‘Not some weird elite’: Scientists are bringing an urgent message to the streets of Hobart Science

Hobart is more likely to bump into a scientist than any other city in Australia, thanks in large part to its role as a hub for marine research.

At the start of National Science Week, which wraps up this weekend, you would have been more likely to recognize them, as they wore LED name badges with their names and research keywords.

These “roving scientists” populated the downtown Beaker Street Science and Arts Festival, chatting with 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 that conversations take place beyond the festival hub in Hobart. Attendees can visit the field with scientists as part of the festival’s road trip, from a guided hike around the ancient plants of Cradle Mountain to the dark skies of the East Coast.

Alistair, a stem cell researcher, and Nicholas, a gene hunter, are two of the scientists who roam the Beaker Street Science and Arts Festival. Photo: Dearna Bond

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

“We have a panel 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 baton waving,” Adler says.

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

“It really bothers me how exclusionary science can be. You’ll have a university that, every week, brings in some interesting researchers to give talks at some departmental seminar for 30 people. And the public isn’t invited.

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

Visitors to an exhibition at Tasmania's Beaker Street Festival
Giving people an insight into scientific processes gives them not faith in things like climate change, but ‘an understanding of how the world works’, says the festival’s executive director. Pictured: Sam Soh and Conor Castle-Lynch

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

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

Engaging in scientific ideas not only gives people a greater understanding of the beauty and complexity of the universe, but also makes it more urgent and pressing, says Joe Kane, science communicator and emcee for Road Trip.

β€œIn the last two years, we’ve seen how dangerous it can be when communities aren’t given the tools to understand science. It can put those communities at risk, as with the spread of antivax messages,” Keane says.

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

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

“Science is a way of not being stupid, so [people] Don’t fall for the lies about the Covid vaccine, or the flat earth, or climate change,” he says.

But “for the selfish goal of pressuring our politicians to do good for our country economically, we need to have a high background knowledge of science.”

An Australian study found that investing in health research and development provides a $5 return for every $1 spent.

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

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Adler says that making people understand that scientists are “not some weird elite” helps restore public confidence.

Insights into scientific processes help the public understand that evolution, or acceptance of climate change, is not a matter of faith but “an understanding of the way the world works.”

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

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