Observations on observers

With hundreds of climate scientists meeting in Melbourne this week for the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society conference, it is worth reflecting that climate research owes a great debt to voluntary weather observers who, through their careful documentation of weather, have provided data to describe and understand our climate over the past 150 years. And they have faced some unique difficulties, including dingoes, eagles, and a pet lamb.


(Adapted from Holper, P.N. and Torok, S.J (2008), Climate Change: What you can do about it, 185 pp., CSIRO Publishing and Pan Macmillan Australia.)


The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has relied on a range of observers, including post office staff, prison wardens, lighthouse keepers, army personnel, farmers, missionaries, pastoral station managers, school teachers and mining company employees, as well as Bureau staff from across the country, including the surrounding islands and Antarctica.


The overwhelming majority of observations are reliable and accurate. However, observations are not always worthy of being accepted into the Australian climate record. The Bureau of Meteorology’s archived correspondence between its Head Office in Melbourne and observational outposts around the country reveals some insights into the need for quality control.


Thermometers should be protected in a louvered box called a Stevenson Screen, named after its inventor (and author Robert Louis Stevenson’s father), Thomas Stevenson. However, there have been inconsistencies in this exposure. Bureau records include reports of thermometers hanging under a gum tree, under a galvanised iron verandah, against a stone wall, and on a balcony seven metres above the ground. Instruments were on one occasion even inside an observer’s house – presumably to make it more convenient for reading.


Stevenson Screens must be painted white and correctly exposed over suitable ground, but Bureau investigators have found them painted cream, brown, green, silver, or not at all. The screens must also be clear of obstructions, and not, as the records reveal, with pumpkins growing beneath them, with cows, goats and other stock grazing around them, or laundry hanging above them to dry.


Australian weather observers faced some unique difficulties. For example, a dingo stole a thermometer that an observer had read after slaughtering farm animals (the Bureau advised the observer to wash his hands before making the observations in future) and cockatoos and crows also liked to steal these shiny objects. Horses have knocked down Stevenson Screens and, more recently, cars and trucks have done the same. One screen contained a football. Termites have wreaked havoc, birds have entered screens and, in one case, an eagle destroyed a Stevenson Screen when it flew into the side of it.


But the problems have not always been with the instruments. One letter from the Bureau asks an observer (presumably someone lacking in height) to make the observations while standing on a box, to ensure he avoided introducing parallax error. An observer, not able to make observations at the correct time due to work commitments, “helpfully” estimated the temperatures later in the day, while the Bureau caught another observer sending an entire month of entries in advance, so he could have a holiday.


Once recorded, measurements have been destroyed by fire, or in one case eaten by a pet lamb. One observer cut the telegraph lines to prevent his neighbour reporting observations during an outback feud regarding who was to have the privilege of taking the weather measurements.


Despite these difficulties, the clear signal from more than a century of overwhelmingly well-recorded climatic observations is that our climate is changing.


Public comment in response to massive cuts to CSIRO’s climate change science activities

If the cuts to a significant swathe of CSIRO’s climate research activities proceed, Australia faces the prospects of losing forever its world-leading research and application work on climate. This research has been painstakingly built up over decades and places Australia at the forefront of work to better understand climate, climate change and its impacts.

At stake are internationally acclaimed monitoring and modelling programs. We knew next to nothing about oceanic behaviour and global changes 25 years ago. Thanks to CSIRO’s research, we are actively using this and other knowledge for forecasts, seasonal outlooks and long-term projections that lie at the heart of our ability to take advantage, and reduce the negative impacts of, weather and climate. Are we really prepared to lose all this?

(Paul Holper was manager of the Australian Climate Change Science Program at CSIRO from 2003-2014)

New climate change brochures for Victoria

Recently we worked with the Victorian Government to prepare a series of regional brochures explaining the likely impacts of climate change and describing how best to adapt. This project was a collaboration with Karen Pearce of Bloom Communication and Rohan Hamden & Associates.

The 8-page brochures state how climate has already changed, highlight climate-related risks for key sectors and present ‘climate-ready’ actions. These actions include considering different crop varieties, insuring assets and undertaking emergency planning. We give numerous examples of communities successfully preparing for, and adapting to, climate change.

