Thirsty Work: Bringing Science to the Public in Australia

New Scientist | 26 August 2000

The Science in the Pub Goes Outback troupe

Left to right Michael Burton, Robyn Stutchbury, Noel Tait, Gordon Power, Ross Edwards, Fred Watson, Clio Cresswell, David Malin, Ian Lowe, Branwen Morgan, Sue Griffith, Bernie Hobbs, Wilson da Silva, Abbie Thomas, Rachel Nowak, Melissa Hulbert, Paul Willis, Tim Kennedy, Kersten Davis and Jack Curtis

Rachel Nowak joins scientists on a pub crawl of the Australian outback.

IT’S THE CONTRAST that hits you first about the outback. The land is achingly beautiful, while the towns tend to be ugly. They are also often very poor. Closed mines, less labour-intensive farming and the economic rationalisation that robs small communities of their banks, libraries and other services, have led to job losses and poverty. Then there’s the sheer emptiness. Counties the size of Denmark are home to barely 2,000 people.

Let me say first that I do not buy those stereotypes that portray rural people as dim. But I did think that they wouldn’t have much time for the eight scientists, one composer, and various science journalists and promoters who spent a week earlier this year travelling around the outback to spread the word on science.

In some of the towns the only laid-on entertainment is the pub. Fittingly, then, the linchpin of the expedition was ‘Science in the Pub’. The brainchild of journalist Wilson da Silva, Science in the Pub has been bringing top Australian scientists out of labs and museums for the past two years to discuss their work with the public over a beer and a packet of crisps. The programme has included such titles as: “Can We Live to 150?”, “Waiter! There’s a Gene in my Soup”, “God and the Big Bang”, and “Frogs are Dying; Who Cares?”

In total, maybe a few hundred people turned up for the travelling science show. But the raw numbers belie the success of the project, for it was a success despite my initial misgivings.

Rural Australia often misses out on what the cities have to offer. But Robyn Stutchbury, a science promoter, and Michael Burton, an astronomer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, secured funds from the federal government and other organisations to charter a DC3 for the inaugural ‘Science in the Pub goes Outback’ tour. Besides playing the pub circuit, the team was going to talk under the stars and in schools in isolated communities around New South Wales and Queensland.

I, for one, was sceptical. When some scientists take on the public understanding of science (known affectionately in Britain as PUS), they tend to think it’s a case of simply talking with enough enthusiasm and/or authority. Then their audience will realise how important science is and back the cause to the hilt. But the exercise can backfire. People can throw the science back in researchers’ faces, as is happening with genetically modified foods. Just as often, nobody comes to listen ­– science just seems too remote from everyday life. With these thoughts in mind, I had to ask myself how the scientists would go down.

Fred Watson, Wilson da Silva, David Malin, Bernie Hobbs

The first event, “Life, the Universe, and Everything...!”, played to a packed audience at the Silverton pub, just outside of Broken Hill (where, incidentally, Mad Max was filmed). Initially, the mutterings from the elbow-to-elbow drinkers were a little hostile, but soon more friendly debate took over, ranging across topics as diverse as what science can do for society, to creationism.

Only ten people showed up for the next gig, “Global Warming, Climate Change, and Land Use” in Birdsville’s only venue, The Birdsville Pub. Sadly, someone had died and the locals, all one hundred of them, were in mourning. A few more came for “Greenhouse Warming is a Lot of Hot Air” at the Commercial Hotel in Longreach, although most of the townsfolk had gone off to the agricultural show instead.

Still, more than thirty came for “Starry, Starry Night”, an astronomical extravaganza held in the Simpson Desert that featured – among other celebrities – the Milky Way, Aboriginal park ranger Don Rowland, composer Ross Edwards, Fred Watson, astronomer-in-charge at the Anglo-Australian Observatory, and David Malin, the AAO’s astronomer-photographer.

Malin told me that he had once talked to children in New York City who thought that his slides of the night sky were computer simulations.

Here, the difference between town and country really hit home. Malin told me that he had once talked to children in New York City who thought that his slides of the night sky were computer simulations. They had never seen the stars. In the Simpson Desert, far from the city’s light pollution, that would not be possible – Australia’s big sky is strewn with glorious constellations. And I suspect that being guided through them, while Edwards’s latest composition played in the background, was probably a bigger thrill for city dwellers like me, than for those familiar with the night sky.

In total, maybe a few hundred people turned up for the travelling science show. But the raw numbers belie the success of the project, for it was a success despite my initial misgivings. The people who came along clearly relished meeting the scientists and vice versa – especially in the pub. Da Silva as compere and radio broadcasters Bernie Hobbs and Paul Willis kept the proceedings suitably raucous, while making sure that everyone who wanted to be heard had a turn at the microphone.

The DC3 pulls up right outside the Birdsville pub

Scientists in the public eye tend not to give the straight dope. They worry – perhaps rightly so – that admitting to the failures, uncertainties or the more tedious side of research could somehow interfere with winning favourable publicity and funds. Science in the Pub goes some way to solving that problem. Alcohol has a way of relaxing everyone. Scientists, experts in their fields, are generally reluctant to shed their cloaks of authority. On the other hand, when a possibly tipsy bloke in biker gear asked in one pub if the Hubble Constant really is constant, and then someone else asked, “What is life?”, the scientists had to be on their toes.

In the end, the week became as much an exercise in scientists understanding the public as in the public understanding science. “They wanted to know about the science that affected their communities on a big scale – the nurses wanted to know about drug addiction. And they actually had a fair amount of knowledge. They knew about salinity and the water table problem,” says Branwen Morgan, a neuroscientist at the Garvan Institute in Sydney. There were no sessions on cloning or genetically modified crops – two topics dear to the heart of farmers- – but had there been, no doubt they would have been on top of the list.

Scientists taking science to the public? I’ll drink to that. In fact, I already have.

Rachel Nowak went pubbing in Broken Hill, Birdsville, Longreach, Charleville and Bourke.

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