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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.

 

 

Collaborate, motivate and activate communities

I recently completed a training course on how to engage communities, and you’d be surprised how a bit of structure in a discussion can help motivate people to take positive action to change the world.

Community engagement encourages participation in the decisions that affect . . . well, the community. However, to successfully engage people you need to do more than just turn up to a meeting.

The course, run by Macquarie University’s Australian Research Institute for Environment and Sustainability, explains how to capture the opinions of a representative group or engage a whole community, how to empower communities and develop closer working relationships with them.

For example, you have to ask the right people the right questions to get the information you need. You have to listen, document what people say, and analyse the information carefully. And when reporting your findings, it’s important to report back to the community and have them check that you’ve accurately captured their views.

Community engagement can take many forms, ranging from basic information sharing (such as through fact sheets, websites and media activity), to consultation (including surveys, interviews and public meetings) and active participation (involving citizen juries, consensus conferencing and other community collaborations).

We worked through real-life case studies, such as the Habitat Stepping Stones project that encouraged property owners to plant native species and create wildlife habitat in their backyards to address habitat fragmentation.

The training course includes topics such as designing and developing community engagement projects, building community resilience and capacity, and engaging diverse groups and volunteers of all ages.

For more information, see http://aries.mq.edu.au/projects/engaging-communities.

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

Calendar photos bring ecology to life


Dingo puppies in the Great Sandy Desert (Pilbara Region), WA. Photo by Bradley Smith.

The 2018 Ecology Society of Australia calendar features spectacular images of Australian flora, fauna, landscapes, coasts, skies and marine environments.

Many disciplines contribute to ecology and ecosystem science, with research delivering a wide range of economic and social benefits for Australia. Ecosystems provide the environments where we live, work and spend our leisure-time; the settings for our industry, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and resource extraction; and the distinctive plants and animals characteristic of the Australian continent.


A weedy seadragon at Flinders Pier, Victoria. Photo by Richard Wylie.

The Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) is the peak association of ecologists in Australia, with over 1,200 members from all states and territories. Scientell provides media communication support to the society, and is a proud sponsor of the calendar.


A flock of galahs in the Strzelecki Desert, SA. Photo by Christian Spencer.

The calendar features images from previous ESA photographic competitions, held every year with prizes for the best photographs of biodiversity, landscapes and ecologists at work. You can enter this year’s competition before it closes on 22 Oct, at https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/media-and-events/esa-ecology-action-photo-competition

Order the 2018 ESA calendar at https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/shop/2018-esa-calendar


An echidna in the Australian Alps near Mt Twynam, NSW. Photo by Charles Davis.

Lead influencing crime, Ice drug contaminating homes, and other highlights from CleanUp2017

700 scientists, engineers, regulators and other environmental professionals from more than 20 countries have been in Melbourne this week at the biennial CleanUp global forum.

CleanUp 2017, organised by the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE), ran in Melbourne from 11 to 13 September. Delegates discussed many of the most pressing environmental problems facing the world today, including chemical weapons, climate change, asbestos, and per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

For example, one paper that caught our eye described how children exposed to lead in soil are more likely to commit crime as young adults. Dr Mark Cave, from the British Geological Survey, compared lead levels in soil with socio-economic information about health, wealth, employment, housing and crime in England. He found a link between soil lead and criminal behaviour in Derby’s urban environment, and said results in Australia show a strong relationship between childhood lead exposure and subsequent rates of aggressive crime. You can hear more about his work in an Australian Science Media Centre online media briefing.

For more details on our involvement in the conference, see our post on LinkedIn here.