The brochures conclude with detailed, regional descriptions of the projected changes to temperature, rainfall and, where relevant, sea-level rise under various greenhouse emission scenarios out to the year 2100. CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology prepared regional projections and climate information specially for the project.

Supporting the brochures are regional data sheets for a range of climate variables, presented annually and by season.Victorian climate change brochures

In preparing the products, we applied our extensive climate communication experience, as well as the advice from social scientists. I recently wrote about some important findings from social science, which concluded:

  1. Highlight personal experiences and local examples
  2. Describe effective local action
  3. Emphasise local changes
  4. Accentuate the positive
  5. Seek to build a better tomorrow.

By presenting information regionally and showcasing practical examples, the brochures fulfilled points 1 to 3. The numerous examples of successful recent action fulfilled points 4 and 5.

Thanks to the Victorian Government, there were many rounds of user testing. We incorporated well over 500 comments and suggestions made on various draft products.

We know that people interpret information in different ways. To cater for this, the brochures include body text, breakouts, infographics, attractive photographs, and different graph styles. CSIRO’s experience is that an effective way of visualising how climate change will affect a place is to state a ‘climate analogue’. Here is an example from the brochures: ‘In 2050, under high emissions, the climate of Bendigo will be more like the climate of Shepparton now.’

The climate change projections for Victorian are based on material from the Climate Change in Australia website, produced by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, at

The Climate-ready Victoria brochures and data sheets are available at, under the ‘Being Climate Ready’ tab.

Cli-Fi: cautionary tales to prompt action

Cli-fi, or climate fiction, also known as Eco-fiction, is a relatively new genre of literature that sets narratives in an often dystopian world affected by climate change. I love it because fiction can be used to convey complicated climate change messages, by enabling exaggeration, contraction of time, or the creation of hypothetical situations that can better illustrate impacts than dry, scientific facts. It can also reach audiences who do not normally obtain climate change information.

I gave it a shot in the mid 1990s by developing a web-based science soap opera, called CO2Lab, which used a superficial story about the social lives of a fictional team of climate scientists as a ‘Trojan horse’ to introduce complicated concepts about climate change and other science (you can still find it online if you search hard enough).

There are hundreds of cli-fi novels (for example, GoodReads), and universities even offer courses that examine climate in film and books (see the New York Times).

Hopefully they are cautionary tales to prompt action in the present rather than handbooks for the future. For my top ten cli-fi novels, see my ’10 Great Books on Climate Change Fiction’ blog post on Science Book a Day.



The psychology of communication: Here and how; not gloom and doom

By Paul Holper

Science organisations want to explain their work to increase impact and use of results. Scientists know that science is important and would like others to feel the same. They also realise that science that no one knows about may find itself short of support and money.

Decades ago, laboratories began employing information officers, science communicators, public relations people and the like to pump out the facts. They wrote newspaper features, brochures, pamphlets and books, some consuming forests to describe the importance of healthy ecosystems.

This approach is known as the ‘empty bucket’ or ‘deficit’ model. It assumes that people have gaps in their heads ready to be filled with facts, and that if a little fact pushing doesn’t work, then increasing the flow of brochures, newspaper articles, and radio talks will help.

The problem is that communication theory has pointed out that the deficit model has limited effectiveness. Often it fails completely, having the opposite effect of what was intended.

Climate change is an example of the failure of the deficit model. Despite massive communication efforts, a considerable proportion of people do not accept that climate change is caused by human activities. Brulle et al. (2012) suggest that climate science has little direct influence on public opinion on climate change in the United States.

Propagation of more and more information is not the way to engage people with complex issues like climate change. Social scientists have long realised that inclusion and dialogue are essential.

Improving public engagement with climate change: five ‘best practice’ insights from psychological science by van der Linden et al. (2015) provides recommendations on this topic. The five insights apply more widely than climate change.

Paraphrased, they are:

  1. Our brains value experience over analysis
  2. We are social and mimic peer behaviour
  3. The here and now is more important than something that may (or may not) affect us profoundly in future
  4. We like to win
  5. Human motivation is powerful.

Applying these insights to communication means that we:

  1. Highlight personal experiences and local examples
  2. Describe effective local action
  3. Emphasise local changes
  4. Accentuate the positive (for example, reducing emissions equals cleaner air)
  5. Seek to build a better tomorrow.

