Cracker by Damian Christie

6

We're Going on a Bat Hunt

When I started SciFilms about this time last year, it wasn't really a change of direction so much as a narrowing of focus. I've always loved doing science and technology stories, and I really wanted to put my flag in the ground and say "this is what I want to do".

In the past few months I've been to Antarctica, diving in marine reserves, flying drones in regional parks and just last week, captured (with shooter Bevan Crothers) some beautiful footage of bottlenose dolphins which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times around the world via viral sites like Mashable and BoingBoing. Here's that footage in case you missed it: 

But as Summer draws to a close, one of the things I'm so glad we got done this year was a bat hunt with Ben the Batman.  Ben and I had met up when I first launched SciFilms and I knew I wanted to do something about his work.

The lovely folk at the Weekend Herald thought my profile suggestion was a good idea, and the following is republished with permission. The icing on the cake as a proud Dad was the fact NZH chose one of the photos taken by my 5 year old Harry (you can see him clicking away in the Batman hoodie) as the main illustration for the article. And yes, I paid him for it.  Have a watch and a read:

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Batman has a name, and that name is Ben.

By day, and regularly at night too, this Batman goes by the full name Ben Paris, and he works at Auckland Council as a senior biodiversity advisor. But on social media, his regular radio appearances, and when he addresses our group of two dozen children and parents gathered at the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park on a Summer’s evening, he’s Ben the Batman.

In case you weren’t aware, New Zealand has two species of native bat, the long-tailed bat, and the short-tailed bat. They’re our only native mammal. There was a third species too, the greater short-tailed bat, but it’s believed these became extinct around 1967 thanks to an invasion of ship rats on the two Southern islands they called home. The remaining lesser short-tailed bat is endangered too, in part due to its habit of crawling on the ground for food, rather than flying.

Harry's photo of the Batman. 

On this particular Wednesday night, we’re looking for the less endangered (but still at-risk) long-tailed bat. It’s half an hour before sunset, and there are no bats, not yet. Batman Ben has advised us to bring insect repellant, and he’s not joking. The sky is thick with mosquitos, searching out the one overlooked, unsprayed patch of skin. Tonight the tables will be turned on these blood-sucking parasites, as a cloud of bats shall emerge from the depths of Hell (or at least a nearby kauri) and descend to feed. Weighing between 8 and 12 grams, people have little to fear from the long-tailed bat, but each critter can devour a thousand mosquitoes in a night. And my already itching elbow says they’re not going to have any problem finding their quota this evening.

Ben the Batman’s not having any problems filling up his bat tours either. Running twice a week over Summer, they sold out quicker than an Adele concert, in no small part due to the guide’s own enthusiasm.

“The bat tours book out within about two weeks, which is really amazing, basically they open around the 1st of December and they’re gone, it’s really, really popular and we really love that people in Auckland really love their bats."

In truth, most people in Auckland have probably never thought about bats, let alone know that the edge of town is bat country. That doesn’t mean they’re not keen once they find out – all my invitations to join the special bat tour put on for us are promptly snapped up, the adults just as excited as the children at the prospect of spotting these often-maligned creatures.

For Paris, it wasn’t bats, but native birds that got him started in conservation. “I guess I’m a bird nerd,” he explains, recalling how a school camping trip was his inspiration. “We went out to Pureora Forest down near Taupo, and they got us up at five in the morning. We were like ‘what the hell, what’s going on’, sitting in the forest in the cold, but then hearing the kokako sing, the dawn chorus was just amazing. And that’s when I realised, this is what I want to do.”

After graduating from Waikato University with a science degree, one of Paris’ first tasks was bringing tui back to suburban Hamilton, where rats attacking nests had wiped them out across the city.

“So we did some really intensive rat predation in a halo around Hamilton, and within two years tui started coming back. First of all we’d have one sighting of a tui, then ten sightings… now there’s trees full of tui, and it’s really exciting when I go back to Hamilton that my legacy is left behind.”

