What do we plant?

One of my colleagues found this when writing a report on forestry, and it struck a chord. Enjoy.

What do we plant?
American author, Henry Abbey (1842-1911)

What do we plant when we plant the tree?
We plant the ship, which will cross the sea.
We plant the mast to carry the sails

We plant the planks to withstand the gales —
The keel, the keelson, and the beam and knee;
We plant the ship when we plant the tree.

What do we plant when we plant the tree?
We plant the houses for you and me.
We plant the rafters, the shingles, the floors.
We plant the studding, the lath, the doors,
The beams, and siding, all parts that be;
We plant the house when we plant the tree.

What do we plant when we plant the tree?

A thousand things that we daily see;
We plant the spire that out-towers the crag,
We plant the staff for our country’s flag,
We plant the shade, from the hot sun free;
We plant all these when we plant the tree.

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Science is complex — finding the light switch

There’s always a debate about science AND communication, yet to me the two are integral.

In today’s fast-moving, status-update world, there has never been a more important time to communicate well. This was the key theme of a panel debate I was on with the ABC’s Bernie Hobbs and QIMR’s Kirsten MacGregor.

Science is complex!

I was a scientist, and now I write about science, so I appreciate that all science is complex. But never underestimate the value of being able to tell someone about your work in one or two sentences.

Years ago, a good friend told me a story about a light switch, and it’s always stuck with me. It goes something like this:

If you ask an electrical engineer to tell you how a light switch works, they’ll tell you about the wiring diagrams, the complexity of AND, OR and NOT gates, how electrons flow down a particular circuit when the correct contact is made, and how the electrons are turned into light and heat within the bulb, causing the bulb to emit light.

But, when I ask the question of how a light switch works, what I really want to know is that if I press the switch the bulb will light up.
That’s what matters to me; that’s what I can see, that’s what’s tangible, and that’s as deep as most people need it to be. Once I have that concept in my head, if I want to explore deeper I can start to think about what’s behind it, but until I know that, wiring diagrams, electrons and circuit gates have very little meaning to me.

And so it should be with talking about your science. All science has an end goal, a wider concept to which it applies, so you just need to find it. It sounds straightforward on paper, but it’s amazing how easy it is to become lost in the detail of your work and forget about the bigger picture, and it’s amazing how many scientists focus on the detail first.

The media uses this light switch strategy all the time with headlines and the inverted pyramid style of writing because it draws people in. So, next time someone asks you about your work don’t say ‘it’s complex’, try and think of the light switch element in your own work, and see if you can get your research down to the length of a status update!

Not sure how? Ask us!

Tell a story – communicating science in developing countries

Last year we were invited by the Crawford Fund to run a week-long science communication course in Chiang-Mai, Thailand, for a group of agricultural researchers.

The 17 researchers came from countries across Asia, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

People in developing countries have less access to the internet than we do, and cannot rely on the technology. The Thailand workshop reinforced for us the importance of personal discussion-based communication.

This fits neatly with the philosophy of the Australian Climate Champion program, which we run. Rather than relying on publications sent out to farmers or web-based communication, we support leading farmers to tell their stories and share information at the local level. Farmers trust other farmers!

And so it is with Asian cultures, which rely on small communities much more than we do in Australia. In these communities, locally influential people can be a more effective force in telling stories about their own successes and failures in adopting new technologies than any brochure, website or official pronouncement.

We’re all aware that the most effective form of communication is two-way. But are we using this two-way communication to our full advantage? How much have we learnt from the past? Is a shift towards a more discussion-based model a step back to the old days of storytelling?

My colleagues, Jenni Metcalfe and Toss Gascoigne recently ran a master class in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for African scientists and communicators from 9 countries. They found that telling stories is an important way of communicating science and local knowledge in African communities.

We can offer less developed countries pointers about public engagement techniques such as using the web and social media. But if we open our minds to a more local, storytelling-based model, maybe this would help the audience to take ownership of their interactions with scientists and the new practices and ideas that stem from this interaction.

If you’re interested in reading more, read my article for the British Science Association’s People and Culture magazine.

This article was originally published in Econnect’s June 2013 newsletter, and is reproduced with the permission of Econnect Communication