‘Not a weird elitist class’: scientists bring urgent message to Hobart streets | science

The chances of bumping into a scientist are higher in Hobart than any other city in Australia, largely thanks to its role as a center for marine research.

At the start of National Science Week, which ends this weekend, you would have been even more likely to recognize them, because they were wearing LED badges with their name and research keyword.

These ‘roving scientists’ populated the Beaker Street Arts and Science Festival in the city centre, chatting to attendees and trying to dispel the misconception that science is done behind closed doors.

The festival has expanded in the six years since its inception, so conversations are taking place beyond the festival hub in Hobart. Attendees can go out into the field with scientists as part of the festival’s Road Trip, from a guided hike through the ancient plants of Cradle Mountain to the dark skies of the East Coast.

Alastair, a stem cell explorer, and Nicholas, a gene hunter, two of the traveling scientists at the Beaker Street Science and Arts Festival. Photography: Dearna Bond

The goal of Beaker Street, according to festival executive director Margo Adler, is to share the fact that “science isn’t just people in labs with test tubes, there’s science in everything.”

“We have a group of deaf people who are experts in non-verbal communication … we have a conductor from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra who talks about baton-waving science,” Adler says.

By combining science with bars, live music and art, Adler says, “we’re really trying to invite an audience that might not normally engage in science or consider themselves science enthusiasts.”

“It really bothers me how exclusionary science can be. You will have a university that brings, every week, some interesting researcher to give a talk at some departmental seminar for 30 people. And the public is not invited.

“Instead, you’re talking to the same people over and over and over.”

Visitors to an exhibition at the Beaker Street Festival in Tasmania
Giving audiences an insight into scientific processes can help them see that things like climate change are not beliefs, but “an understanding of how the world works,” says the festival’s executive director. Photography: Sam Soh and Conor Castles-Lynch

Adler says the lack of accessibility to science is also a missed opportunity for scientists who can end up “stuck in a tunnel,” missing out on ideas that could be generated by talking to people who think differently.

“I think it’s really important to bring non-scientists together with scientists, and have people challenge their ideas and come up with completely out-of-left-field suggestions,” he says. “Sometimes those are the best suggestions.”

Zoe Kean, science communicator and Road Trip MC, says that engaging in scientific ideas gives people a greater understanding of the beauty and complexity of the universe, but also has a more immediate and urgent function.

“In the last two years, we’ve seen how dangerous it can be when communities don’t have the tools to understand science; can put these communities at risk, as with the spread of anti-vax messages,” says Kean.

A profile view of Dr Karl Kruszelnicki at The Beaker Street Festival in Tasmania.  He has short white hair, wears glasses and a red jacket with a black hood
Karl Kruzselnicki says he is frustrated by the insecurity of funding for jobs at government research bodies such as the CSIRO and the Met Office. Photography: Sam Soh and Conor Castles-Lynch

Karl Kruszelnicki, who for decades has been at the forefront of bringing science to a wider audience, reiterates the importance of scientific literacy in interpreting the news.

“Science is a way of not being deceived, then [people] don’t be fooled by lies about covid vaccines, the flat earth or climate change,” he says.

But “we must have a higher background knowledge of science, if only for the selfish purpose of pressuring our politicians to do what is economically good for our country.”

An Australian study has shown that investing in health research and development offers a return of $5 for every $1 spent.

But Kruszelnicki says he is frustrated by the insecurity of funding for jobs at government research bodies such as the CSIRO and the Met Office.

Insertion of registration of the application weekend

Adler says that making people understand that scientists “are not some weird elitist class” helps restore public trust.

An insight into scientific processes helps the public understand that acceptance of evolution, or climate change, is not a matter of belief but “an understanding of the way the world works”.

“The division of our culture now is really a problem, and I think part of what we’re doing at the festival is trying to combat that.”

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