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Paul Holper

The march of technology

Moore’s Law, named after Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, reflects his 1965 observation that computer transistors, or processors, were shrinking so fast that every year twice as many could fit onto a chip.

These days, we’ve become accustomed to processors becoming smaller, faster and cheaper. The speed of innovation is illustrated by the accompanying page from the Christmas 2004 issue of Better Homes & Gardens. Advertised are Apple iPods with a ‘powerful 4GB package’ for $399, a $499 digital camera with 12 MB of memory, a ‘4th generation’ video camera for $1799 and ‘the world’s first commercially available mobile broadband access card’. You probably have all these things and more packaged up inside your smartphone.

Ten top tips for working with consultants

Scientell’s clients have included all tiers of government; universities and research centres; industry and NGOs; academic associations and professional societies. Furthermore, before founding Scientell, Simon Torok and I worked at senior levels in science agencies where we contracted dozens of consultants. We’ve looked at consulting from both sides now.

So, what steps can you take to maximise your chances of success when employing a consultant? Here are our top tips.

1. Do you know what you need from the project?

If you don’t, how will the consultant? Establish your objectives, including precisely what your end product(s) will look like, and what needs to be in – and out – of the job. This can be part of the conversation with a consultant – if they are good, they will turn what you want into what you need.

2. Define your audience(s)

A campaign for multi-million dollar funding will be very different from an internal awareness raising project. And don’t just call the audience the ‘general public’; there’s no such thing.

3. Establish a realistic budget

I can deliver you a 2-minute video for $50 or for $50,000. The latter will be more impressive than the former. What quality do you need? The answer to this question – whether on the subject of videos or any other communication activity – will be driven by your audience and objectives.

4. Who from your organisation will participate in the project?

It may just be you. If it is a team, decide who will be the prime contact for the consultant and ensure that the contact has the knowledge and authority needed to drive the project.

5. Check your employer’s rules and processes for engaging consultants

The larger your employer, the more rules they will have. Government agencies usually require three quotations for jobs above a certain amount, and go to tender for larger amounts.

6. Has your potential consultant completed similar work?

Best that you are not paying your consultant for on-the-job training. A friend of mine in IT used to claim to prospective clients that he could do whatever it was that they sought. Then, if he got the job, he’d have to figure out how on earth to actually do it. Check examples of your potential consultant’s work. Speak to their past clients.

7. Will the impressive, engaging, knowledgeable person you met actually be doing the work?

Or will it be the novice, poorly paid staff member with next to no experience.

8. Does the consultant really represent good value for money?

I once employed a company that undercut their competitors by thousands of dollars. But their work was so shoddy that I had to hire an editor and spend hours rectifying their mistakes. Cheap and quality rarely co-exist.

9. Consider telling the consultant your budget range

Doing so can avoid misunderstanding about the size and scope of your project (see tip number 3).

10. Once contracted, treat them like a colleague

The more you support and assist your contractor, the better they will be able to the job. And the better their job, the better you will look for contracting them.

 

 

7 essential steps to effective communication

Scientell is a science and environment communication business. We take complex, often technical information and present it in a compelling way for audiences such as policy makers. The product could be a brochure, report, book, website, video, or a traditional or social media campaign. Our aim is to maximise the impact of a client’s information.
Here are the essential elements of good communication that we have applied to more than 60 projects for Commonwealth and State Government departments and agencies, CSIRO, learned academies, businesses, universities and NGOs:
1. Understand client’s needs
2. Define the audience(s)
3. Fully understand the information and concepts being communicated
4. With the client, decide on the mechanism for communication – often this will have been determined beforehand, but there may be potential for flexibility to maximise outcomes
5. Engage closely with the client from beginning to end of the project to ensure that their needs are being met
6. Include peer review as well as client review. Accuracy is vital.
7. Review the project, and document and apply lessons learned.

Plastic not fantastic

I’m a baby boomer. I grew up in the ‘60s. I remember the early morning clip-clop of the milkman’s horse. Each night my mum would leave out two or three empty bottles. The milkman would replace them with full bottles.

We visited the bottling plant on a school excursion. There was an impressively long conveyor line, taking the used glass bottles through a cleaning process, then filling them with a pint of milk and adding an aluminium foil cap.

My mum collected those aluminium foil caps for recycling. The bottles were re-used until they broke.

The world’s population when I was a kid was 3.5 billion. It’s now more than twice that and the planet’s not getting any larger. Our flawed response – mine included – to the fact we have more people in a finite space is to consume more and more.

