ScienceWise - Autumn 2011

Inspiring Australia

Article Illustration
As part of the Inspiring Australia strategy, Questacon worked with other museums on International Year of Biodiversity activities across the country, including bird-watching along the Kalgan River, Western Australia. Photo by Rebecca Pritchard, Western Australian Museum, Albany

New government initiative aims to make Australia science savvy

One of the fundamental characteristics of any democracy is that to a very large extent, the government acts according to the will of the people who elect it. Whilst this works fine in areas in which everyone has knowledge and experience such as social, moral and even economic issues, it becomes more difficult in science. The problem with science is that it’s complicated and requires a degree of specialist knowledge to understand any given issue well enough to hold a useful opinion.  Add to that a natural distrust of change, fear of the unknown and some bitter medicine that may need to be swallowed such as reducing CO2 emissions, and you have a big problem.

The Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research DIISR, is the government body charged with looking after all things scientific in Australia and is well aware of the need for public awareness and education in the sciences. In collaboration with Australia’s top thinkers in science and innovation, teachers, journalists and other science communicators, DIISR has developed a national strategy for engagement with the sciences known as Inspiring Australia.

Brenton Honeyman at Questacon, Australia’s well known National Science and Technology Centre, is preparing for the implementation of the Inspiring Australia initiative.

“For many years now, many have been working to increase the public’s appreciation and understanding of science. There have been a number of very successful approaches to doing this, such as National Science Week, an annual Australia-wide festival now in its 14th year. One of the challenges in science communication is to engage with people in ways that people want to engage. For example, we are observing a rapid increase in the use of social networking as a way to share and receive information.”

From a communications perspective, social networking is a two edged sword. On the one hand it facilitates the rapid sharing of information between millions of people openly and freely. But on the other, by it’s very nature it’s unvetted. There’s nothing to stop people posting incorrect information either through ignorance or even malice.

“This can be a real challenge to communicating science to the public. We need to re-think the way we engage people in conversations about science,” Brenton says. “The Inspiring Australia initiative seeks to change the conversation about science in this country. It provides a framework for bringing science, its benefits and its issues, not just into school classrooms and lecture rooms, but also into loungerooms and boardrooms. To accomplish this, we need a Team Australia approach. We need a more cohesive approach with governments, scientists, science communicators, teachers, industries and businesses, media organisations and community groups working together. A coordinated, national effort will help more and more people who are currently disinterested in or apprehensive about science, to value the difference science makes to their lives and to Australia’s future. In an increasingly highly networked environment, strengthening science communication networks is becoming even more important.”

Before joining the team at Questacon, Brenton was a classroom teacher and is a past president of the Australian Science Teachers Association. So he’s quite familiar with the realities of teaching at the ‘chalk face’. “The resources that schools receive are often less than what they would like in order to support an optimal science learning environment. One of the positive benefits that the Inspiring Australia initiative can help to produce is to develop the broader community’s appreciation of science and its contributions to our well-being. By establishing a climate of valuing science within the community, by growing the support of more sectors of our society, we can hope for higher levels of support for the teaching of science in our schools.”

National Science Week will continue as a flagship program of the new Inspiring Australia initiative. In August 2010, it was estimated that 1.6 million people participated in this nation-wide celebration of science.

“As in previous years, 2011 National Science Week is offering small grants to support schools in developing and conducting activities during the week,” Brenton says. “The Australian Science Teachers Association will be managing this grant program.”

“As the Inspiring Australia report states, it is too important to leave inspiration to chance. National Science Week is one program addressing this challenge. Many other programs are also playing a strategic part. By building the support of the wider community, we seek to build a scientifically engaged Australia. Teachers of science are making an essential contribution to this vision. So too are many organisations across the nation. The Inspiring Australia initiative provides a roadmap for many more to add their contribution.” 

To find out more information or to sign up for the Inspiring Australia Newsletter, please contact
inspiring.australia@innovation.gov.au

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