The Big Trip – In the Air

While writing this I’m currently on an A380 on my way to the USA on my first overseas trip since 1997. With the support of the University of Adelaide’s Barbara Kidman Fellowship I am:

  • Presenting to the National Animal Welfare RD&E Strategy Forum in Sydney Australia on research to date on consumer attitudes to farm animal welfare;
  • Visiting the Center for Food Integrity in Kansas City, Missouri, USA to meet with Charlie Arnot and his colleagues; and
  • Attending the History of Science Society meeting in Chicago, Illinois, USA to present on the ‘GM History work’.

I’ve already attended the meeting in Sydney. It was really interesting to hear updates from the livestock industries on how they are managing animal welfare issues in their industry, and community attitudes to farm animal welfare are definitely on industry radars. On a personal note, I saw my PhD supervisor for the first time in over 10 years which was rather wonderful.

IMAG3725 for blog

Ch – ch – changes

2014 has already been a year of big changes for me. It’s the year I’ve finally been able to transition back to full time research after almost 15 years. Boy has started high school (and I underestimated the changes that would bring) and I’ve bought a new home. I’m still in the process of selling my old one, but the move will happen in the next month. This is the house I’ve lived in the longest out of all the houses I’ve lived in. Boy grew up here. But it’s time to move on. These are all good changes.

Another change is that it’s time to start writing a new blog (I’ve actually had it sitting there for ages). I’ve been interested in social media for science communication and academia too long for me to not walk the walk too.

So why has it taken so long? Essentially I’m too much of an academic. I feel very strongly that I should have the evidence for anything that I express, and ideally that evidence should have gone through some sort of process to ensure that it’s rigorous. Basically I have been waiting until I can get some papers published to give me the credibility I feel I need. And I’ve really only had the time to start and focus on that this year.

I’ve been really fortunate to have won a Barbara Kidman fellowship from the University and that has enabled me to get coaching in writing. Although I’ve been working alongside scientists and other academics for more than 10 years, the paper publishing that is so much a part of their lives was not part of mine. I facilitated workshops on writing for researchers, I coordinated a leadership program for researchers where part of the emphasis was to get them writing, I shared their publications through outreach and social media. But writing up my own research, after such a long time out of academia, and in a completely new field, has been challenging for me.

My writing coach, Maria Gardiner has been fantastic. I attended her workshops when I was only doing research part-time. The cognitive-behavioural approach to writing fascinated me, and I felt that it was really what I needed. It’s bloody scary writing up what you do and then letting it loose. It’s scarier when you know you are an animal scientist/science communicator writing in the humanities and social sciences!

So, big changes. If you want to keep up to date with my work please follow me at my new blog, agriCultural (it still might take me a few weeks to get my first post up!) although I will still write here from time to time. Who knows, having a separate blog for ‘work’ may make it easier to write more here as well.

When is a weed not a weed?

Heather Bray:

Here’s something I wrote for Science for Life. 365 …

Originally posted on Science for Life. 365:


A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Dr Heather Bray* 

Heather: My garden needed a darn good weeding this morning. I spent a couple of hours on it, furiously pulling up or digging out the offenders, being careful not to disturb the plants I have nurtured since before the summer..

When it came to this little fellow however, I left him alone. I decided this one wasn’t a weed.

The best definition for a weed is the first one I learned in Year 7 Agriculture:

A weed is a plant in the wrong place.

We decide which plants are in the right place and which ones aren’t based on a whole range of factors; many of the reasons are based in science, but some are not. Some plants are dangerous and so we consider them weeds because they are toxic to humans or animals. Some weeds can affect nearby plants through competition…

View original 430 more words

Day 350. I can’t explain that

Heather Bray:

Here is a post I wrote for my friend Sarah Keenihan. It’s a little sad …

Originally posted on Science for Life. 365:

freddy copy

Yesterday my friend and science-y colleague Heather made me cry.

A few days earlier, we had agreed that she would write a guest piece around science communication for this blog. But then something far more important happened.

Here’s what Heather wrote:

This is not the post I was going to write* for ScienceforLife.365.

But last weekend my son’s guinea pig got sick from pneumonia and died in our arms. It seems like such a little thing in the scheme of things, but it was my son’s first real experience with grief and loss.

As a scientist, I understood all too well what was happening.

My own PhD was on pneumonia in pigs.

I knew Frederick, or Freddy for short, just wasn’t right on Friday night and by Saturday morning I could see that he was working to breathe, and breathing and eating simultaneously was difficult for him. I remembered seeing the…

View original 289 more words



Tonight I went to a happiness workshop.