Hamilton was also where Paris was introduced to New Zealand’s native bats, and together with colleagues began bat tours in 2008. At the same time, a group of bats had been discovered in the Waitakere ranges by an Australian ranger, who being used to bats back home, didn’t think much of his find until he mentioned it to his workmates. When Paris took a job at Auckland Council he saw the unusual species as a way to get communities interested in conservation, and the Batman was born.

“I used the bats as a flagship. I created my NZ Batman profiles on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to try and get the word out there. When I first moved to Auckland I was talking to a few local schools in Henderson, then it grew to ladies’ Probus Clubs, and it’s been snowballing from there. They might not remember my name, but they know I’m the Batman!”

At the Waitakere Ranges our excitable group has walked a hundred metres into the bush, through a foot-spraying station to combat kauri dieback, and come to a halt near a thousand year old kauri tree. Paris directs the group to a dead branch with a small hole in it – this is where bats live. Necks strain upwards, eyes squint, torches search out the crevices, cameras click, but there’s no sign of them yet.

The Batman gives the group a rundown of everything you might want to know about the long-tailed bat: Their body is the size of an adult thumb, with wings expanded they’re the size of your hand. They have just one baby – or pup – each  year. During breeding season, the male and female of the species move into segregated maternity and bachelor roosts, only visiting for “fun times”, as Paris explains in a family-friendly manner.

What about being Auckland’s answer to Batman? Does that help with the “fun times”?

“It doesn’t work as well as it should,” Paris laughs. He says it does result in a lot of bat-themed gifts from friends, most recently a Batman shower curtain. But he admits his partner doesn’t share in this particular passion, and she’s not alone.

“There seems to be this weird fear about the bats. They’re just very different, they’re very unusual. But when people see them, like we will tonight, they get very excited about it. I think it’s the Batman folklore and things like that.”

While he’s fine with bats, there are some critters the Batman isn’t quite so comfortable around. He admits giant centipedes can freak him out when he stumbles upon one unexpectedly. “Sometimes the cave wetas can give you a fright too when they jump out at you. But there’s nothing in New Zealand that’s going to hurt you too much.”

So what is it about bats that see him invest so much time, including his evenings, raising awareness about these tiny beasties?

“I get excited when other people get excite about it,” Paris says, and it’s not only bats. “I get a real buzz off people learning and discovering new things.

Kids just buzzing because they’ve seen a spider, or a little native crayfish in the stream, that’s really cool.”

The excitement is certainly contagious. There’s a mad scramble by the children when Paris asks the group “so who wants a bat detector?” The little devices, about the size of a walkie-talkie, are tuned into the echo-locator frequency the bats use to ‘see’ in the dark. In the case of the long-tailed bat, that’s around 40hz. Wave the detector around the sky and if there’s a bat in range, you’ll hear a fast series of clicks as it darts about. (The detectors can be borrowed from the Council if you suspect there might be bats in your backyard).

However, as sunset approaches and then passes, there’s a sense tonight might be a bat-less affair. For the adults it seems almost expected, like a fishing trip with no fish. The children’s expectations are still set at 100% chance of bats. The non-appearance isn’t for a lack of mosquitoes, that’s for sure. And there are a few false alarms – the flit of a fantail at dusk seems remarkably bat-like.

It’s hard to remember exactly what happens next. The bat detectors all clicking madly, or some sharp eye spotting a single bat dancing above the tree line. Our group is abuzz. Thirty seconds of circling, then it’s off. Soon comes a second, then shortly after a sighting of another (or possibly one of the first two) further along the ridgeline.

For all of the guests tonight, it’s our first confirmed bat sighting. Satisfied customers, happy Batman. But what happens to the bat tour when the bats are a no-show? How do you explain that to a crowd of over-tired children?

“Oh it gets really awkward,” Paris shrugs. “We have to try and get them enthusiastic about glow worms instead!”

