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Archimedes has been in Queensland discussing science communication. Can it change society? What about truth and ethics? What is the best way to put scientific ideas across to politicians, business people or Indigenous Australians? How should we educate future practitioners?

It was a lively conference with a committed bunch of colleagues. So much so that the meeting generated support for a team to travel to Montreal to make a successful bid for Melbourne to hold the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists in 2006. This led Archimedes to reflect that much of this was happening because of the extraordinary creativity of Australian Science Communicators (ASC)—an organisation which since its establishment has become a world leader.

In the decade or so prior to the founding of ASC in 1994, at least two attempts were made to set up some sort of Australian association of science writers. They foundered for a lack of critical mass—there were too few people to keep the organisation operating. By 1994 something had to be done. Two CSIRO staff members, Toss Gascoigne and Jenni Metcalfe, had secured a world conference on the Public Communication of Science and Technology for Australia, and there was no host organisation. Once again the possibility of a science writers body was discussed.

There were all sorts of arguments as to who it should include—whether it should be restricted to journalists or whether people involved in PR should be allowed. Would that be solely print journalists, or should it include electronic journalists as well? How about scientists themselves? Educators? Illustrators? Finally, at lively meetings in Canberra and Geelong, it was decided that Australia was too small and people too isolated for such a body to exclude any interested party. Someone suggested the inclusive term ‘science communicator’, and ASC was born.

That decision to be inclusive—to throw together TV journalists, museum staff, freelance writers and web designers—has led to activities as diverse as Science in the Pub in Sydney, Fresh Science (a competition which provides media training and achieves worldwide publicity for early career researchers) in Melbourne, and a Science Writers’ Festival in Brisbane. It has also underpinned the success of National Science Week, the development of university courses, and has led to the birth of a profession. And it coined a term now accepted globally. The ‘science communicator’ entered the world from Australia.

In a media release supporting the ASC conference with $10,000, the then Federal Science Minister Peter McGauran wrote, ‘ASC has grown to become a significant national voice for science communication … [and] the value of science communication, keeping the general public informed of and comfortable with new developments and discoveries in science, is demonstrated almost daily …’ ASC, in turning what was an isolated activity into a profession, is now being replicated in South Africa and New Zealand.

In the era of climate change, genetic modification and commercialisation of research and innovation, governments think science communication is an important enough profession to offer their assistance. The Victorian Government, for instance, actively resourced and supported ASC’s bid for the World Conference of Science Journalists, because it could see value in attracting influential international science journalists to Melbourne.

In its way, the ASC has been a testament to how a small bunch of dedicated people can help to change society and influence Government policy.  

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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