According to Plastics Europe (which claims ‘Plastics are a global success story’), plastics production has grown from 25 million tonnes each year in the ‘60s to over 300 million tonnes today. Since the middle of last century, we have produced more than 9 billion tonnes of plastic and most of it has just been chucked away.

In many parts of Australia we buy milk in plastic bottles, carrying them home in plastic bags with our plastic-cased tomatoes and plastic-bagged grapes. I read about the world’s environment problems in The Age, delivered daily in plastic wrap.

I may not even be able to comfort myself with a soothing cup of tea. Twinings standard square tea bags, for example, are heat sealed with a thin film of polypropylene.

I type this blog on my laptop, which I will have to replace –a euphemism for chuck out – in a year or two. Maybe I should instead have used my mum’s Remington typewriter, now 100 years old and still going strong.

What’s the solution? Is there one? Try to reduce your consumption. Don’t buy take-away coffee containers. Think twice before buying any excessively packaged goods. Write to supermarket chains asking them what they are doing to reduce waste. Scientell will do this – we’ll use our letter and the response, if we get one, as part of a future blog.

Your actions to lower consumption might be a drop in the ocean, but at least they might mean one less bit of plastic being dropped in the ocean.

Communicating climate change internationally

Jamie Liew
Scientell Intern

The international climate change assessment body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has launched a communication guide for scientists, put together by Climate Outreach — a UK-based team of social scientists and communication specialists focused on climate communication.

The IPCC’s regular assessments of the latest climate change science findings are written by scientists for all levels of governments and the public. The choices of language and narratives are important when communicating as controversial a topic as climate change.

The handbook recommends that scientists keep in mind six principles when communicating science, especially climate change science.

  1. Be a confident communicator

Scientists are generally highly trusted. When speaking about a range of climate change topics, be clear about whether you are expressing yourself in a professional or personal capacity – that is, either representing the views of an organisation or speaking as an independent expert. Be aware of which topics demonstrate social consensus and which do not.

  1. Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas

Numbers are not directly relatable to people’s daily lives. Framing your science in a certain way – like avoiding wastefulness, health benefits, and balance – is helpful for engaging audiences. Use metaphors and analogies, such as climate change loading the dice to favour more severe weather, to convey concepts.

  1. Connect with what matters to your audience

Facts are essential but not sufficient for effective science communication. Values and political views affect people’s attitudes about climate change more than their level of scientific knowledge. It is important to know your audience well so that you can connect with widely-shared public values or points of local interest related to a topic.

  1. Tell a human story

Instead of graphs and statistics, use anecdotes and stories to convey your work, because we understand information better via narrative structures like the ‘And, But, Therefore’ template. Sharing your life outside being a scientist can also ‘humanise’ the science and help you tell a captivating story.

  1. Lead with what you know

Although uncertainty is a huge component of climate change science, it should not obstruct your narrative. Focus on the ‘knowns’ before the ‘unknowns’ and express areas of strong scientific agreement on a topic so that uncertainty is not misinterpreted by people as ignorance. For example, incorporate the consensus that humans are responsible for climate change into your story.

  1. Use the most effective visual communication

Choose your images and graphs wisely. For example, showing real people instead of staged photo opportunities, local climate impacts, and telling new stories – not just polar bears and deforestation – can be effective. Images can be sourced from The Climate Visuals project.

Click here for the full copy of the Climate Outreach communication handbook for IPCC authors.

When in doubt, cut it out: editing tips

Recently I edited a large, complex scientific report. As an editor, one of the first things you do is remove extraneous words. Why force a reader to read two or more words, when one will do?

As I worked through the report, I compiled a list of terms that I decided usually add nothing to meaning or understanding. So here is my list of words that can almost always be removed from scientific reports, with an example of each deleted so that you can read the sentence with the offending term removed:

going forward
The manufacture of cars with no reverse gear will significantly change driving habits going forward

currently
Professor Smith is currently head of the university association

in the longer term
The manufacture of cars with no reverse gear will significantly change driving habits in the longer term

in order
There is a need for interdisciplinary training to be provided in order to enhance Australia’s capacity

It is important to note
It is important to note that a good editor adds considerable value to a document

relatively
Australia’s market for these products is relatively small

very
DNA synthesis is outsourced very effectively in Australia

completely
Acme chemicals had to completely re-engineer the synthesis pathway

Finally, just for fun:

It is very important to note that in the longer term in order to improve writing, relatively little can currently be gained from completely overlooking my excellent tips going forward.

What other terms do you suggest should be removed from documents?