It’s unlikely bats will be commonplace in the suburbs anytime soon, but after leaving his mark on Hamilton with tui, Paris has plans for a legacy in Auckland too. He’s working with residents to develop a pest-free ‘wildlife corridor’ linking the Hauraki Gulf islands and the Waitakere ranges, encouraging birds to move between the two, and ideally settle in between, across the North Shore. All going well, in years to come, when the suburban backyards of Auckland are full of our native parakeet the kākāriki, the kea’s cousin the kaka, and kōkako, the city’s residents should look to the sky at night and give thanks to the Batman. 

8

On Ice

I look out the window of the Hägglund – a vehicle resembling a little train on bulldozer tracks – and begin to cry. Towering above me, out the window, is a turquoise cliff some fifty metres high. It’s the Barne Glacier. Finally it had sunk in – I’m in Antarctica.

There had of course been a few clues before this. The months of planning. The trip to Christchurch; being issued with a multitude of jackets. Not to mention the flight in a US C-17, a great, grey, aircraft, five hours south inside its pregnant belly, before emerging blinking into the bright white glare of the expansive sea ice.

I’m not really one for bucket lists. But of all the places in the world, the only one I’ve had a long-held longing to experience is Antarctica. After years of attempts, finally this year I came up with a hare-brained scheme just crazy enough to work. I would take world-famous Havelock North YouTube star Jamie Curry (of Jamie’s World) to the Ice. We would frolic with penguins, fight with balls of snow, and learn about the work of New Zealand scientists as it relates to climate change. See how I snuck that last one in there? That was the plan anyway, to raise awareness among Jamie’s millions of followers, who as a group (predominately young women aged 13+) aren’t well reached by traditional media.

Before we leave there are forms to be filled, tests to be taken, and a rigorous medical including polio vaccinations and a chest x-ray to ensure we’re not riddled with Consumption. Because apparently in 2016 we still fear the same illnesses Scott and Shackleton did a hundred years ago.

At the Antarctica New Zealand base in Christchurch, we meet Woody, an avuncular chap who smiles quietly at our excitement, issuing our gear like he has for thousands before us. Like a pastry commercial, we try layer upon layer, are given more pairs of gloves than I’ve lost in my entire life, and are told we’ll figure out a combination that worked for us. Dressing for -30C on a Spring day in Canterbury it seems hard to imagine we’ll ever need that much clothing at one time. All things going according to plan, by 2pm the following day we’ll find out.

2pm the next day, I’m staring at a pen of baby alpaca while Jamie politely agrees to requests for selfies with young girls. When you’re expecting Antarctica, the Canterbury A&P show is a surreal experience. Our flight is delayed due to bad visibility at the Ice. It’s the morning after the Presidential elections, and with John Kerry on our flight, I wonder if the real reason is an inconsolable Secretary of State refusing to come out of his hotel bathroom.

Twelve hours later, in the middle of the night, we are red-eyed ourselves, as we head to the airport for our pre-flight briefing and a 6am departure. On our plane is the Secretary and his entourage, as well as a couple of dozen US scientists and support staff. The C-17 is a utilitarian aircraft – we sit sideways down each side of the plane, pallets of cargo strapped in down the middle. There’s plenty of leg-room, but only half a dozen portholes in the cabin. After a few hours in the air we begin flying over the broken sea ice, and queue for a peek out the rear porthole, marveling at the fractured ocean below.

With no windows, the landing approach takes forever. We know at any time the pilot could decide it’s too hard, and return to Christchurch. He’s landing a 128 tonne plane on 2 metres of frozen water for heaven’s sake, turning back seems like the only sane thing to do. We sit there, measuring how blocked our ears are, listening for clues, until eventually we touch down. Wrapped in our warmest of jackets and thickest of boots and gloves we shuffle out, into Antarctica.