It was run by kikki.K and yes, I did expect that part of the answer to happiness would be to buy more stationery.

I was ok with that, because I have a bit of a thing for stationery, especially Swedish designed stationery.

However, I’m pleased to say that there was also some method in it all and I’m feeling quite motivated about my ‘happiness journey’.

I’m someone who has struggled with happiness. I realised tonight that it’s not even a word I use in the context of my own life. However I’m also someone who has learned the hard way that I’m the one (and the only one) responsible for my own wellbeing (which is the word I prefer to use).

The thing is, I’ve been reading about mindfulness lately (I picked up Ruby Wax’s book at the airport, as well as in several of my friends blogs) and coming across it and aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy in my professional life more commonly than ever before. Of course I know something about mental illness, and more recently CBT, from personal experience. We’ve come such a long way in the last 15 years. Thank goodness!

So I went to the happiness workshop, not only because of the free journal and the special one time only offer of 35% off MORE STATIONERY, but because I thought that the happiness journal could be a tool to use in practicing mindfullness. (You could probably use anything for this, and there’s lots of online resources around now, like the fact sheet on midfulness from the Black Dog Institute. I just like stationery).

After having a play with the journal in the workshop (and that’s the real strength. The workshop makes us start to write in it, rather than take it home and put it on the ‘good shelf’ never to be used) I think I will be able to commit to, and record, a journey of mindfulness. Whether it will make me ‘happy’ is yet to be seen. I’m aiming to just be ok with being me, now.

Oh, and as part of my ‘thimble list’ or ‘list of little things I can do to make me happy’ which we started tonight, I’ve decided to try to take a photo a day on Instagram of things I see that make me smile. (There was a beautiful 365 photo journal on sale but I just know I would never print out the pictures to stick in it).

In 3 months, I’ll let you know if I’ve developed the happiness habit!

Science communication stuff, again

I’ve been thinking about science communication again lately, which is not so surprising after the Big Science Communication Summit.

I’ve also been thinking that I really should be blogging more, and that I probably could produce more if I took some inspiration from my pal Sarah Keenihan and write shorter posts.

So here’s something I thought about on the bus home today …

I’m in science communication because I want to change the way someone thinks, and therefore, acts (I know that there may be more than one flaw in that line of thought). For me, it’s not about awareness or engagement, or even inspiration. I think lots of people need to act differently if the human race is not going to destroy itself and the planet. I also think that this is going to take a lot of time and if we are to have any chance of success we need to understand why they act the way they do now.

In #onsci tomorrow night we are talking about science communication myths. You know, things like “we need to just give people the facts” or “if only we did science communication better then we could fix everything”. These ideas still seem so pervasive in science communication in Australia, and I was musing on why while I staring out the window.

I’m ‘A’. I’m communicating with ‘B’ in the hope ‘B’ will do something different because of the information I’ve just given them.


‘B’ changes and this makes ‘A’ (me) feel pretty good because my focus is on MY activities. atob2

I’m a science communicator and I just communicated some science. My focus is on me, radiating information.


But here’s ‘B’ …


Perhaps it’s time we really focused on ‘B’ a bit more, or at least shifted our gaze toward them from time to time?

ScienceOnline made my head explode!

People who know me know how excited I get by ideas. The pace and pitch of my voice increases and my hands move wildly like the lovechild of Peter Garrett and Kermit the Frog. My mind leaps from one thing to another as I furiously try to fit all of these new pieces into an enormous jigsaw puzzle, connecting little islands of thought into scenes of clarity.

In this state, it is incredibly difficult to compose a crisp piece of writing. I’m feeling anything but ‘flow’ at the moment. It’s more like a car wash, coming from all directions. But I wanted to share some of the things that have resonated with me since attending the ScienceOnline Watch Party on the weekend.

ScienceOnline is a conference that happened in the USA last week. The theme is “Conversations, community and connections at the intersection of science and the web”. Before the event, Sarah Keenihan, Kristin Alford and I chose four sessions from the ScienceOnline ‘menu’, grouped losely into two themes: Our audience – Why won’t the deficit model die? and Persuading the unpersuadable – communicating science to deniers, cynics and trolls; and self awareness – We are who we are? Who are we? Issues of identity and the internet, and Life in the vennWhat happens when you’re forced to wear many hats? There have been many blogs and Storify collations of ScienceOnline, too many to link to right now. I might come back and do it, but I suggest you just google them (or just look at Bridge8’s list here.)

