Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “How journalists work and how to help them make your science into news” (#smp2014 #AdelED @Science_Academy @jamesmassola @lyndalcurtis)

This session was an interactive panel on how journalists turn science into news and I suspect this is going to be nearly impossible to capture live so I’ll summarise key points. The panellists were Kylie Walker (Chair of AAS), Lyndal Curtis (Political Editor, ABC News 24) and James Massola (Political Correspondent, Fairfax).

James started off by giving us an overview of the day in a newsroom. Journos start looking for stories from about 6:30-7:00 and the chief of staff gets their picks for stories by about 8:30-9:00, then the stories start getting pursued. The expectation is that you will put stories in press and on-line spaces as well. (Newspapers have finite space but on-line is infinite) There’s some lobbying to the editor involved as to which stories get up, with political editors, night editors and so on. When James started he wrote about 500-1000 words a day, now he writes 2-4000 words a day – comment and analysis pieces, or later pieces from 4:30pm. (How much am I producing a day is an interesting question!) There’s a 9:30am editorial conference which works out what is happening. Deadlines for most stories is 4:30-5 and for front page is a bit later. With any luck, the front page the next day will hit you with something you don’t already know. The stories for the next day will probably be decided around midday.

Lyndal’s experience was that deadlines are much shorter in her news cycle – she still has two news conferences to work out what is going to be a story. Not all stories get up into every medium. The ABC 24 approach allows for continuous rolling breaking news cycles – such as the Malaysian plane, which caused them to dump everything else they had planned for a slow news day. TV news bulletins are actually quite short so, again, there’s a filtering process. Radio can unwind the story a bit more and evolve it. When people think media, they think the high profile avenues (New bulletins, 7:30 reports) but there’s a lot of space on the local radio, 24 hour channels, which may then be passed on if it’s a sufficiently slow news day.

What makes a story something that will be considered newsworthy? Lyndal answered that it was part of the dark arts of journalism and there’s a list of about 20 things that are given to cadets to explain newsworthiness, including impact of people, proximity, interest to people, timeliness. In the end, it’s a dark art (hint: use a media handler) but the impact and effect on people is probably the most important factor – which explains why medical science has such a high profile in the media.

Kylie talked about her role of marketing as another dark art – the impact and the relevance of the story. Kylie then asked James a question about big science stories but he noted that journalism is driven by conflict and crisis, blood and gore, where science was a more noble pursuit but had stories to tell that were harder to communicate. Interest in science is often driven by criss (nuclear science in the wake of Fukushima). Have a story to tell. Have some good images. It will still be hard to get it into the paper.

There are few shades of grey in this area and the timeframe is not long – which of course works against some complex issues. Changing your delivery mode may get you more time and have enough unfiltered time to talk out the issue. Local radio and talkback is one good way to do this.

Kylie ased about any terrible examples of science insertion. James hasn’t experienced it first hand but he’d held a story at SM previously. A friend was interviewing a scientist who had done early work in matter transportation. The interviewer kept referring to Star Trek (despite the scientists refuting this) and this ended up jammed together with the story. Newspaper stories have 3-500 words and have to be simple enough to read – make sure your message is very, very clear. The question came back to James, from Kylie, as to why fact checking doesn’t involve sending it back to the scientist for checking? Two answers: time  lines for production and avoiding subject censorship (which seemed a little shaky to me).

How can you educate the journalist so the journalist can educate the public?

Consider wargaming the interview before you go in, so that you’re ready for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

The first question was on why there aren’t more features on science in the Australian, given the number of articles on art. There are only three science reporters in Australia, compared with lots of Art reporters. Lots of discussion ensured on advocacy, perceived relevance of science. Bit of a shame to see that the stereotypical scientist is seen to be unpolished, when all of us are here to apply a light buffing of carborundum.

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “Opposition Leader Address” (#smp2014 #AdelED @billshortenmp)

The start of the Opposition Leader’s Address we delayed because he was doing media outside (chuckles from the crowd). While we waited, Simon took Q&A. The first question was “How do we get a better media for reporting science/more accountable media?” This was thrown to the Australian Science and Media association but briefings are apparently key. Ah, here’s the Opposition Leader, The Hon Bill Shorten MP, Leader of the Opposition (@billshortenmp). Probably the last thing he really wants to do given the recent elections but he’s looking pretty chipper. (Strong applause from the crowd)

Mr Shorten referred to the dark arts of politics and the media, as Labour leader and as science policy leader for his party. He encouraged us to give 1% of ourselves to political communicators – stay 99% science but get ready to explain things to the people on the hill and Australians. Science and Innovation are matters of national political importance and what scientists to is important to the future of Australian in 10-30 years in the future. A reference was made to shunting of science into DoI with no dedicated Science minster (here heres, from the crowd). Industry needs science. Health needs new ideas. Education needs new ideas. The economy needs new ideas underpinned by innovation, research and education. Basically, Australia needs science. Environmental policy should be based on scientific consensus rather than ideological repudiation (his words).

