Responding to Carol’s very valid point about how we measure the effectiveness of science communication, one reason we don’t is that we are seldom given enough budget to do so properly. The budget rarely covers the communication itself, let alone in-depth impact assessment.

That said, let me outline two methods I have found to work.

At CSIRO in the good old days we used to triangulate public opinion and attitudes to science by a combination of public opinion research (quantitative), media analysis (not just counting stories or web hits but analysing content, placement, reach etc) and customer/community value analysis (qualitative research). That was all we could afford to do, but it gave us a handle on what the public knew/did not know about the agency and its science, and what they thought of it and where the gaps were. It’s OK – but it’s expensive for the average small science outfit. It is of course nothing like what large corporations or political parties do to measure if their messages are getting through....

Prompted largely by the GM food debate, with eminent statistician Dr Nick Fisher, I developed a new technique called Reading The Public Mind (RtPM), which has the added advantages of operating in real time, taking a ‘movie’ of public opinion about scientific issues (instead of costly snapshots from opinion polling, which go out of date quickly) and of identifying the drivers of public interest and concern about new science and technologies. This provides very effective ‘early warning’ of how the public is liable to react to a new scientific advance or piece of technology – and the ability to adapt the technology or the communication to suit.

We have been running this for two years as a research project in the Invasive Animal CRC, with remarkably consistent results. We are keen to test it in other areas of science.

Traditionally, most communicators use things like media monitoring or opinion surveys to judge impact. But media monitoring only tells you how many stories you got – not what the public did with the knowledge it had gained, which is what scientists, managers and communicators really want to know. RtPM does tell you this.

For example, we noticed a trend in the public to underestimate the damage caused by rabbits in the Aust environment. The CRC did a public awareness blitz – and we saw a clear response in RtPM as rabbit awareness rose again in our largely-urban population. Likewise camels were rated very low as a pest by most Australians – until the DKCRC camel report hit the headlines. Bingo, camels leapt in significance in the minds of Australians, as a pest that needs to be controlled for the sake of the landscape etc.

We are fairly confident, from this and other indications we now have a tool which will:

-        Improve the rate of science adoption by forewarning research agencies about how their work is likely to be received by the public, so they can adapt it

-        Stop the waste of scientific resources on research projects that will never deliver an outcome the public is prepared to accept

-        Measure the effectiveness of communication activity in real time, allowing constant adjustment of the strategy to take in shifts in public attitude.

-        Work for almost any major scientific issue in which the public has an interest.(nanotech, biotech, nuclear, geosequestration, stem cells, name it)

-        Give science agencies an argument for increased funding, by demonstrating to politicians and bureaucrats that the public (or industry) actually wants what they are turning out.

I am happy to provide further detail of RtPM to any communicator who is seriously interested.



Julian Cribb FTSE

Julian Cribb & Associates

ph +61 (0)2 6242 8770 or 0418 639 245


From: [] On Behalf Of Peter Quiddington
Sent: Friday, 4 June 2010 1:10 PM
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] World class


Just in relation to Carol's point about measuring the impact of science communication. It is obviously a difficult ask, especially in terms of pinning down causes and effects. However, there seems to be a very strong correlation between the level of scientific literacy in Australia (measured by PISA as per below), and the standard of science communication.

This is no smoking gun, but it is an interesting correspondence, the fact that Australia ranks near the top of the world, in terms of the level of debate regarding science communication, the size of the profession, and the extent of science content in the (general and specialist) media.

During the same period that this has emerged, there has also been a growth in the level of scientific literacy. (OK, many will bemoan that there has also been a fall in particular disciplinary scientific skills, maths, chemistry etc). But the level of general scientific literacy is high, and getting higher, and the fact that Australia boasts a high level of science coverage (esp. ABC, magazines, etc) is probably a factor.

So, what is needed now is some more focused research on what are the causes of this rise in scientific literacy, and what is the role of the media, etc.

 Data to support this ...

Thomson, S., & De Bortoli, L. (2008). Exploring Scientific Literacy: How Australia Measures Up - The PISA 2006 Survey of Students' Scientific, reading and mathematical skills. Victoria. (Download report


On Fri, Jun 4, 2010 at 12:39 PM, Carol Oliver <> wrote:

As a past science journalist I totally get what Julian is saying, and somewhat sympathetic to Peter's view. However, we live in the net-geners age. For me the challenge is not to address what are now perhaps relatively narrow audiences (the boss, the Government, and the converted) but in understanding the impact of the Internet on science news distribution.