So rather than ineffective messages of gloom and doom, the more effective communication approach relies on familiarity, hope and optimism.


Brulle, R., Carmichael, J. and Craig Jenkins, J. (2012) Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010. Journal of Climatic Change.

van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015) Improving public engagement with climate change: Five “best practice” insights from psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science.


Communicating to a young audience – Part 3 (What not to do)

Just as important as understanding what to do when writing for young people is to understand what not to do.


Talking down to young people would possibly be the number one crime in writing for this audience. They’ll pick up on any condescension. While being conscious of vocabulary, you can still use rich and evocative words and phrases to excite young audiences about science.


Unless you actually are 13 years old, don’t try to talk like one. It’s unlikely that you’ll have the most up-to-date terms, and will come across as a fraud and a try-hard. It is very uncool to try to be cool. And even if you were to succeed, by the time your book is published, the language will have moved on.


Educating rather than entertaining is a trap for non-fiction writers. Magazines and books that young people read in their spare time should be enjoyable and entertaining. It is then a bonus if they learn anything as a result (if they find the reading fun, this is more likely). An exception to this rule is to consider a teachers’ guide or to highlight curriculum links to provide ideas on how an enjoyable, spare-time activity can be related to classroom learning.


Humour should be used with caution, as trying too hard to be funny will often result in jokes falling flat. However, I’m a fan of relevant puns.


Using talking animals may seem like a good idea, and remind you of your own childhood. However, the scenarios can be unrealistic and the characters under-developed or cliché. Leave these characters to the cartoons and puppet shows.


As in any writing, aim to show; don’t tell.


Finally, never try to publish work that has not been tested. I am too old to remember what I found enjoyable as a child. If you don’t have an appropriately-aged reader in your family to use as a reference point, ensure you have available at least one proof-reader who is the age of your intended reader. If you don’t have children in the intended audience range, run your ideas and writing past relatives or friends who are the correct age. They will not only be helpful in testing your drafted text, but also a source of inspiration for future writing. And they will feel proud to have helped your production (and will be rapt with an acknowledgement inside the book).


See Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog for other tips.


In closing, while writing tips are useful, it is important to develop your own style. Ensure you have a strong voice in your head that is relaxed and unique to you as you write.


Communicating to a young audience – Part 2 (Grabbing attention)

Open with a bang.


Further to our suggestions in part one of this topic (, start a non-fiction book with a story that captures an event such as an amazing discovery, just as fiction starts with an action scene. You could also include fascinating facts to grab attention. The ‘Wow factor’ should not only start your book or article, but be threaded throughout it.


While it can be tempting to think that writing for young people should be sanitised and without shock, I believe it should be quite the opposite. Young people love to be grossed out with information about blood, gore, and bodily functions, and embarrassing situations or shocking disasters.


As well as gore, weird science stories grab attention, as do mysteries, and record-breaking stories (the first, biggest, oldest, and most dangerous).


Accuracy is paramount. Before submitting work to an editor or publisher, ensure you have checked the facts and accuracy of your writing with the talent you have interviewed, and from an independent source through other contacts or from encyclopaedic references or reliable web sites.


Activities lead to understanding. A quote by Confucius is, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” The illustration of concepts using hands-on experiments and activities that can be tried (safely) at home can increase the learning experience gained from reading a science book. The activity needs to be carefully explained and safe.


The use of fiction, or a combination of fact and fiction, can be a successful way to convey science. For example, an entertaining, fictional story can carry scientific information, so that the facts are delivered using a ‘Trojan horse’ method. Such a method enables learning to occur in an entertaining and subtle way through information absorption. As well as enabling learning to occur in a fun way, the faction genre also enables exaggeration, contraction of time, or the creation of hypothetical situations that can better illustrate facts and information. Our Who Dun It series of books (published by Pan Macmillan) incorporate forensic science into a fictional plot, with fact boxes and activities. The aim is to show that science is used in everyday situations by following the adventures of two 11 year-old characters, Zac and Hannah, as they solve a crime using forensic science skills.


Our Who Dun It books combine a number of elements used in writing for a young audience:

  • creative language and story structure in which to embed further factual information;
  • factual information in boxes;
  • activities and experiments to illustrate forensic science;
  • photos to illustrate equipment or other new ideas; and
  • cartoons to illustrate the plot.


