Early 19th-century Australian newspapers (rural and metropolitan) printed science ‘notes’— anecdotal reports of science demonstrations and lectures. These were often republished from UK and US papers and journals. In 1888, Archibald Liversidge founded the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science to promote science in Australia and later New Zealand.
Science journalists were uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but there is evidence that the term existed as early as 1910, when James S. Bray called himself a ‘Naturalist and Science Journalist’ in a Sydney Morning Herald advertisement. Newspapers such as the Launceston Examiner ran very short columns titled ‘Popular Science’ early in the 20th century.
During World War I, there were multiple reports in metropolitan and rural newspapers of the need to fund intersections between science and industry, and reports of meetings of various science organisations.
In the 1920s, science journalism became more visible as a profession, especially in the United States. In Australia, it retained a distinctly international flavour even into the 1940s, when there was a sharp increase in the number of science reports in newspapers. By-lines of ‘Science Reporter’ for Associated Press columns syndicated in Australian newspapers included Americans Howard W. Blakeslee (‘World of Science’), Alton L. Blakeslee and Rennie Taylor, while the Melbourne Argus used the London Daily Express ‘Science Reporter’, Harry Chapman Pincher.
During World War II, the Australian press made frequent and overt connections between science and war. There was an extra push for science writing immediately after the war, in part due to the need to redeploy wartime scientists. As explained by physicist Dr Stuart Butler, the communication of science to the general public was a very important responsibility of scientists. Such was the public fascination with science that poems about ‘the March of Science’ and ‘Atoms and Neutrons’ bobbed up in the pages of the Australian Women’s Weekly in the second half of the 1940s. Internationally, the nexus between ‘big science’ and industry that had been created for the war effort was maintained with other projects, such as the space race, nuclear energy and big engineering projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme.
Soon after his appointment to the chair of physics at the University of Sydney in 1952, Canadian-born Harry Messell established the Nuclear Research Foundation (later the Science Foundation for Physics), persuading Sir Frank Packer to support it to the tune of £2–4000 per year. A department within the School of Physics was named the Daily Telegraph Theoretical Department. In 1957, the Daily Telegraph commissioned Messell’s colleague, Stuart Butler, to write a short piece on Sputnik. Thereafter, Butler wrote occasional and eventually regular pieces on popular science for the newspaper, before collaborating with Robert Raymond (documentary maker and co-founder of the ABC’s television program Four Corners) to create a comic strip that explained science to the general reader. In September 1961, the Sydney Morning Herald began publishing ‘Frontiers of Science’, which was drawn by Andrea Bresciani. The strip, published in the Herald until 1979, reveals much about relations between Australia and the United States on matters of big science during those years.
The University of Sydney ran its own television studio, with Bruce Gyngell’s help. For around 15 years, Harry Messell and Stuart Butler’s summer schools, which were created for high school science teachers but from 1962 accepted school students, were broadcast on Packer’s Nine Network on Sunday mornings, and rebroadcast on the ABC. The schools were also promoted in the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs and the Australian Women’s Weekly. The University of Sydney also produced the famous television program, Why Is It So?, hosted by American-born physicist Professor Julius Sumner Miller, for the ABC from 1963. It became Demonstrations in Physics in 1969 and continued until 1987. The Australian ran questions from the show (‘Millergrams’), with answers published the following day; these were published in book form in 1988.
In 1963, the ABC advertised a new post of Talks Assistant (Special Duties), responsible for science on both radio and television. The first responsibility of the successful applicant, Dr Peter Pockley, was Science Question Time, a fortnightly program in which he headed a panel answering questions sent in by viewers. From 1964, the Nine Network’s Project ’64 screened documentaries on various topics, some of which were science-related (for example, one on heart transplants). There were internal tensions at the ABC in 1972 when the Features Department (not the Science Unit of which Pockley was head) began a television project called Science Australia.
That year, science journalist Robyn Williams emigrated from Britain and joined the Science Unit. He became host of The Science Show, which made its debut in August 1975; it is possibly the longest running radio science program in the world. He also hosts Ockham’s Razor (1984– ), and has been the recipient of numerous awards and honours. In 1971–75, Robert Raymond’s series of one-hour films, Shell’s Australia, on Australian wildlife screened on the Seven Network. A book of the series sold 150,000 copies, and the films were screened in schools around Australia. Raymond was a prolific science communicator, who, as well as producing science-related documentaries, published more than 20 books, mostly on science-related topics. Raymond worked with many others, including Vince Serventy and Alan Moorehead. On ABC Radio the pilots of environmental and technological programs produced in the 1960s and 1970s later became Earthbeat hosted by Alexandra de Blas and The Buzz with Richard Aedy.