The US National Science Foundation has been reporting for some time now that the Internet is the medium of choice when people seek news and information about science. While these figures do not reflect the situation in Australia, there are some indicators that suggest these numbers also apply here. The most important question of all, though, is whether science news alone is an effective strategy in disseminating news about science's advances. How do we know what is an effective strategy, and how do we measure it? I'm still gobsmacked by how much time and money is put into communicating science without knowing if the objectives were even partly achieved among the audience(s) intended (and why those objectives were set in the first place). Given science is a data-driven enterprise, it is surprising how little data exists in the effectiveness of science communication. I definitely stand here waiting for someone to correct me by pointing to the gobs of substantial data I have been missing over the years. The literature tends to support the critical lack of data.

At the ASC conference in Canberra in February, a rather pointed remark was made: "How have we got away with it so long?" Perhaps the answer is we just don't think about it - the boss wants media space and it is the role of the communicator to get it. Or perhaps it is done, but the results are proprietary.

Don't get me wrong. I think science news in the media has an important role to play. I'm just not aware of what that is exactly given the Internet Age.


Dr Carol Oliver
Australian Centre for Astrobiology
University of New South Wales
Room 130, Biological Sciences Building
Kensington, NSW 2052, Australia

Phone: (+61) 02 9385 2061
Cell: (+61) 0417 477 612

From: [] On Behalf Of Peter Quiddington []
Sent: Friday, June 04, 2010 11:13 AM

Subject: Re: [ASC-list] World class

Well, I agree and very much disagree with Julian, having spent my time grinding away at the daily coalface, I know that restricting the use of descriptors is silly. Also, these little pearls not only fall from the lips of old hacks like ourselves, but are often employed by scientists. And, why not?
The truth is that any really good quality research that makes a genuine advance is by definition a world-first, and descriptions such as 'ground breaking' and 'cutting edge' are not out of place. At the same time, I think the general notion that editors are by and large disinterest in science, only its impacts, is somewhat flawed, and increasingly outdated. This is not (altogether) my experience; most need to be shown how and why a piece of research is novel, counter-intuitive, odd, strange, or potentially revolutionary in its future impacts. They need to be shown that the research has uncovered some new essential truth, a new fact of reality, or a new avenue for the human imagination to grapple with in order to address the dilemmas facing humanity, etc etc...
The use of terms like 'ground breaking' and 'world beating' is no longer useful in this task. In the world of journalism, these terms lost their currency long ago through overuse, misuse and abuse.
We simply need a fresh crop of superlatives.
So, all suggestions welcome.
Director, Science Media,
Adjunct Lecturer,
School of Humanities,
University of New England
Contact: 6771-2874
Mob: 0402-459-141

On Fri, Jun 4, 2010 at 10:17 AM, Jenni Metcalfe <<>> wrote:
I'd like to back up Julian's comments below (whilst still agreeing to some
extent with the others).

Certainly journalists who participate in the media skills workshops we run
for scientists around the country (and sometimes internationally) will often
ask our participants if it's a breakthrough, world first, Australian-first,
or cutting edge. And this has not changed over the past 18 years of running
these workshops. General rather than science journalists ask these

However, if it is genuinely a world or Australian first - why not celebrate

I am not into hype or spin; it does have to be the truth. Scientists, in my
experience, are very conservative about whether their research is
"world-first" and so unless they are very sure this is true and happy for
this term to be used, I won't use it in our releases.

With all media publicity, I pitch a story to a specific media audience based
on its RELEVANCE (the "so what?") to them.


Jenni Metcalfe
Director Econnect Communication
PO Box 734
South Brisbane Q 4101

phone: + 61 7 3846 7111, +0408 551 866
skype:  jenni.metcalfe

-----Original Message-----

[<>] On Behalf Of Julian Cribb
Sent: Friday, 4 June 2010 9:46 AM

To: 'Derek Elmes';<>;<>
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] World class

An interesting debate, but one that seems to lack understanding of what
really happens in the media.

The reason journalists use cliches like 'breakthrough' 'world-first' and
'cutting edge' etc is not so much for the benefit of the external audience,
as for the information of the (non-scientific) editors who make up the news
bench in a media organisation and who decide what runs and what doesn't.

On any given day these editors scan and process several hundred potential
stories from journalists, correspondents, contributors, wire services and
media releases. From this several hundred they will select maybe 10-30 for
the news bulletin or news pages of the paper. The remaining 80-90 per cent
of stories are killed.

A science story has a number of problems from a news editor's perspective.
First, the media isn't terribly interested in science per se, but more in
its impact on society and on their local audience in particular. So the
science story starts behind the eightball, in competition with a politics,
economics, crime, scandal, business or sport story. It has to push its way
up the newslist somehow.

