19 September 2006

A University of Queensland researcher is studying the growing professional class of science communicators, which has sprung up to mediate between science and the general public.

Dr Joan Leach, from UQ’s School of English, Media Studies & Art History, said today scientists have the pressure of having to get their research right, but increasingly they are not the ones who have to tell people about it and this comes with its own set of problems.

Her research has been recognised with an $55,000 UQ Foundation Research Excellence Award. The Awards are designed to foster the next generation of leading researchers at UQ.

“There are an estimated 25,000 people around the world who identify themselves as science communicators, with 900 in Australia alone,” Dr Leach said.

“And with fewer media outlets having specialised science writers, these science communicators hold powerful positions as knowledge brokers for scientists and scientific institutions.”

Dr Leach, from Dutton Park, said Australia was a leader in the field of science communication with the profession emerging from the CSIRO, where public engagement has been a key issue.

She said Australian museums and universities are also internationally recognised for pushing the importance of communicating science.

“Scientists and governments worry about negative representations of science and that publics will reject science and technology,” she said.

“Governments have assumed that if people know more about science and technology, then they will accept more.

“The problem is that all the research done to date suggests that, at best, this is only partly true.

“So we need a different framework and context to work within if science communicators are going to do their work properly.”

Dr Leach said her research was also looking at the history of communicating science, trying to find answers to questions, such as, when did people come to believe scientists were bad communicators?

Dr Leach had personal experience of what happens when science communication goes wrong, as she was working in England during the break out of “mad cow disease”.

“The role of science communicators is incredibly important in issues of crisis and controversy,” Dr Leach said.

“Often science communicators are the face of science at these times and the question is what view of science are they presenting?”

The University of Queensland’s outstanding research achievements are being celebrated during Research Week 2006 from September 18 to 22.

The event is designed to raise awareness of current UQ research among the university community, the general public, industry, government and the media.

For details of this year’s program visit http://www.uq.edu.au/research-week/
Media inquiries: Dr Joan Leach (0417 780 203) or Andrew Dunne at UQ Communications (3365 2802 or 0433 364 181).