The beauty and rightness of science will not guarantee its success – it has to be communicate properly to become a successful political issue. That’s a bitter pill but it’s probably the right medicine. Mr Shorten referred to Einstein’s musing on politics, that politics is more difficult than physics. He referred to disability issues that, prior to 2007-8, were not regarded as a national political issue – it was a moral imperative but, until a national disability initiative, it didn’t feature on the national level in a meaningful and contributory way. (I’m paraphrasing here without editorial, you may disagree with Mr Shorten’s perspective.) The two key elements that moved it from charity to outcome, from forgotten tragedy to an issue supported in a bipartisan fashion. The first factor was people who knew about the issue raising the profile with a positive-message focused grass roots message. Different groups on the same issue can either work together or form a Tower of Babel. Are you focusing on the 10% of things you disagree on or the 90% you agree on? The sterile competition of conflicting points of view fighting for the same resources are counter-productive. The groups then focussed on a single successful outcome – the national disability insurance scheme. We are all fighting for limited resources – but we can still have a unifying message. A consensus that will delver goals that will benefit all of us and build a richer political narrative of the benefits of science for all Australians.

The second factor was support evidence from recognised experts who could provide a cogent argument as to how this approach will benefit all Australians, not just parliamentarians. The productivity commission were able to puncture the myth that a national disability insurance scheme would be a bottomless pit of debt – this made the policy more attractive. As well, the productivity commission argued that empowering all of the people associated with the disabled would be a net positive. This added economic soundness and policy logic to the moral imperative of the initiative.

Innovative Australian business are 78% more likely to report improvements in productivity but only 25% of Australian businesses collaborate on this innovation. There is a great need for more research collaboration. Industry relies on science and we, as scientists, have a role in communicating and collaborating as part of this.

Building meaningful consensus in parliament is not easy and it’s harder for science. Simply presenting the same system of funding and expecting a different outcome would be a pipe dream. Science is under constant assault from the crank blogosphere and fringe opinion is often presented in the media as being an alternative – which is irritating, as Mr Shorten noted. We need to triumph over gossip and prejudice. All good stuff, but we need to be able to communicate what we do, even if it means stepping back to the first principles.

Mr Shorten spoken on climate change and noted that we often make the mistake of assuming that our view of a community, especially within the scientific community, can be mapped to the general community, which means that we get caught flat-footed when the people are swayed by poor, incorrect, misleading and negative reporting. (We’ve seen the bubble before in the Bush/Gore election.) Mr Shorten, it would fair to say, disagrees with the government on this. None of us were shocked by this.

Mr Shorten called for a discussion of real science, evidence-based research, and far more informed work in parliament, including letting projects run to completion without ideological interference and, of great interest to me, to also being able to change direction when we discover that we are on the wrong path – but without being mocked for so-called indecisiveness. He sees Science as the industry that will underwrite our successes in the 21st Century.

We are more than just a rock or a crop. The Hon Bill Shorten, MP, Leader of the Opposition.

Science needs a long term and sustainable funding profile and we need to focused on educating more scientists now, because too many students have no real grasp of science because we have neither the teachers nor the desire to increase the knowledge. Australia can either get smarter or poorer, compete or give up. Then there were some more partisan points but I was still interested to hear about allowing failure and recognising that failure sometimes is a key part of the movement to success. Our scientist graduates should have professional skills as well as their discipline skills (something I also agree with, I note), but they should also have good lives where they don’t have to flog themselves to get ahead.

Politics might be a dirty business but we can’t stay hands off any more – giving 1% of your science brain to working out how to communicate and enter the political debate in a way that makes change happen.

(Nick: Very interesting talk indeed. Not a great week for Labour but it was a relatively simple and powerful message: get out of your lab and push your message further.)

The first question was on the nuclear fuel cycle and how it related to ALP policy, with a plea for it to be treated fairly on its scientific and environmental merits. The second question was on what message do we need to give Young Scientists to get engaged (the flippant answer he gave was “Join the Labor party”, which he modified to “Join any party, but you’ll be less happy elsewhere.”)

The answer to the first question summarised Labor policy and focused on the cost of starting a new technology cycle now but he conceded that the debate should be held on its merits and noted that the Far Left approach could be as fundamentalist as the Far Right. He then raised storage and economic start-up issues. (I shall wait for arguments in the comments. 🙂 )

The second question was “get political”, even to the point of going into parliament. Politics are not that mysterious and scientists need to believe that politics can change the community and can speak to the lives of everyday Australians. (First reference to rebuilding Labor.)

