Meeting a star of Australian science communication

First published on the ANU Science website, September 2013.

Third year Bachelor of Philosophy student and budding science communicator Ellen Rykers, tells us what it was like to meet one of the Australian kings of science communication, Robyn Williams AM, when he was at ANU to judge the Three Minute Thesis competition.

When you think of science communication stars, the name Robyn Williams is sure to spring to mind – which is no wonder since he literally has a star named after him.

Having run The Science Show on ABC radio for nigh on forty years, as well as authoring ten books, Williams has accomplished a great deal. As an aspiring science communicator, I leapt at the chance to pick his brain. Our conversation meandered through a diverse array of topics, from politics to parrots that can undo locks.

But first, it’s logical to start at the beginning: how did Williams’ illustrious career eventuate? The young Robyn Williams excelled at the arts, with bilingualism and reading widely enhancing his flair for writing. But Williams’ father believed the future was scientific, and so he ended up on a path to science at high school and university.

Throughout university, Williams regularly undertook television acting gigs, even though he claims, “I couldn’t act.” Instead, it was being punctual and well-prepared that secured him small parts, including on Doctor Who and Monty Python.

After completing his degree, Williams was at a loss for what to do next, until a friend from Sydney suggested he combine science and media. So Williams wrote to the ABC and took up a part-time position in radio. Here he found the presentation of science to be decidedly dreary and began to cause mischief with invented characters like “Sir Clarence Lovejoy, two-time Nobel prizewinner and inventor of brain flux theory and the flangewick.” Aside from pranking thousands, Williams focused on stories about our world, using these as vessels for slipping in scientific ideas. It is from these beginnings that The Science Show, and Williams’ career, grew.

The popularity of science has persisted since The Science Show began, but that doesn’t mean we make it a priority. “There’s lots of evidence that science is immensely popular… but I think it is still regarded as a kind of appendage, a kind of add on, a special interest. In that way it’s always having to struggle for its place.” With dwindling numbers of science journalists, fewer students choosing science and no science minister, the future of science is facing even greater challenges.

So how can we put science firmly at the forefront? Williams believes collaboration between scientists and journalists is key. “Scientists are all in their individual sphere and being nice and polite, and if someone says rude things about their research, then they write five, ten, twenty pages and publish it in a journal which nobody reads. Meanwhile the other guys are making adverts and writing in the popular press on front pages.” This is also crucial for combatting the loud but relatively few voices spreading misinformation on issues like climate change and vaccinations. But the complex interplay between science, media and politics, and the mainstream media’s voracity for sensationalising conflicts, means these are easier said than done. Williams hopes that young people will be inspired to make science a priority. “I really think that the hope is that some of the smart young difficult guys are able to stimulate similar numbers in the younger generation to really get things going.”

With this in mind, the need for talented science communicators is greater than ever. Williams offers insightful advice for budding science communicators: “Starting out you need to go anywhere that will give you a go, and that means a local newspaper, a local website, anything that enables you to learn some skills. If someone tells you you need to make a statement in 150 words, or 4000 words, or as I’m going to do in a minute at the ANU [Three Minute Thesis competition] stand up with no notes and say things. Because you’ve got to have a deadline, you’ve got to know how many words, you’ve got to deliver something with all the essentials together.”

Writing for yourself may not be as productive as it seems: “You must make sure you have some connection with that which is authoritative, and not just be another noisy box. Because there’s so many of those – there’s millions of them.” And as for anyone with an interest in science, “you need to go outside your prejudiced and limited world, you need to be confronted by new stuff.”