‘Not some 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 wore LED badges with their names and research keyword.

These ‘wandering scientists’ populated the Beaker Street Science and Arts Festival in the city centre, talking 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 talks are held outside the festival center in Hobart. Attendees can go out into the field with scientists as part of the festival’s journey, from a guided walk around the ancient plants of Cradle Mountain to the dark skies of the East Coast.

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

The point of Beaker Street, according to festival executive director Margot Adler, is to share the fact that “science isn’t just people in test-tube labs – 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 the science of waving a baton,” says Adler.

By combining science with bars, live music and art, Adler says, “we’re really trying to invite an audience that maybe doesn’t normally engage in science or think of themselves as science enthusiasts.”

“It really bothers me how exclusionary science can be. You’ll have a university bringing in an interesting researcher every week to give a lecture at a 30-person department seminar. And the public is not invited.

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

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

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

“I think it’s really important to bring non-scientists together with scientists and have people challenge their ideas and approach them with proposals that are completely out of left field,” she says. “Sometimes those are the best deals.”

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

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen how dangerous it can be when communities aren’t given the tools to understand the science; it can put those communities at risk, as with the spread of anti-vax messages,” Keane says.

Profile view of Dr Carl Kruzelnicki at The Beaker Street Festival in Tasmania.  He has short white hair, wears glasses and a red jacket with a black hood
Carl Kruselnicki says he is frustrated by the uncertainty of funding for jobs at government research bodies including the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Photo: Sam Soh and Connor Castles-Lynch

Carl Kruzelnicki, who has been at the forefront of bringing science to a wider audience for decades, reiterates the importance of science literacy for interpreting the news.

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

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

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

But Kruzelnicki says he is frustrated by the uncertainty of funding for jobs at government research bodies including the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

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Adler says that getting people to understand that scientists “aren’t some weird elitist class” helps restore public trust.

Insight into scientific processes helps the public understand that accepting evolution or climate change is not a matter of faith, but “understanding the way the world works.”

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

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