June 01, 2008

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | Out of the Closet

If science is seen as obscure and unnatural – something we don’t talk about at dinner parties or around the BBQ – how can we take it seriously as a career option for our kids? 

By Wilson da Silva

HOW OFTEN do we read about an Australian technology company in The Wall Street Journal? When was the last time London’s Financial Times profiled an Australian biotech company or entrepreneur?

Not often. If ever. And you can’t really point the finger at foreign newspapers: it’s not like the local media is tripping over itself with that sort of coverage. If Australian media coverage of science is so poor, and if Australians don’t know about their own home-grown bright sparks, how can we expect the world to know – or care?

Every year, the Australian government spends $15.7 billion on research and development, but very little on telling people about it. It might sound trivial and inconsequential, but the fact that local science has such low visibility in our newspapers and other media has a direct effect on our ability to be a nation of innovators.

Think about it: if Australians don’t read about science and technology advances, how can we expect them to be comfortable about investing in local innovations? They certainly won’t talk about it around the BBQ, and they won’t take it seriously as a career option for their kids.

A society that doesn’t understand the value of science does not utilise it, cannot learn from it and risks not benefiting from it. You end with a nation that is not only unaware of its own scientific prowess, but unable to tap it.

More coverage of science in our media is essential to creating ‘innovation literacy’. Australians are unlikely to value science if they see it as something apart from their lives, an obscure activity outside the real economy. In reality, science drives modern economies: industries based on innovation create new services and products, and the wellspring of that innovation is science.

The new government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is currently conducting a review of Australia’s science and technology effort. Chaired by the information and communication technology consultant Terry Cutler, it will look into everything from basic research to how to make innovation a priority for business.

Boosting the awareness of science in the general public, particularly by increasing its coverage in the media, should be an essential pillar of any new strategy that arises from this review.

We need to get science out of the closet, recognise it and praise it for what it really is: a living, breathing slice of society where interesting people do amazing things. Where young people can lead rewarding, fulfilling lives ... and even make a nice living. We need to make science relevant. And make it a career option for our children.

Media coverage of science in Australia – if given even 10 per cent of the emphasis accorded to finance, sport and politics – could help achieve this.

At Cosmos, we are doing our bit, telling the stories of science in an engaging way that recognises it as a natural part of culture. And we are having some success: Cosmos has won 22 awards and has a readership of 100,000. More than 60 per cent of high schools are subscribers, and teachers universally praise our free Teacher’s Notes. Our daily news website has nearly 400,000 unique visitors and more than one million page views every month (or 110 million a year).

Yes, just by reading Cosmos, you are helping create a culture of science in Australia. But there should be more coverage of science in the same engaging, informative and accurate way in Australia. It’s time we demanded more from our media.