Despite being covered in and surrounded by frozen water, Antarctica is the driest place on the planet. Moisture doesn’t exist that far below zero – it freezes. This makes the cold somewhat surreal, like stepping into a meat freezer, and it is hard to register how significantly cold it is. Until you experience the wind (Antarctica is also the windiest place on the planet), then it’s hard to register anything but. All you want to do is cover every single square milimetre of your exposed skin, with gloves, with hats, with masks, with necks warmers and ear warmers, to get rid of that bitter chill.

Scott Base is a series of interconnected buildings, all painted a jaunty light green (Chelsea Cucumber, if you are looking for a test pot). By November, the snow has gone from much of the surrounding earth, ice and dirt combine, vehicles are coming and going. Jamie has only seen snow once in her life before – roadside, mixed with dirt – so this is all familiar.

Inside, and I’m quickly acquainted with the one thing that will taunt me throughout my stay in Antarctica – static electricity. Some combination of the extreme dryness, woolen thermals, and a building that apparently isn’t well earthed (it’s raised above ground) provides a decent kick – enough to short telephone lines and damage computers. To mitigate this, Scott Base residents are constantly hitting metal joinery and pillars as they walk down the halls. The harder you whack, the less you notice the shock. I seem to be more prone than some, and I feel like I’m in some perverse psychological experiment.

Antarctic Field Training is an important part of the trip. Antarctica is still fundamentally the same harsh place that killed those intrepid early explorers, and has claimed the lives of dozens of scientists since, the most recent in October, when renowned US climate scientist Gordon Hamilton drove a snowmobile into a crevasse. But going through the hours of briefings and theory, I feel like a kid in a classroom gazing out the window on a hot Summer’s day. Outside it’s Antarctica, and I’m looking at a whiteboard.

Soon it’s time for our first decent look around. The pressure ridges out front of Scott Base are where the sea ice has pushed up against the land, buckling like giant frozen waves splintering on the shore. Ice like this absorbs the red part of the light spectrum, meaning these alien-like structures have a beautiful blue hue.

The ridges change daily; one day’s safe flagged path can be hazardous the next, and our marked entrance point now resembles a turquoise slushy, with a thick layer of white Christmas cake icing curled over it. As far as inconveniences go, this one is a picturesque stunner. We cross the ridges by another path, onto the sea ice, where dotted around are calving seals and their young. It’s my first encounter with Antarctic wildlife, and the Weddell seals look like giant slugs. They move like giant slugs. But their babies are postcard material.

As day turns into what-would-be-night, if only the sun ever set, I’m strangely energised. I’ve always been a night owl, now the sun is giving me permission to indulge that inclination. The scientists I speak to say over-working can be a real issue – with only a limited time on the ice and the sun saying ‘keep going’, many do just that until overcome by exhaustion. Me, I’m just catching up on late night tales in the dining hall, as a group gathers around the only source of food outside of meal times – the toaster.

It’s easy to lose track of days, especially with no night, but Sunday is a day of rest for staff at the base. Day trips provide an opportunity for scientists and general staff alike to see areas they might otherwise not. It’s the classic kiwi Sunday drive, and today our tiki tour takes us to Cape Evans and Cape Royds, the sites of huts belonging to the great explorers Scott and Shackleton and an Adelie penguin colony.

The huts are incredible. Preserved, both by the cold dry climate as well as in a heritage sense, they’re a time capsule. Rations, equipment, clothing, newspapers, scientific instruments, all on display. Staged, certainly, but only with items found in the huts, and the smell still heaving from the strips of seal blubber piled in the corner tell you this is no artificial museum exhibit. In the pitch black storage room of Scott’s hut I find a stack of Emperor penguin carcasses, ready for dissection, and a dog skeleton, collar still around its neck. Eerie doesn’t begin to describe it, even with full sunlight outside, only a dull glow comes through the few small windows.