Fiction can add more variety and a wider choice for young people interested in reading and learning about science. By using creative writing rather than encyclopaedic styles, science writers can increase the entertainment element in their products and remove the divide between perceptions of fictional reading that is seen as ‘fun’ and non-fiction reading that is seen as ‘school homework’.

Communicating to a young audience

Ever since the early 1700s, when the first books for young people were written by authors including John Newbery, Thomas Boreman, and Thomas and Mary Cooper, communicators have endeavoured to target young audiences with specific products.


Non-fiction writing for young people has seen a surge in titles over recent decades, with more than 60,000 English-language children’s books in print globally. In addition to the myriad book titles for young people and magazines specifically for young readers (for example, The Helix in Australia, Owl and Chickadee in Canada, and Super Science in the United States), a number of publishers have launched younger versions of their science magazines, including National Geographic (with National Geographic Kids).


Drawing on our experience as authors of popular science books for young people aged between 10 and 14, as writers of science text books for high school students, and our experience editing science magazines, here are our views of what grabs the attention of young people (and what doesn’t).


There is one school of thought that writing for young people is harder than writing for an adult audience, because it is difficult to convey complicated topics in simple language. Another school of thought is that writing for a young audience is easier because of the shorter manuscript length or for other reasons. However, I believe that good writing for young people should be similar to good writing for adult audiences.


Adults enjoy fictional stories that involve humour, fantasy, surprises, characters that they can relate to, winning in the face of adversity, and a bit of mischief. Young people like the same elements in their stories, but set against a slightly different scenario or frame of reference.


Similarly, writing non-fiction for young people should be like writing non-fiction for an older audience. Young people are more sophisticated than we think (or remember), so writers need to treat them with respect. Writing for a young audience should be viewed as writing for yourself, covering topics that interest you in a language that you find engaging. Story-telling is paramount, as engaging writing must be about more than simply imparting knowledge. However, it is necessary to use common sense to keep an eye on the language and analogies you use, as a young reader’s understanding of language may lag their understanding of concepts.


Language should be clear and concise but creative and colourful; it should contain information but be lively and rich. You need to avoid jargon and acronyms. However, you can introduce new words by using tautologies or repetitious language: use the new word, then repeat the concept using a synonym, and then maybe use another term to define clearly its meaning. This will drive home the meaning of the new word or concept.


Explanations using analogies will need to be appropriate. Young people are unlikely to have experienced some of the things adults use as reference points, such as driving a car. Find an alternative.


Use a combination of male and female role models in photographs or as characters in your writing. The age of role models should about two to three years older than the target audience to give young readers someone to look up to.


Aim to illustrate your writing with photos rather than drawings if you require realism. From an early age, our eyes are drawn more to realistic images than illustrations. However, cartoons will work as they characterise a scene and do not intend to illustrate through realism as some illustrations aim to do.


Describe science in progress, unsolved problems, and challenges that young readers can play a part in solving. This will enable young people to dream. They will feel they have a role to play in the future, that they could become a famous scientist or even a Nobel Prize winner. Discoveries and research should be described as a world of possibility to which young readers can contribute.


We’ll develop these thoughts further – and provide tips on what not to do – in blog posts over the coming fortnight.


How to attract research funding: Part 2

Communication was a key theme at the 21st AMOS National Conference, held in Brisbane in July. Communication can raise the profile of research. It can help ensure research results reach a wider audience and hence have greater impact. Communication can raise general science awareness and increase understanding. It can even affect behavioural change.

These are all noble goals of putting time and resources towards communicating our science. But we also need communication to generate funding to support science. Such funding-focussed communication takes place in an increasingly tight, and therefore competitive, environment. In Australia, and around the world, funds need to be sourced from a diverse base. So who are the funders, how do we reach them, what tools should we use, and where can we go for help? A panel session about communication for partnerships was held at the AMOS conference to answer these questions.

