Scibloggers clean out science communication awards cupboard

I spent an enjoyable morning at the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes where the glow of last night’s premiere of The Hobbit was obviously still buoying attendees – particularly the Prime Minister, who at one stage suggested there were “cauldrons of opportunity” in science.

Professor Shaun Hendy

The PM’s Science Prizes spell the end of the science awards season, following the New Zealand Association of Scientists awards and last week’s Royal Society of New Zealand Research Honours awards. They also represent the most lucrative of the prizes, with one million bucks going to the recipients collectively.

Full details about the award-winning scientists, science teacher and remarkable student winner Helen Ng are here.

But it was particularly pleasing to see Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy pick up the PM’s Science Media Communication Prize. Professor Hendy divides his time between Industrial Research and Victoria University and until recently was Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute. This is Shaun’s second win – he picked up the Callaghan Medal for science communication at the RSNZ awards last week.

Aside from his blogging at A Measure of Science, Shaun has been prolific in the media. He is a regular contributor on Radio New Zealand and is often quoted in science-related news articles, TV and radio pieces. I learnt this morning that the book he is publishing next year will be called Get off the Grass, (great title!) and will carry on some of the ideas first explored in Sir Paul Callaghan’s well-received and through-provoking book Wool to Weta.

Both awards are well deserved and hard-earned. Like Sir Paul, Shaun is able to relate science to the big picture issues facing the country. He understands the needs of journalists. And he isn’t reticent about standing up for what he believes in. Amid the controversy this week over Dr Mike Joy’s comments in the New York Times about the state of our environment, Shaun, in his capacity as President of the Association of Scientists issued a statement defending Joy and attacking a heavy-handed Herald editorial about Joy.

Standing up for science

“The clear statement is that the potential damage to New Zealand’s reputation, and economic benefit of ‘big-spending American tourists’ outweighs the need for truth in  public debate,” the NZAS release stated. “This is an issue that the Association takes very seriously, and emphatically refutes criticism of Dr Joy on this basis.”

I had a chat with Industrial Research Ltd. CEO Shaun Coffey at the PM’s prizes this morning, a man who has been instrumental in giving Shaun the time and freedom to engage with the media. Coffey is running a very successful experiment in science communication himself, having amassed nearly 130,000 followers on Twitter. His updates and links to interesting articles on R&D, science, economics and agriculture are addictive reading for me.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Picking up the NZAS Science Communicator’s Award was another Sciblogger, Dr Siouxsie Wiles who blogs at Infectious Thoughts. Currently you can see Siouxsie fronting a national TV ad campaign for the National Science Challenges. She is also active on the media front and has been successfully testing out crowd funding of scientific research through the Rockethub platform.

What is great to see is that we have a growing number of scientists who are skilled communicators, willing to engage with the media, conscious of the news agenda and the interplay between science and the issues of the day and proactive about getting the science out to the public. Others such as Dr Mark Quigley, last year’s PM’s Science Media Communicator’s Prize winner, and Professor Chris Battershill have quickly had to hone their media skills when demand for their expertise put them in the media spotlight. In the case of Quigley, it was the Canterbury earthquakes, for Battershill it was the Rena oil spill.

The better scientists are at communicating their science, at relating its value to society the better the public’s understanding of the importance of science will be. And those who recognise that science communication is an ongoing endeavour, an investment, rather than an obligation tied to the need to promote research findings or secure funding, will ultimately better serve the people who are indirectly paying for their science.

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