I’d been told there’d probably be no chance to see penguins this trip, which was a bit like being told there’s no Christmas this December. From my vantage point on top of a hill at Cape Royds, I’m looking down at 20,000 reasons why you shouldn’t believe everything you’re told, especially when it comes to seeing penguins. Closing my eyes, I can still tell there are 20,000 penguins nearby – an Adelie colony gives century-old seal blubber a good run in the whiffy stakes. There are no babies yet, but judging by some of the activity going on down below, they won’t be far off. Yes, I went to Antarctica and watched penguins doing it. If it’s okay for nature documentaries, then it’s okay for the rest of us.

DAMIAN IN ANTARCTICA from Damian Christie on Vimeo.

For lunch our guide decides to take us ‘somewhere scenic’. This seems like an odd thing to say in a place like Antarctica, a place littered with icebergs several kilometres long, glistening, trapped in the sea ice until late Summer. With Mt Erebus puffing smoke on one side, and islands dotted across the McMurdo Sound on the other. Where everywhere you look you feel like setting your phone to panorama mode. Perhaps he meant “somewhere that doesn’t smell like old seal blubber”.

We pile out of the Hägglund, and there it is, the sight that had brought tears to my eyes earlier that day – the Barne Glacier. I wander away from the rest of the group, in need of some alone time. Perhaps with the same thing in mind, a lone Adelie toboggans past on its belly. It stops, stands up and looks at me. I take a bite of my ham sandwich and look back. It poops on the snow and glides off. David Attenborough, eat your heart out.

Jamie and I were part of Antarctica New Zealand's Community Engagement Programme, so huge thanks to them! 

This piece was originally published in the Weekend Herald, mucho gracias for allowing republication here.

Webseries production was made possible with a grant from the Deep South National Science Challenge, most appreciated. 

Now we are Five

My son Harry turns five tomorrow.  It was five years and a bit ago when we were expecting, that I wrote this piece for Metro.  Because I'm feeling nostalgic, and I've always quite liked it, I'm publishing it again here. 

Happy birthday darling boy.

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There's a certain expectation on moving to the 'burbs, isn't there. You're not there for your health. The three bedroom house you've bought, was it really so you could have an office and a spare room? Surely not. No, there's an expectation that in precisely the same way Nature abhors a vacuum, so any room that is truly spare will soon become anything but. In short, we are having a baby. I think I've mentioned it before. (Mum, if you're reading this, congratulations, you're going to be a Nana. I really should call more often).

Having a child, and I profess no previous experience in the area, seems at this point to be an endless list of stuff you have no idea about. Change tables. 4D scans. Car Capsules. Anterior presentation. As the male in the relationship, I can only help with some of these things, and even then generally only in a financial sense, as all aesthetic and purchase decisions seem to have been made at some previous meeting I must've missed.

One thing no-one ever told me about fatherhood is that on a wintry Tuesday evening, I will find myself in a community centre in Morningside, with ten other couples, our shoes in a pile outside, each of us on all fours, clenching our nether-muscles and breathing supportively. No-one told me that.

Still no-one has told me what the women were told that night at ante-natal when the men were separated off for most of the evening. It was just like that time in third form where the girls got told about periods and the boys got to watch Top Gun because our teacher was too embarrassed to talk about sex. This time the men talked about rugby and when we came back the women looked a bit ill.

Everyone tells you there's no way you can prepare yourself for the immense upheaval, the sleepless nights, the loss of freedom, the massive permanent change in your life. Everyone with children that is. And, if that's true –there's no way you can prepare yourself– then why say it? Because people who already have children are smug and mean.

People tell you that every baby is different. Which doesn't explain why they are always getting mixed up at the hospital.

People don't tell you that you will suddenly have a thousand new fears. There will be the fear the baby isn't right, or at least within two standard deviations of the mean. The fear that medium-rare is not an appropriate way to eat chicken. The fear the baby won't make it all the way through, the fear it won't come out properly, or you won't be there when it does. And that those fears will be updated with new fears to cover each stage of its gestation and presumably the rest of its life.

