What States Can Do - Part IV: Promoting science

Governments, educationalists and business leaders around the world are keen to encourage young people to embrace science in school, at university and in their future careers. In Australia, a lack of interest in studying science in schools has been of real and growing concern.

Many of the best careers of the future will increasingly rely on scientific acumen. Even political leaders are now more frequently being forced to make decisions where weighing up scientific evidence is critically important for the best public policy outcomes. In recent times, for instance, congressional and parliamentary representatives have had to grapple with complex issues ranging from stem cell research and genetically modified crops to climate science and nuclear power.

In South Australia, the decline in students enrolling in science subjects had reached crisis point. So, we asked distinguished Oxford scientist Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield, then Director of Britain's centuries old science education hub, the Royal Institution to spend three months with us as a Thinker in Residence (www.thinkers.sa.gov.au).

Baroness Greenfield advised my government on how we could foster a greater 'scientific literacy' in our community and encourage kids to be excited by science. She came up with a series of proposals, including twinning scientists in labs with science teachers in schools.

As a result of Baroness Greenfield's residency, we established the Australian Science Media Centre (www.smc.org.au) in 2005 and opened the RiAus (www.riaus.org.au) in 2009. Backed by millions of dollars from State and Federal governments and business, we located both organisations in the refurbished Stock Exchange building in inner city Adelaide. It has been renamed the Science Exchange.

For years, forced by the scrambling pace of voracious 24/7 media coverage, journalists often go to those who shout loudest in covering scientific issues. On climate change, for instance, it's easier for media to seek sound bites from highly politicised lobby groups - from environmental NGOs to climate change deniers - rather than search for world class scientists with real expertise on the subject matter at hand.

The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent organisation overseen by a management board consisting of senior executives from rival media companies, universities, government and business. It is backed by an expert Science Advisory Panel which includes nearly 30 of Australia's most eminent scientists.

The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science stories and works with scientists to help them communicate more effectively with the media. The Centre has nearly 1,000 journalists, hundreds of newspapers, radio, television and online outlets, linked to over 3,000 scientists on its database. Universities, research institutes and academies and government science agencies are all actively co-operating with the service.

So, how does it work?

In March 2011, as we all remember, an earthquake triggered a tsunami off the coast of Japan causing devastation and massive loss of life. It also provoked a disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. There was worldwide concern about its implications including the likely impact of radiation release and what would happen if there was a 'nuclear meltdown'.

Journalists from around Australia and overseas contacted the AusSMC for expert opinion. The Centre ran media briefings involving nuclear scientists who gave journalists the background knowledge they needed. At a time when Japanese authorities were remaining silent, the Centre provided journalists with up to date expert commentary to help them decipher what was happening at the Fukushima plant. Interviews were arranged around the clock to help fit in with media needs and deadlines. Hundreds of journalists were linked to thirteen scientists who provided not only expert commentary, but also background and context. These experts were quoted in almost 4,000 news items internationally.

This is just one example. Since it opened, AusSMC has injected evidence based comment into more than 40,000 news reports worldwide. There is a real difference between journalism that relies on evidence based science rather than sensational claims.

While this not for profit service is often the first point of contact when a major science story 'breaks', the Centre is proactive as well as reactive. It provides regular media briefings including its Heads-up, an email service issued twice a week alerting the media about the most newsworthy science events, new research, and reports being published in scientific journals around the world.

The AusSMC proactively monitors the news for topical science issues and can quickly arrange briefings for journalists. These can involve panels of experts usually interviewed online. To enable journalists to get their heads around complex scientific issues (such as climate modelling or the current controversy in Australia over coal seam gas), detailed background briefings are also provided.

The AusSMC is also helping scientists become more media 'savvy' so that they better understand media pressures and can more effectively engage with journalists on and off air. The AusSMC has been spectacularly successful, applauded by journalists and scientists alike. It has certainly improved the quality of scientific content in media reporting.

Significantly, science media centres are now operating, not only in the UK and Australia, but in New Zealand, Canada and Japan, with others being considered for Denmark, China, Norway, Italy and Pakistan. I understand that a service, similar to Australia's, is now under consideration in the United States. It is hoped that a global network will be developed.

In the same heritage building, now rewired with state of the art media facilities, we have established the RiAus. It is independent but has a close relationship with its 'mother' organisation, the Royal Institution in London, established more than 200 years ago to bring science to the community and the community to science and producing a distinguished list of Nobel Prize winners along the way.

The RiAus aims to inspire and to educate a new generation of Australians about the importance of science to their health, the environment and to the Australian economy.

The RiAus has rapidly become a centre of dialogue and policy debate about science. Above all, it aims to make science more accessible, more valued and more relevant for Australians. It doesn't just preach to the converted and is by no means 'nerdy'.

The RiAus has a special charter to interact with those most disengaged from science, particularly young people. It works with schools and teachers to encourage career path choices in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It uses a range of technologies to do so, running programs online with a very active presence in social media, including Twitter, Facebook, E-newsletters and YouTube as well as staging live events, including plays, art/science exhibitions at festivals, 'Science in the Pub', producing films, sponsoring lectures by astronauts and Nobel Prize winners, even staging a sports science event in front of thousands during the halftime interval at a football stadium.

I am pleased that both the RiAus and AusSMC are now national institutions based in Adelaide.

Most governments invest in science. Successive state governments in South Australia have invested millions in establishing a specialist math and science high school; a bio science precinct and incubator, a functional genomics centre and plant accelerator and the world class Goyder Institute for water research. But unless we enthuse young people to look to science, as the Gemini and Apollo space programs did in the 1960s, we will be failing both our nations' futures.

This Blog was published on the Center for National Policy website.

Mike Rann is Fellow for Democracy and Development with the Center for National Policy, Washington, D.C.