Dr Bill Gail, Past-President of the American Meteorological Society and Co-Founder and Chief Technical Officer of Global Weather Corporation, spoke from his perspective as director of several companies over the years, including ones that charge fees, raise venture capital, and act as a bridge between research and business. He said it was important to understand who could benefit from your research: is it society as a whole, the science community, particular industry sectors, or even specific companies? Once you have an understanding of these audiences, he said you need to seek applied uses of your research, guided by who benefits from your work. Bill also explained that you need to identify alternatives to traditional grant funds, such as technology licensing, commercial consulting, start-up investment, and so on.

Paul Holper, now a communication consultant after his 25-year career working at CSIRO in communication, business development, and science program management, spoke from the perspective of sourcing, attracting and securing funds for science programs. Paul said there’s great value in all research groups having a strong public profile to provide the base for attracting funds. He said that researchers need to work as a team to brainstorm ideas and strategies to reach potential funders, including government, international organisations, industry, and philanthropic sources. This doesn’t need to be done alone – assistance is available within many research organisations, and elsewhere, from professional communicators and business development staff.

Dr Donna Green, a senior lecturer and researcher at the UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, provided the panel with the perspective from a university environment, where she has pitched her research at a level that attracts research funding from a variety of sources. She spoke of the importance of being strategic and playing to your strengths, and emphasised the point that if you aren’t sure about what to do, ask for professional communication advice. Donna said it is important to stand out, to ensure your proposal shows passion and connection to a real world issue, and to ensure that connection stands out in the first paragraph of your proposal, opening conversation, or elevator pitch. Brainstorm anything legitimate that you can use to make your application stickier and therefore more memorable. She also noted the importance of understanding the politics of the funding landscape – not only the written funding rules, but also the unwritten rules.

Karen Pearce, a science communicator, editor, and director of Bloom Communication, provided a practical perspective of using communication to get the message out to potential funders in a changing media environment. She said it is important to be relevant and to lead with the bottom line when discussing your work – explain why an organisation should care about your work, and what’s in it for them. Karen said researchers need to be clear, concise, and not make people have to work to understand what you do and what you want from them. She said you need to be audience-appropriate; that is, know your audience so you can use the right language and tools to reach them. And in terms of getting support for your work, communication doesn’t start and stop with filling in a funding proposal. You need to do the groundwork (profile building, making your work more accessible) and the follow-up (updates, informal/formal reporting, public communication, etc.) to succeed.

In summary, the panel agreed that it is important to understand the benefits to potential funders and clients so you can target the audience and demonstrate impact; that you need to build a public profile to stand out from the crowd; and that you can draw on your wider team – and professional help – to target potential partners to attract research funding.



Beginners guide to editing

For starters, there’s editing and editing. And editing. Three forms really: substantive, copy and proofing.

For most clients, ‘editing’ means copy editing. That is, reading through a document and checking that it makes sense and reflects what the writer probably meant. Copy editing involves checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, facts and meaning.

Substantive editing is when you take a metaphorical step back and examine the structure of the piece. Would the reader be better served by having the section on John Dalton and his development of atomic theory come before the work of Democritus?

Proof reading entails checking a document after layout to ensure that nothing outlandish has occurred.

One of the rules of editing – and that’s all editing is, rules – is to be consistent. If the text says ‘colour’ in the first par, it will look sloppy to subsequently see a reference to ‘coloring’. Even better than being consistent, is being consistently correct. The Australian Style Manual (published by Wiley in 2002) is the authoritative reference. Using a style manual and compiling a list of spelling and capitalisation as you work will help obtain that consistency.

Ideally you will have a fresh pair of eyes read over and edit anything that you write for publication. It’s difficult to check your own work as you will tend to see what you meant be there rather than what is actually printed. And, yes, I deliberately missed ‘to’ in the previous sentence just to keep you on your toes.

If you are going to check your own writing  – and you should before your editor/friend/colleague does  – print it, as reading on screen seems to do something odd to your ability to spot errors. I’m sure there is research somewhere to support my theory. Then go off and do something else – ideally for at least 24 hours before you take up red pen and paper.

Your software will give you some assistance. Those red squiggly lines are appearing on your screen for a reason. But don’t be lead solely by a word processor. Microsoft Word, for example, didn’t spot my incorrect spelling of ‘led’ in the previous sentence.

Finally, consider hired help or training. There are few better than Biotext’s Malini Devadas and Karen Pearce, who kindly cast her astute editorial eyes over this article.

I recommend Grammar Girl for entertaining erudition.