Science communication – the Renaissance touch

In a post-truth world how do we bring scientific discussions to a public audience?

It’s an important question, particularly with the worrying trends of dismissing inconvenient science fact as ‘fake news’ or to being fed self-reinforcing extreme views through current social media news feed algorithms. Science communication itself also requires a recognition of the issues it faces and needs to revamp its methods to be appropriate to the times.

Today more than ever we are relying on technological developments to help us understand and address the challenges facing our planet and environment. It is critical to fuelling smart new ideas that ensure our society’s vibrancy. And it is critical that we can actively communicate the wonder and potential benefits of these developments and the benefits of the earth’s rich resources to its people. We need to be able to offer opportunities that are inspired by and that inspire the understanding of science. We need to make science personally relevant on every level.

So how can science messages be more effectively communicated in a world where competition for the attention of the public is at an all-time high, and where in any head to head competition to grab attention science issues are likely to lose out compared to political instabilities, economic downturn and celebrity prurience?

As I’ve previously written art can be an important tool in science communication. The combination of left and right-side brain stimulation was clearly at the basis of the Renaissance and can lead to a powerful non-verbal and deeply resonating mode of messaging.

As a scientist myself, I know that collaboration between art and science can generate debate, understanding, new knowledge and ideas that synergise both fields. It can open up new ways of interpreting the world around us through inspiration, exploration, creativity and collaboration.

But I’m now going to move onto music, or more specifically music festivals, as an instrument of science communication.

I recently participated in a panel discussion on environmental and health issues associated with meat consumption at the WOMADelaide festival as part of the Planet Talks series.

The musical line-up for WOMADelaide this year was as impressive as always, featuring over 75 acts and music aficionados such as Sona Jobarteh, Dona Onete, Fat Freddy’s Drop, BCUC (AKA Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness), Angélique Kidjo, John Butler Trio, Christine & The Queens, to name a few.

So what is the opportunity here for science messaging at this type of event – well as it turns out – quite a bit, especially when there’s an audience of over 95,000 over a four-day long weekend.

on a panel discussion at WOMADelaide 2019, ‘Less Meat Less Heat: is the elephant in the room a cow?’

A number of key topics were presented and debated as part of the Planet Talks series including: The Magic of Mushrooms, A Mycelial path to saving the planet; The Fight for the Bight Against Big Oil; Adani, Cold Wars and the National Interest.

For almost all the talks it was standing room only with hundreds choosing to engage and participate in panel discussions.

So why is this forum successful?

Well first people have time on their hands. WOMADelaide participants tend to go for the whole weekend and so attending an interesting discussion during the middle of the day before the big evening acts come on is time well spent.

People are also relaxed having already got into the groove of the weekend and are therefore more likely to be open to new concepts and discussion points.

The topics were also well pitched to the audience with many focussing on environmental issues but there were several of a purely ‘did you know’ science type discussions.

For our panel discussion ‘Less Meat, Less Heat: is the elephant in the room a cow?’ the audience was well informed and responsive and respectful of the different views expressed from going vegan to consuming meat from animals raised in a sustainable way. The tautology of issues between feeding the world to consuming less meat as part of a healthy western diet were well versed.

A forum like Planet Talks gives an opportunity for face-to-face discussion of important topics facing society with experts and industry during and after the talks. They also provide an opportunity to  ask questions and engage with fellow audiences members on a topics that effects everyone.

So bring on science/art/music comms methods – science effects every part of our lives, including our culture, so why shouldn’t it be talked about in all forums.

Read the Adelaidenow review of the Planet Talks 2019 

Published by Prof Andy Lowe

Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert in plants and trees, particularly the management of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime and is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – Land Degradation and Restoration report. He has helped secure a quarter of a billion dollars worth of research funding in his field and is an experienced and respected executive leader, board member, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy has been the Scientist in Residence at The Australian Financial Review since August 2018. Andy is inaugural Director of Agrifood and Wine at the University of Adelaide serving as the external face for food industry and government sector partnerships across Australia, and the world.

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