we have trained a generation of science communicators in Australia who now work in science centers and in informal science settings, who work in the media, in science policy, in science institutions like our Australian Academy of Science, for universities or for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

In Germany, science communication is also becoming increasingly important when it comes to obtaining research funding or grants. Is that also the case in Australia? 

There is some grant support that includes science communication in meaningful ways. Let me give you an example. We have the ARC Centres of Excellence here in Australia. They are large research centers. The funding includes science communication and the communication of research outputs: telling the world about the great things the centre does. But to be credible it also needs people working in the social sciences and humanities, looking at the science society interface to help guide that work.

I think here in Australia people are quite skeptical of the notion that science should just use science communicators to communicate their work. They think it’s probably not entirely credible and that there are other issues at play. It’s not the role of the science communicator to be the researchers’ marketing arm. There might be critical questions that people have and then it’s important to have science communicators respond to that, to put the research in the context of responsible innovation and ask important questions of the research’s design. That’s the kind of work that science communicators do here. 

What challenges does science communication in Australia face? 

This morning I was in a meeting with a group of scientists and people working in science communication and science policy. We were talking about the kind of communication that moves scientific evidence from policy into the public but also from science into policy. Scientists sometimes reject policy coming back to regulate science. But obviously there are a lot of challenging areas for communication at the moment: environment and climate issues, quantum innovations, data privacy, synthetic biology, genetic engineering. It is important to get scientists to listen to public concern. Because there are some pretty good reasons why regulators want to regulate certain fields and scientists resist that. So sometimes science communicators find themselves explaining policy to scientists.

“I think you can trust a scientist but it does not make sense to talk about trust in science.“Joan Leach
COVID made it a little bit more visible that there are science-policy-decisions. I think the real challenge for science communicators right now is to work not just at the science-society-interface but also at the policy interface. That is a big deal for us at the moment.  A key example, and still controversial now, is face masking.  There was a variety of expertise that science communicators had to understand—from virologists, yes, but also from experts on air flow and the built environment, from epidemiologists but also from social workers.  And all of that expertise has to be considered in relation to policy settings. 

What about the pandemic? Has this period affected trust in science? 

On this point, I probably differ from a lot of people in science communication, because I think that talk about trust is often nonsense. Maybe it is just the wrong word, but it points at misleading concepts sometimes. Trust is an interpersonal quality.  I think you can trust a scientist but it does not make sense to talk about trust in science. That is too big. It is like: Do you trust in nature? I think people mean something more specific.  For example: Will you rely upon scientific information to decide if you wear a mask or not?

In polls we often ask the wrong questions. Polling can give you a snapshot of what people are thinking at one moment. And that can be very useful. But part of the problem is that you are bringing questions to people without context. Maybe the result of a poll is that people won’t except genetical engineering. But researchers who do more intense qualitative methods and spend some time embedded in the people’s way of thinking find very different results. 

You also work on the ethics of science communication. What does that mean?

“Sometimes we have to find integrated solutions with the communities. And sometimes these solutions are not scientific at all.“Joan Leach
One of the things that me and my colleague Fabien Medvecky noticed was that for lots of science communicators, rules about how to do things don’t always apply. One example is the rule “be clear.” What does “clear” even mean? There are a lot of cases where things go wrong.   For example, communicators, in striving for clarity can over-simplify or remove complexity that actually helps people understand the science—this has been the case with communicating new forms of gene editing.  What we did in our ethics work was to talk about principles for ethical science communication. One of this was utility. A lot of science communication might just be because scientists want to talk about it. But it’s actually not useful for publics. We also talk about accuracy and about timing. There is a tradeoff that you make when you talk about scientific research. If you talk about it early that can be very exciting but then there is still a lot of uncertainty. If you wait until later people will say: “You should have told me about that earlier.” But then you have more certainty. We talk about these kind of tradeoffs as ethical principles in our book.

What role do equity, inclusion and co-creation play in Australian science communication? 

In our center we do a lot of co-design with various people: indigenous groups, migrant groups, and others. We are not communicating to anyone, we are communicating with people and we are developing projects together. We do a lot with Pacific Island nations to work on issues of climate change. We have to be careful on how to align science communication agendas with those community agendas. What the communities want is sometimes not what a scientist wants. 

Can you give an example?

There is a lot of research going on in climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. So, scientists find some method for desalination, they rush into communities and say: “Excellent, we have this. Plug it in and go.” But the communities are saying: “It is not about desalination, actually our issue that the island is going to be under water in a few years.” There can be this mismatch of science as solution. I think one of the things science communicators should learn is that science is not always the solution. Sometimes we have to find integrated solutions with communities. And sometimes these solutions are not scientific at all. I think this transdisciplinary approach to science communication is quite important. 

Australia has a long history of colonialism and oppression. How is that reflected in science communication – for example by the integration of indigenous knowledge? 

There is a huge amount of thinking going on and a lot of learning that colonial Australia still needs to do. There are some bright spots of practice where for example indigenous rangers communicate about bushland in Australia and old firefighting practices. I think that indigenous rangers are a great example of where we can take lessons from very old traditions of observation. There is also great storytelling around indigenous astronomy that has been very instructive and can add to western scientific knowledge. 

But we are still in a situation here in Australia where indigenous people suffer great disadvantage. So, there is a question about what role science communication should play. Right now, we need fundamental equity. Maybe science communication is something for later. But I think what science communicators can do is point out how valuable indigenous knowledge is as part of a strategy for equity.