COVID-year 'science for the masses' mission goes global

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A mission to bring science to a general audience has turned into a runaway global success for a small group of Australians.

Appalled by the amount of pseudo-scientific information pedalled by PR companies and vested interests, Canberra-based Australian Academy of Science "got into the news game" with their own web and social media platforms, and then saw their efforts go global with Global Science TV.

Chief executive Anna-Maria Arabia told the second day of The World Editors' Forum Science in the Newsroom eSummit how the organisation started creating its own content, targeting "hard-to-reach audiences" who think understanding science is "just too hard".

The Academy has its origins in Britain's Royal Society, 16 Australian Fellows of which founded it in 1954. The not-for-profit organisation aims to provide independent, authoritative and influential scientific advice, build public understanding, and champion excellence in Australian science.

"The public needs trusted information and sources, accurate information," Arabia says. Research had shown that most people got their news from a mobile device, and that some scepticism was needed in what they read, "numerous sites tell you that milk is good for you, for example".

Director of communications and outreach Paul Richards joined from the Seven Network - latterly as a supervising producer on morning show Sunrise - teaming with Adam Boland to create the Academy's video unit.

Recent output has included explainer videos on topics such as black holes, AI, and why birds such as magpies swoop, some of it edited to the 16:9 format for use by newsrooms.

The scientific issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a broader approach, first nationally with the www.science.org.au website and social media, and then globally. The Academy now has 2.4 million followers on social media accounts.

Working under embargo, the Academy is given extensive access to reports about to be published, giving it the opportunity to contribute to breaking news. "We work to deliver excellence in science with excellence in media," says Arabia.

Academic rigour means that all the content has backing of at least three fellows, a process which includes a review phase by independent experts.

"For this reason, we are frequently picked up by major media," she says.

From these foundations, their work has now progressed to science from around the world, with membership of the International Science Council leading to producing content on a global scale.

"We're featuring a range of different types of story, including explainers and big issues, but also giving voice to big thinkers," she says.

"It's a relatively new initiative - as old as the pandemic - but we're excited by it and the opportunity to give science a voice."

Projects include a desire to translate content to other languages, and establish 'nodes' around the globe, Richards says.

"Basically, we want to bring science to every conversation, explain it in a way that people will care."

The Tuesday session was the last of four presented by WAN-Ifra's World Editors' Forum on Singapore time, and attracted 450 delegates from 40 countries.

Other participants included moderator Fergus Bell, who is the founder and chief executive of Fathm; South China Morning Post deputy head of graphics and illustration Adolfo Arranz; executive director of the Royal Society of Canada (and WEF board member) Darren Gilmore; Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley; and Alyssa Zeizler who is the Wall Street Journal's chief of research and development and product lead for newsroom tools.

The morning session on countering misinformation included contributions from WHO technical officer Melinda Frost, and its Africa crisis communications officer AbdelHalim AbdAllah; Kritika Goel, associate editor of The Quint's Fact-Check unit; and medical doctor, freelance health journalist and science writer Roberta Villa, with moderator Alison Meston, communications director of the International Science Council.

Peter Coleman

Pictured from top: The Australian Academy of Science's Global Science TV site, Anna-Maria Arabia, and Paul Richards

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