Some people tell you your partner will become an unrecognisable mess of hormones, a seething pit of accusation, insecurity and hostility to which one must present a Zen-like façade. No-one ever said it's possible the opposite could occur. That she would be the Hindu Cow in the relationship, calming me down when once again I fretted about baby-swapping nurses. That she would excuse an unexpectedly late night out with the lads, or offer me a ride into town to watch the rugby with friends. Or that the extra time spent out and about together in the weekends, clear-headed and well-rested rather than tired and hungover could bring two people even closer.

There are some things we don't want to know. The sex of our baby, for example, even if the lady at St Luke's told me it was ridiculous not to find out.

There are some things only a sonographer and doctor and maybe a midwife know, and that's the way it's staying for the next couple of months, regardless of what you think, lady at St Luke's.

There are some things only two of us know: A girl's name and a boy's name.

And something only I know. The precise location of the permanent marker dot I'm going to draw before I let our baby out of my sight. You can never be too careful.

TV is Dead? Not yet, Chicken Little.

In the newspaper on the weekend, Herald columnist and editor of The Spinoff Duncan Greive asked whether TV is dead.  Actually the only question was found in the headline – “Is this the death of TV?” as the subheading answered “television has lost out to the Internet", then later, “television’s not coming back”.  (The same article on The Spinoff is titled “Good News: TV is dead”, which confirms what some have long suspected about many TV reviewers and their feelings towards the medium).

A week or so ago, I was at the release of the New Zealand on Air audience survey information.  It was certainly interesting reading, and as Greive notes, for the first time, television as a medium has been overtaken by the Internet.  Well, sort of.  On a weekly basis, TV still reaches more people than online video.  

On a daily basis it’s the opposite, at least for younger people.

But this argument is overly simplistic.  Television vs the Internet.  These are just video delivery mechanisms.  TVNZ, YouTube, Facebook, Stuff, The Spinoff – these are platforms, under which in some cases there are channels, on which there are programmes.  Bear with me if this seems obvious, I’m getting to a point.  Back to the NZOA data though, here’s how a channel by station by site comparison looks.

Things are changing, that much is also obvious.  Even in the decade or so I’ve worked in television, the numbers have dropped.  What used to be an average rating for a show would today be an unbelievable win.  Prime time shows on major channels are now content with getting the eyeballs of a single digit percentage of the total population – few shows get into double figures.  “Wins” are now counted by looking at Share: Did our show get a bigger share of whoever’s left watching television than the other lot did?

By his own admission on various occasions, Greive wants a slice of that sweet sweet funding pie, and why not? My disclaimer – I don’t have any TV shows in development, but I wouldn’t say no, and I have various web series in development, but none are currently NZOA funded – although again, I wouldn’t turn it down. 

The problem is, “television has lost out to the Internet” is a false dichotomy. As much as its streams are broken down into mechanisms, NZ On Air doesn’t fund ‘television’, it funds programmes. And while I’m sure everyone reading this loves niche programming, one of the legal requirements (s39(b) of the Broadcasting Act) is it must take into account the potential size of the audience. 

So instead of simply saying “let’s give all this money to the Internets”, what programmes would you fund, and where would they go to reach a large audience?

The most obvious places to start would be nzherald.co.nz or Stuff.  Huge daily reach.  And while inroads are being made – I’m looking forward to seeing Kirsty Johnston’s doco series filmed in a South Auckland school – people aren’t yet going to those sites to watch non-news video, at least not in any reasonable proportion to the ostensible audience size.  There has been the odd exception – I’m *told* Anika Moa’s interview series hit 100,000 on some episodes, which will be more than it’s likely to ever see on Māori Television (I hope I'm proven wrong, but even the award-winning Native Affairs peaked around 20,000 viewers), even with a name change.  