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “Inspiring Australia: how can we help you communicate your science?” (#smp2014 #AdelED #questacon @questacon)


The speaker is Simon France, Program Manager, Questacon (@questacon). Simon had recently returned from Chicago and was noting that we had here in terms of science engagement is unique and desirable from another country’s perspective, in terms of our strategy. If we were confident that parliamentarians were listening, science literate and, even when they differed, we knew that they were taking it seriously – that would be fantastic. It would be great if your neighbours were also taking science seriously. It would be great if every graduating student in Australia, whether in Science or not, understood enough science to take part in serious and well-fromed debate. This is part of the Inspiring Australia initiative. This, of course, requires scientists to be able to communicate in a way that facilitates this, another part of Inspiring Australia.

Simon then showed a short video talking about how we can match the interest of an audience to the message of a scientist – which led to the formation of the Inspiring Australia initiative. The groups formed as part of this is designed to provide leadership in scientific communications, supported by experts in the area, to work with media, evidence-based research, and indigenous strategic elements.

What can this offer us? Media training skills – are we able to work with media as we want to? What about social media? (I’ve probably got that covered but let’s see about that.) There’s a … three week … social media training program, as well as a science in newsroom program. (Three weeks???) We have to communicate science more effectively and Questacon have platforms and training – National Science Week (which I’ve done before) is one of these activities, with 1.6 million Australians involved. A number of other initiatives were discussed, including national hubs for regional science promotion, on the collective side. One group, the Science Sector Group, is trying to build up a strong message on one theme to drive change.  Questacon has a booth here and they want to know where to go next – I’ll have to think about that before morning tea! What training and tools do we need? How can we engage better with industry? How can we do citizen science better? Prizes? Clubs? Science and tourism? How do we communicate the value and importance of science in Australia?

When we communicate poorly, we might not get our real message across. What do our listeners miss when we confuse and mumble our message? (I have a lot more to say on this but will have to update after this event.) Have you tested your talk on someone out of your area or who is more critical before you present? Interesting…

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “Welcome and Overview” (#smp2014 #AdelED)


(Disturbing social media fact: the people sitting next to me had seen my breakfast view tweet on the Canberra twitter site before they met me. I think I’m having my 15 bits of fame.)

(Colour aside: there’s a lot of orange in use here. I feel at home.)

The welcome and overview to the session was given by Dr Ross Smith (President) and Catriona Jackson (CEO) of Science and Technology Australia (STA). This is the 29th year of the even, which is a pretty impressive run! This event is being supported by the Department of Industry and a host of sponsors (who I won’t list here although I will note that a couple of Unis were sponsoring, which I found interesting, along with the NTEU). This has attracted a lot of sponsorship. There are roughly 200 scientists here, for development activities to improve our ability to communicate with parliament and the media.

Science thrives in the creation of networks.

There’ll be a launch of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Science tonight, which sounds very interesting and I’m looking forward to find out what that’s about. We have almost half the whole parliament arranged for meetings tomorrow – about 120 people – which is quite surprising and a very high level of exposure to parliament. There’s a media minder available, which I doubt I’ll need as there’s still a very low level of media interest in much of the educational stuff I work with, but it’s good to know that they’re there.

Today we’re in the NGA but tomorrow we’re in the “belly of the parliament” and have very strict rules for when we can enter the parliament. I suspect I’ll be having a very early morning tomorrow to make the early breakfast entry point. (I must check to see if there are equipment limits to what we can bring in, given I travel with a small electronics shop.)

That’s it, time for the first talk!

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra – Day 1 (#smp2014 #AdelED #CORE)

Settling in to Canberra after a relaxing night in the hotel working (hooray for high-speed WiFi and good desks) and then hammering myself for an hour in the gym to make sure that I was really awake and ready for a power breakfast. (That’s secret Nick code for ‘bacon’)

The starting venue for this year’s Science Meets Parliament is the National Gallery of Australia, Gandel Hall. I’m here representing CORE – the Computing Research and Education association. CORE gets two seats at this event and I was lucky enough to secure one. The focus of this whole activity is to show scientists how Parliament actually works and, with any luck, how to engage successfully with this level of organisation – but also to get Parliamentarians and scientists talking together. It’s a pretty high profile line-up and my own meeting looks like it will be pretty interesting.

The two days involve a lot of briefings, discussions and meeting opportunities as well as the chance to attend the Press Club luncheon tomorrow (which, sadly, I won’t be able to attend as my meeting with a Parliamentarian conflicts with this) and sitting in on question time.

Right now the room is slowly filling up as people register and find tables. Demographically, there are roughly 40% women, and very few non-white faces. The overall age is not that great (or grey, if I may), which isn’t much of a surprise.

We start in about 30 minutes so I’ll resume blogging then.