Aussie bid to boost science literacy, engagement

As Australia rolls towards a Federal election a fair amount of pork barrel politicking is underway as Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott fight to swing the divided electorate their way.

Still, there hasn’t been much for science, the only significant thing outlined in Labor’s science policy released this week being the A$21 million Inspiring Australia initiative aimed at encouraging “science engagement”. It should be noted that along with the Inspiring Australia announcement came news of “modest reductions” in other areas of science funding totaling, you guessed it, A$21 million. So a reshuffling of the deckchairs, but one, as a science communicator, I can relate to.

Furious debate over Climategate, the ETS, the response to the swine flu pandemic, immunisation and other science-related issues suggests there’s a real need for the public in general to get good, easy to understand information to help inform their opinions. Logically you’d think of the media there and part of the funding package is aimed at “…public, commercial and online media outlets, which are ideally placed to communicate Australian science issues and achievements to the public”. No idea what this will mean, but hopefully some of it will go towards supporting the likes of the Australian Science Media Centre which does a fantastic job of brokering relationships between the media and the scientific community in Australia and whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with via the New Zealand SMC.

Interestingly, there’s also a line in the policy about “on-the-job media training to improve the ability of scientists and researchers to work with the media”. This would be a huge boost for scientists. Media training in scientific organisations across Australasia is generally carried out by the institutions and reserved for the management and most senior scientists. That is because it is very expensive. It is often slanted towards dealing with crisis management. But the bulk of scientists just want tips on how to communicate their science more effectively. If this money goes towards helping them do that, it has to be a good thing.

According to Labor’s science policy, the A$21 million will go into the following things:

Recognising achievement. Labor will continue to run the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, which play a vital role in raising the profile of science and alerting the community to the achievements of individual scientists and science teachers. Labor will also contribute to the Australian Museum’s Eureka Prizes.

National Science Week. Labor will continue to support National Science Week, Australia’s premier vehicle for bringing science and research to the people, right across the country. It is an annual, nationwide celebration of Australian achievements and capabilities in science. It aims to identify, engage, inspire and ultimately enlist and mobilise the best Australian talent in science and research. It provides hundreds of opportunities each year to get the community involved in science and to promote scientific careers among young people.

Unlocking Australia’s full potential. Labor will support science events and activities in Australia’s cities, regional and remote areas all year round. There will be specific programs for young people, outer-metropolitan and regional areas, and indigenous and remote communities, as well as programs integrating science into popular community events such as writers’ weeks and music festivals. Activities will involve educators, industry, and physical and social scientists, and will build long-term partnerships and networks. Labor will also renew support for programs delivered through the Higher Education Research Promotion program.

Connecting with mainstream and new media. Labor will promote science through public, commercial and online media outlets, which are ideally placed to communicate Australian science issues and achievements to the public. Labor will provide targeted, on-the-job media training to improve the ability of scientists and researchers to work with the media. We will also support cadetships for future science communicators. This will boost science literacy in the media and the ability of journalists to make science meaningful to the widest possible audience.

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