Writing in Nature, naturally

Scientell’s new home, the historic Royal Society of Victoria building, houses a stunning library that includes the first edition of the journal Nature. It’s clear that people communicated science in 1869 differently from now.

The first research article in that first issue is entitled, ‘On The Fertilisation Of Winter-flowering Plants’. Here is a paragraph from the author, Alfred Bennett:

‘During the winter of 1868-69, I had the opportunity of making some observations on this class of [winter flowering] plants; the result being that I found that, as a general rule, fertilisation, or at all events the discharge of the pollen by the anthers, takes place in the bud before the flower is opened, thus ensuring self-fertilisation under the most favourable circumstances, with complete protection from the weather, assisted, no doubt, by that rise of temperature which is known to take place in certain plants at the time of flowering.’

The writing is clear and evocative. The first person ‘I’ paints a picture of Alfred’s experiences as he strolled amidst the ‘hazel-nut Corylus avellana, the butcher’s broom Ruscus aculeatus, and the gorse Ulex europæus’.

 Early scientific discourse favoured the active voice, which helps to make writing personal, clear and concise. An active sentence is one in which an agent (Alfred) does something (observed) to a person or thing (plants). For a passive sentence, the reverse is true – the subject has something done to it by an agent. Had he written in the passive voice, Alfred could have begun: ‘During the winter of 1868-69, observations were made on this class …’.

Subsequently, researchers decided that scientific writing needed to be objective, casting the observer as a disinterested, objective party recording dispassionately the behaviour of ‘objects, things and materials’ (Ding 1998). The passive voice distances the writer from the consequences of their actions and findings. Bart Simpson, for example, stating ‘mistakes were made’ is far from an admission that he has erred.

Scientific writing is now moving back to active voice. The Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, for instance, has the following piece of advice for authors on its website:

We will ask authors that rely heavily on use of the passive voice to re-write manuscripts in the active voice. While the use of the phrase “the author(s)” is acceptable, we encourage authors to use first and third person pronouns, i.e., “I” and “we,” to avoid an awkward or stilted writing style.

This is good advice. Active language is easier to understand. It is more like normal speech and makes clear who is doing what.

You can find that first Nature paper here.

 

References

Ding, D., (1998) Rationality reborn: Historical roots of the passive voice in scientific discourse, in J.T. Battalio ed., Essays in the Study of Scientific Discourse: Methods, Practice, and Pedagogy, Ablex, Stamford, CT, pp. 117–135.

Leong, P.A. (2014). The passive voice in scientific writing: The current norm in science journals. Journal of Science Communication, 01(A03), 1–16. Retrieved from http://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1301_2014_A03.pdf Google Scholar

Winning, even if you don’t win (and we did)

Recently our company Scientell won the 2016–17 Monash Business Award in the Micro Business category. My co-Director, Simon Torok, said in his acceptance speech in front of a packed ballroom, ‘We were delighted to have been nominated for this award – and we nominated ourselves, so imagine how excited we are to have actually won.’

A business coach suggested that we enter the award. It was excellent advice, but not just because we won. The entire process of entering, being assessed and then attending the awards night was invaluable for us.

For starters, the nomination process helped us dispassionately assess our business, its activities and ambitions. We had to ask ourselves what our main focus was, what our objectives are, and how we can simply describe the business in a few sentences.

The judging process included making a short presentation at a lunch where we met other small business owners. This led to us catching up with a number of them over the ensuing weeks to share business ideas and look for opportunities to collaborate in future. As any small business owner knows, success comes from relationships. The Monash Business Awards introduced us to lots of people.

Of course, winning generates valuable publicity opportunities. It helped us highlight the value of communication of environmental, scientific and technical information. But even if we had known at the outset that we would not win, we would still have entered, such was the value of the process.

Sponsored by the City of Monash, the Monash Business Awards serve to ‘promote business success and excellence through the recognition of significant achievements and innovations’. The City of Monash, with almost 200,000 residents, is one of Victoria’s most populous municipalities. There are 18,000 businesses in the area.

 

MBA award to Scientell

How to write a media release

Scientell prepared this summary for members of the Ecological Society of Australia, who have employed us to provide communication support and advice.

Despite the rise of social media, writing and distributing a media release is still a very effective way of communicating your research to the media and hence to a variety of audiences including the public.

Preparing a media release has lots of benefits. It will help you think through the essential elements of your story, and order your findings in a way that highlights the important points first. It ensures that your colleagues, manager, funders, supporters and employer will be aware of your work. It will represent an agreed, accurate and enduring record of your findings.

So, here is a step-by-step guide on how to write a media release.

