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Geoff Culbert

How to make Australia a science-mad nation

August 16, 2016
In the midst of the Olympic Games, it's a plea that might be hard to hear above the chants of "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!", but it's a message that Australia needs to tune into.
"Australia is a sports-mad nation, but we also need to be a science-mad nation," says Geoff Culbert, chief executive and president of GE Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Culbert is not suggesting that we turn our backs on the wonder of physical prowess; his argument is that we must make sure that we celebrate and encourage building up our intellectual muscle, too.

"Our love for sports and science aren't mutually exclusive, and nobody exemplifies this more than Cameron McEvoy who is an incredible role model for Aussie kids," says Culbert of the young Olympian who has taken his long-time passion for mathematics into a degree in applied maths and physics at Queensland's Griffith University and is a spokesperson for National Science Week.

McEvoy told GE Reports that ultimately he hopes to make a difference to the world's understanding of theoretical physics. Says Culbert, "last week Cam showed the world what great Australian sportsmanship was all about. This week, he'll be speaking about the latest scientific breakthroughs with some of our researchers at GE's Global Research Center in Rio de Janeiro."

GE Reports spoke to two ever-so-slightly-less-sporty National Science Week stars to gather some astute observations on how we can help enrapture Australians young and old in the wonder and power of science.

Professor Graham Durant, an impassioned science communicator, is director of Questacon, Australia’s National Science and Technology Centre. He leads Inspiring Australia, a giant reaction flask, in which he keeps the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, grants for science awareness  initiatives and National Science Week enthusiastically bubbling.

He says, “We’ve got to encourage youngsters and communities more broadly to become interested in science just because it’s wonderful! Because it’s utilitarian: knowing what you can or cannot safely eat or what medicines to take is important. Culturally, we need to understand some of the issues, whether it’s nanoparticles, what’s happening with fracking, whether we should have vaccinations or not—having informed citizens who can rationally think through and debate these issues is important. And clearly there are economic benefits in strong science innovation systems ...”

Bobby Cerini is the manager of Inspiring Australia, which is charged with driving wider engagement in science. She’s been involved with National Science Week since her student days.

Photo: Jayne Ion, courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

“On the National Science Week website, you’ll find a rich snapshot of many different providers of exciting, inspirational, fascinating and meaningful science experiences,” she says. “We’ve got over 1,600 events registered and those numbers are going up every day. It’s one of the world’s biggest festivals of science  … so that gives you just a little insight into the diversity of talent we have in Australia in terms of passionate science.”

During Science Week, Cerini will host a science trivia night in the pub in Bredbo, southern NSW, where she lives. “The pub is the local heart of the town ... where people meet, talk, eat, drink, and share stories. What more perfect setting could there be for a discussion about science in our society?”

Pull up a chair—or a bar or lab stool—as we turn the microscope focus knobs to examine a brimming beaker of ideas on how to rocket-boost Australian science.

Science comes alive at the Sydney Science Festival. Photo: Jayne Ion, courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Engage the primary instinct!

Kids are a gift to science and vice versa, our two science gurus agree. From the moment they come out of the womb babies are engaged in their own survival, exploring, testing, hypothesising, each in their unique way. Take your youngest “outdoors!”, says Durant, to the garden, the park, the beach, the aquarium. Offer them more of what they engage in—different-shaped leaves, squeaky balloons, life textures, wind rustling and water splashing, fur and feathers, bones and shells, fruits and vegetables, rocks and rubble—shadows. Follow their gaze and glee and grab the opportunity for shared adventure.

Send scientists back to school...

Science never sleeps (ask a biologist who’s had to make 2am treks into the lab to check on their Petri dishes!), and it certainly doesn’t stop when the annual Science Week wraps. “We have great programs happening nationally, like the Questacon Smart Skills Initiative, which takes young scientists out on the road to help students and teachers right around the country develop and nurture their entrepreneurship, innovation, creative-thinking and design skills,” says Cerini, adding that those skills go beyond science and also inspire students “who don’t normally engage with traditional science subjects”.

… and keep schooling teachers in the latest science

Technology is moving fast, and it’s imperative to help teachers—especially in primary schools—keep up so that they can best harness the natural curiosity of their students, because the whole world is one big science lab to children. “We have a great education system and there are some great initiatives happening to support teachers in the classroom, and to develop their skills. Every teacher who feels confident in their science and talking about complex issues, informs other teachers and inspires hundreds of kids,” says Cerini.

Invite everyone into the lab of life

Citizen-science projects get people of all ages digging, collecting and observing in the quest for knowledge and understanding. One of Durant’s favourite National Science Week projects that any observant person can take part in is the ABC-sponsored Wildlife Spotter: it’s helping scientists sift over a million images taken by movement-triggered cameras in the wilds of Australia. Find the fauna! Help save endangered species! Getting into the thick of research,  is “one of the best ways to learn about science”, enthuses Durant. Projects such as the ANSTO Feather Map and the Galaxy Explorer galaxy-classification project harness mass participation to create data sets, pools of information far more comprehensive and revealing than a group of scientists can manage on their own.

Follow your stars

“We live in a golden age for science communication,” says Durant, who revels in the fact that scientists can now interact with followers on social media— “you can have immediate communication  with a scientist who is working on stuff that you’re interested in”. Durant, who originally studied Geology, also spends about a minute a day online keeping up to date with earthquakes in Iceland, and volcanoes in Hawaii: “At the moment, even as we speak, lava is dribbling into the ocean off the Big Island, and if I want to I can , in a couple of clicks, see what the latest images are.” Or, he says, pivoting to another passion: “I can click on Nautilus Live and join the deep diving in the Pacific …” Budding professors can easily be encouraged to locate live hubs and information feeds, and check in for updates.

Make everyone a multiplier (aka spread the science bug)

Science Week is about multipliers, says Bobby Cerini. “It’s a tremendous grassroots network initiative and it draws on people through every level of Australian society, with lots of different backgrounds. It’s a great opportunity for people to get involved … to showcase either their passion for science or to showcase what’s happening in their communities in that area.” She also points to the Inspiring Australia strategy, “a national framework for engaging people in science and around the issues of science … there’s lots of opportunities for parents, for teachers, for children and for multiple generations of families, to get involved.”