Newspapers tried to emulate the ABC’s success in science reporting from the late 1960s, but there has never been more than a handful of full-time science reporters, and in 1977 only three daily newspapers in Australia had science writers: Melbourne’s Herald and Sun News-Pictorial, and the Adelaide Advertiser. In the field of magazines, the monthly Search began in 1970, becoming Australiasian Science in 1998. New Scientist established an Australian editorial presence in the late 1980s. Australian popular science magazine Cosmos was launched in 2005. It publishes articles by prominent scientists including Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Tim Flannery and Margaret Wertheim.
Towards 2000 debuted on ABC Television in 1981 to showcase developments in science and technology; it was renamed Beyond 2000 in 1985 and moved to the Seven Network. It then aired on Network Ten (1993–99) and was also broadcast internationally. The program was revived as Beyond Tomorrow on Seven (2005–07). Longer-running ABC Television science programs have included Quantum (1985–2001) and Catalyst (2001– ). Children’s television science programs have included The Curiosity Show on the Nine Network (1972–90) and Backyard Science, co-produced by Beyond Television Productions and Penguin Television for the ABC and the Seven Network. Several other children’s programs, such as Totally Wild (Network Ten, 1992–), include science and technology information in a magazine-style format.
Community radio science programs include Lost in Science and Beyond Zero on 3CR, Einstein a Go-Go on 3RRR, and Diffusion and A Question of Balance on 2SER FM. All of the ABC’s science material is available on the ABC’s online science gateway, which began in 1997 as The Lab and ranges from ‘Ancient Worlds’ to ‘Space and Astronomy’. It hosts a number of forums to which the public can contribute and ask an expert, with such experts including Bernie Hobbs, a former teacher and medical researcher who joined the ABC in 1997. Expert contributors from the general public are also acknowledged in some of the forums.
The first Australian National Science Week, funded by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research, was launched in 1997. The Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University was established in 1996, and in 2011 Sue Stocklmayer, the centre’s director, became Australia’s first Professor of Science Communication.
A Science Communication and Journalism Award is offered annually as part of the Eureka Awards by the Department of State Development, Trade and Innovation, and in recent years has been won by journalists who have published in newspapers including the Age, the Australian, the West Australian, and the Sydney Morning Herald. However the ABC—both radio and television—dominates the award winners. Notable science reporters include Bob Beale, Julian Cribb, Wilson da Silva, Leigh Dayton, Simon Grose, Graeme O’Neill, Deborah Smith and Dr Paul Willis. Much has been written about the sharp decline of fulltime specialist science journalists in the 21st century, and the rise in industry-funded science communicators. Since at least 1995 there has been an expansion of public relations staff and consultants in public institutions and commerce.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, the Julius Sumner Miller Fellow at the University of Sydney, wrote and presented the first series of ABC Television’s Quantum, hosts a weekly science talkback program on Triple J, and with Adam Spencer has co-hosted Sleek Geeks on ABC Television since 2008; ‘Dr Karl’ also writes a weekly column for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age on scientific ‘mythconceptions’.
The Australian Science Media Centre was established in 2005 to help the media work more actively with the Australian scientific community, and its goal is to support evidence-based reporting by providing links between media practitioners and relevant scientists.
Science blogging has become a popular means of reporting on science, and in 2010 National Science Week hosted a competition to find the best science bloggers and microbloggers in Australia. In 2007, John Cook launched Skeptical Science, a climate science blog that lists and challenges the arguments of climate sceptics using information from peer-reviewed articles.
In 2010, Inspiring Australia: A National Strategy for Engagement with the Sciences was launched at the Australian Science Communicators National Conference. This initiative aims to generate a coherent, Australia-wide approach to science communication.
REFs: K.S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983); J. Metcalfe and T. Gascoigne, ‘Science Journalism in Australia’, Public Understanding of Science 4 (1995); P. Pockley, ‘Mixed Report Card on Science in Media’, Australasian Scientist (May 2005).