First, please seek the assistance of a professional communicator or an experienced colleague to write your release. You may be too close to your work to find the news angle. Moreover, an experienced person can help write a release that grabs journalists’ attention. They will also have media contacts to increase the likelihood of your work receiving coverage. They also might suggest that a release is not going to be the most effective way of telling your story and might have some other communication options for you (e.g. pitching directly to online discussion sites such as The Conversation).

 

  • Summarise the main points of your story, with ideally one main take home message. These are probably going to be the three or four points you make at a barbecue or party, when someone with little or no knowledge of your field asks you what you’re working on and why. Order your points from most important to least important.

 

  • Identify what is the newsworthy angle or ‘hook’. Why is this relevant to everyday people now? Do your findings shed interesting new light on a topic? Does your work overturn current thinking? Is it new evidence of things getting worse or better? Will people talk about your insights at the pub?

 

  • The first paragraph of the release is critically important. It should contain the who, what, when, where, why (who cares), and how of your story. Here’s an example with the above elements identified:

 

Birds’ wings growing to help escape the heat?

The wing length [what & how] of Ringneck Parrots [who] in the south-west of Western Australia [where] has been increasing since the 1970s [when], coinciding with that region becoming hotter and drier. This is a possible rapid evolutionary response to changing climate [why/who cares].

 

  • Write in the ‘inverted pyramid style’. After the lead paragraph, each subsequent paragraph should be less important. The release should make complete sense if it is cut from the bottom up. That is, it needs to work if just the first paragraph is used, or pars 1 and 2, or pars 1, 2 and 3, etc.

 

  • Write in short sentences and short paragraphs, with simple language (no scientific jargon).

 

  • Keep it simple. You need to interest a journalist who is not a science or environment correspondent, writing for people who know nothing about your science.

 

  • Include quotations, attributed to a named person with their position and affiliation stated (most likely you, and possibly a senior person in your agency).

 

  •  Add a punchy headline. Most journalists will read only the headline and first sentence of your release.

 

  • Check to ensure that the release contains no typographical or grammatical errors and then have it approved by your manager, and ensure your communicator, agency, funders, colleagues and anyone else involved are aware of the release before it is made public.

 

  • Restrict the release length to one page, add ‘Media Release’ to the top, agency logo, the date (clearly noting any embargo), and contact details including mobile number at the end.

 

  • Good photos or videos will help ‘sell’ a release. State their availability.

 

  • Look for networks and linkages with other agencies such as universities, partner organisations and sponsors to help promote the release.

 

If you’d like advice or assistance in preparing a media release, please contact Scientell (www.scientell.com.au)

 

Rent, don’t buy?

When I was young, my parents always told me that if I wanted to buy something, I should save my money and pay for it outright. ‘Buy, don’t rent’, was their recommendation for procuring everything from a TV set to a house. The logic in this advice was that rent, or its equivalent in ongoing payments, represents ‘dead’ money.

We all used to apply my parents’ logic to software. We’d fork out several hundred dollars for the latest version of Microsoft Office and spend ages feeding the multiple CDs that stored the program into our computers. Then, when it became too annoying dealing with Word 7 when you had only version 6, you would upgrade.

A few years ago, the software industry woke up to the wisdom of my mum and dad – if you are on the supply side, far better financially to get the punters to rent, not buy.

So, Microsoft quietly, but forcefully, pushed their millions of users to a ‘rent’ model. It’s just a couple of dollars a week, they said. You’ll always have the very latest software on your computers, they told us. Say goodbye to version incompatibility.

That’s all fine, but what if you simply want to write stuff and don’t need to be able to import, rotate and link a Pivot table from Excel into Word? I know there are plenty of free programs that will just let you type. But then there’s the challenge in reading other people’s work that they email you in packages like Microsoft Word, with all its associated design elements.

So, we’re back to renting.

Let’s do a quick stocktake of all the software that our company Scientell rents. There’s the Microsoft Office subscription at $10 per month. We pay $60 per month for our accounting software. Delivering our public webinars and teleconferences incur a $12.50 monthly charge. Our web site and email host charges $15. We pay Google $4.58 for hosting documents. Dropbox subscriptions fees of $10.75 a month let us share files.

Take a deep breath and add up those subscriptions: the business subscriptions are $112.83 per month, which is $1,354 each year.

It all quickly adds up. Do we really need all this software and data? Good question – and one that is worth asking regularly. I’ll add a reoccurring note to my calendar to do a stocktake. I just have to ensure that my monthly Internet bill gets paid so that I see it.