Second, the science wasn't done 'today' - a primary requirement of 24-hour
news media - but over the last few years. It may possibly have been
published today, but that is not a very strong news angle. Media likes its
news to be 'red hot' if possible. So in a sense the science story is already
ageing news and there is no particular argument to run it today as opposed
to any other day. And the newslist is already full.

Third, if you are selling a story, say on a new genetic approach to cancer
therapy, the editors are likely to say "Oh I'm sure I've seen something like
this in the news before" and kill your story just to be safe, even though it
may be fresh as a daisy newswise. They have not appreciated the distinction
between the genes in your story and the genes in a hundred other stories
like it. Frustrated science journalists often resort to terms like
"world-first" to get their editors to understand that this IS a genuine news
story - not old hat and headed for the spike.

Fourth, the media is almost invariably local in its focus, and a term like
'world first' or 'cutting edge' is a signal to its editors that local
scientists have done something good.  Local heroes always get more coverage
than those from interstate or overseas - whether they are scientists or

A science story has to work very hard to get into the top ten percent of
publishable/broadcastable news. Most experienced science journalists will
admit that more than half their efforts usually end on the spike. That was
certainly the case when I was at The Australian, and I know from my
colleagues on other dailies they suffered the same fate.

So while it is all very well to bewail the use of clichés in journalism -
and I do not like them and try constantly to avoid them personally - there
needs to be an appreciation among science communicators about what a science
story is really up against when it enters the news mill, and why a science
journalist might resort to colourful language to give it more impetus with
the editors who have the final say.

To insist on the elimination of such clichés will probably only result in
fewer science stories being published, as a scientifically-illiterate
editorial stratum will not understand they are in fact about genuine,
world-first, breakthrough, cutting-edge science - and send them to the
growing scrap-pile of unpublished news.

While I applaud the elimination of self-praise and hype from institutional
media releases, I defend the right of both science journalists and
communicators to use every verbal device they can to disseminate human
knowledge more widely via the media, without being too heavily criticised by
their peers for doing so.

If this doesn't start an argument in ASC, nothing will...

Julian Cribb FTSE
Julian Cribb & Associates
ph +61 (0)2 6242 8770 or 0418 639 245<>

-----Original Message-----

[<>] On Behalf Of Derek Elmes
Sent: Friday, 4 June 2010 8:51 AM

Subject: Re: [ASC-list] World class

Niall, Nancy et al

I recall Rob Morrison commenting on a similar issue several years ago.  When
posting to this list an advertisement for a science communication position
not long after, Rob's comments prompted me to invite people interested in
"communicating cutting edge breakthrough research" to go and work for a
mining equipment organisation.

I suppose the question I'd add is do we know what audiences (as opposed to
communication professionals) think of such words (whether these ones or ones
in other areas of communication e.g. "hero" sports people)? Are there any
studies about audience reaction to there use or over-use?



Derek Elmes
Scientific Services Division
Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (NSW)

-----Original Message-----

[<>] On Behalf Of<>
Sent: Friday, 4 June 2010 12:51 AM

Subject: Re: [ASC-list] World class

Hello Niall,

Yes, I agree. 'Cutting edge' is another one to avoid.

Cheers, Nancy

Assoc Prof Nancy Longnecker

Coordinator, Science Communication Program
Faculty of Life and Physical Sciences, M011
The University of Western Australia
35 Stirling Highway
Crawley, WA   6009

ph: 61 8 6488 3926


skype: nancylongnecker

There is no point explaining everything in the universe if no one is
listening to you.    (UWA Sci Comm student, 2009)

CRICOS Provider No. 00126G

> I'm interested in ASC members' views on the use of world-class and
> breakthrough in media releases.
> We try to avoid them.
> I generally think that if the work is good it doesn't need the puff.
>  The journalists can add it in if they want.
> Noel Turnbull made a similar comment in a piece on Crikey today.
> So, for instance, the Victorian government can be obsessive about
> describing things -- from our events program to buildings -- as
> world-class, but the reality is that world-class things don't need
> to be promoted. It is symptomatic of Britain's decline that the
> world-class cringe sometimes surfaces there too, but one never hears
>  New York or Paris talking about world-class -- they just are.
> Niall
> ________
> Niall Byrne
> Science in Public
> 26 Railway Street South, Altona Vic 3018
> ph +61 (3) 9398 1416 or 0417 131 977

> Full contact details at

ASC-list mailing list<>
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If you are not the intended recipient, please notify the sender and then
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Adjunct Lecturer,
School of Humanities,
University of New England
Contact: 6771-2874
Mob: 0402-459-141

Adjunct Lecturer,
School of Humanities,
University of New England
Contact: 6771-2874
Mob: 0402-459-141