All of the sessions were great and stimulated lost of thinking and conversation. Sarah has already written about juggling roles and identity as a response to those sessions, and both she and Kristin have written responses to the session on ‘persuading the unpersuadable’ (Sarah’s here, Kristin’s here). Which is convenient really, because the one that has been going through my head the most is the one on the deficit model.

But why that one? Well, I’m a nerd really (and identify with nerds culturally – reference session on identity) and my Discipline is Science Communication. The theory of science communication lights me up, because it helps me understand what I do and helps me do what I do better. I have worn, and still wear, many hats as I move(d) from scientist to science communicator to researcher (reference session on hats) and the theory is what helps bring all of those things together. I can combine all of those hats into one when I think of my core interest: How people relate to science and technology in food production. Also, I have been reading about the deficit model for a couple of things for work at the moment, so it’s been churning around in my mind. My third reason for focusing on that here follows on from our #onsci twitter chat last night where we discussed the deficit model more broadly and I’m taking the opportunity to explain it and my thinking in more that 140 characters.

Science communication is still a relatively new discipline, and I’m beginning to think it has the wrong name but haven’t come up with a better one. Basically we are a bunch of people who work at the intersection of science and society. Some people are scientists who do outreach, talking to schools, community groups, the media. Some people are science journalists or writers, writing for the masses. Some people have a qualification in science communication and may be working for research organisations, developing and delivering programs to inform and engage people. Some may be educators, working in the non-formal/informal space. Some may be researchers, coming from a history and philosophy of science perspective, trying to uncover how we as a society engage with scientific ideas. There are probably others that I’ve missed. I have been (and arguably still am) most of the roles on this list, but it is the last role that, at the moment, excites me the most.

For most of my career, I have worked within a deficit model of science communication. I have paraphrased this as “If you knew what I knew, you’d like it too” (although I better a better paraphrase is “I believe there’s a space in your head. I’m going to fill it with information and then you will act differently”). By this I mean that this was the underlying philosophy/strategy of the program I worked on. Even my title, Education Officer, made this quite clear. I was there to educate you, because there was stuff you didn’t know, and you needed to know it so that you could make informed (better) decisions. I talked to a lot of people that were cynical (reference session on persuading the unpersuadable). I knew we needed to change, but my scientific training didn’t equip me with the skills I needed to address it as a research question. So I went back to Uni to learn how people do research into how people learn and I learned about constructivism.This theory of learning suggests that people have unique sets of experiences and these will influence their learning. New information becomes integrated, filtered and constructed in light of these experiences. I also learned about research in the social sciences; how and why to do it. Now I’m focusing on understanding what people think about science in food and why. In particular, I’m interested in how ideas about science in food have been constructed socially and culturally.

I believe the deficit model needs to die, and die soon, but I sense an anxiousness about this among others in science communication, particularly those who are coming from a more sciencey perspective. “But people NEED information” I hear. Throwing out the deficit model does not mean we can’t give people information. It does not mean that scientists can’t talk about their work, or that they should start to feel anxious about what model of science communication they are using. I think the key message for scientists is that it is more important than ever that they talk about their science with the passion and the ability to go into detail that only they can do. But, recognise that people are not the same as you minus the sciencey bit. They have constructed a meaning for the world already on the information they have, based on their experiences, background etc. Your information will need to become integrated with that somehow if you want to change their behaviour.

So where do we go if we kill the deficit model? I believe that constructivism goes a long way to developing a new model without throwing the baby out with the bathwater and losing the information part of the process. And here’s where I become frustrated with science communication as a discipline; education (as a discipline) has been grappling with this for some time. Education researchers have been writing and publishing about it for years. Why are we only starting to think about it in science communication now? Aren’t we all learners? Working at an interface is tricky, and lonely sometimes. Science communicators in practice (the people that talk science) are often in and of science. The people that research how people relate to scientific ideas are usually not, often in education or the social sciences. The distances between the two groups can feel enourmous at times. I physically work at two different campuses and have two different contracts for each role so I feel the gap between science communication practice and research quite keenly. As a science communicator I was not encouraged to keep up the date with the research literature, despite being in an environment that was completely devoted to knowledge and evidence. The theory and complexity of what I did (and do) was often invisible to my scientist collegues. Then again, I would not expect scientists to become experts in my discipline, just as I don’t expect to become an expert in theirs. But we have to work together.

I’m am so excited about having more dialogue between researchers and practitioners in this space in the future because we won’t ever make any headway if we allows the silos to persist. And it also means that I can stop talking to myself.

Silos at Wallaroo

Silos at Wallaroo