Ratings for most video views aren’t published like television, and it's commercially sensitive, so it’s hard to go on anything other than anecdote and conjecture a lot of the time.  But the figures I have been privy to are almost always underwhelming.  So while television is declining, there’s still a gulf between most mainstream TV audience numbers, and most New Zealand online-only video content.  One episode of One News last week got a 17 in the 5+ demographic.  That’s 730,000 viewers, if you believe the system.  Westside, on TV3, 200,000 for one episode, on television - i.e. not including On Demand.  13,000 people watched my old show Back Benches last week.   That’s niche TV right there, we always knew that.  But even to reach that niche figure you’d have to combine the audience from the last twenty videos from The Spinoff (assuming no overlap on any of those videos).  The places people go to read, and the places people go to watch, are often not the same thing.

So where are the big online video audiences?  VOD, perhaps.  It’s worth noting that some content made for broadcast television ends up there too (and sometimes on YouTube as well) - and maybe having a solid plan post-broadcast should be an important part of funding from now on.

There are some YouTube channels with a huge reach – but take away the make-up demonstrations and gamer content and the field narrows considerably – or fund them and watch the outcry.  Notably in announcing a new partnership with YouTube, NZ On Air has specifically excluded ‘demonstration’ or ‘lifestyle’ videos.

Things do need to continue to change, and having watched the development of NZ On Air’s digital funding, change has been the only constant.  There have been early mistakes, adjustments, and increases in the amount and types of funding along the way.  And most recently, that shots across the bow to television networks – if someone else can offer the eyeballs, then we'll give that television funding to someone else.

Television may die as a transmission method, but that doesn’t mean that the TV channels will die with it – and despite their shortcomings, the broadcasters are still adept at delivering a large audience to a finite number of shows.  Younger people might be tuning out, but quarter of a million of them  (aged 18-49) still tuned in to watch a porn flick about the Auckland property boom last night.  Just like that market, talk of a crash is still just wishful thinking.

[Comments are closed for this discussion - take it to Twitter, folks.] 

61

Breaking the Silence

Last night I was invited to moderate a panel for the launch of Shaun Hendy’s new book, ‘Silencing Science’.  Shaun is a scientist, a science communicator and Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by the University of Auckland.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been increasingly working in the field of science communication – with the Science Media Centre I have been travelling around a wide range of science conferences, running an express media training programme.  It’s what I call ‘white hat’ media training, in that the aim isn’t teaching people to avoid questions in favour of talking points, but simply to help the scientists explain their science better to the general public.  And in the express programme, each participant gets just twenty minutes from start to finish, and ends up with a 90 second video, which are collected here.  

It’s been a wonderful time, from Antarctic science to entomology, nanotechnology to geography… so many great stories, fascinating research about things I’d never heard of.  It’s made me want to devote more of my time to getting the word out about scientific research in New Zealand, and science in general.  It’s also alerted me to some of the issues science communicators face, which is the basis of Shaun’s book.

The forces which lead to science being ‘silenced’ are both external and internal to the science community. From Government pressure on scientists not to scare the public by highlighting aftershock risks in Christchurch; attacks on public health scientists such as those outlined in the Dirty Politics leaks; commercial confidentiality; to pressure from the scientists themselves as well as their peers, not to rock the boat, speak outside of their immediate expertise, or risk criticism.

It’s nothing new.  The book 'Merchants of Doubt' (the author of which I interviewed on Public Address Radio a while ago now) shows the same playbook has been running from the tobacco interests of the 1950s through to the softdrink and oil companies of today. And I’m sure if freshwater ecologist Mike Joy had challenged the Muldoon Government he would’ve come off with much the same anti-intellectual response he received from John Key, comparing an academic’s opinion to that of a lawyer. Which possibly means even less the more we know about Mr Key’s lawyer.

What is new is the increase in reliance on commercial funding; the pressures Universities place on academics to publish; and the changing nature of the media, where scientists are most likely to find a platform.  Just this week we have heard about the axe hanging over RNZ’s “Our Changing World”, which has prompted the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman to lobby for the show’s continuation. 

Specialist science reporters are on the critically endangered list, meaning often the person entrusted with today’s climate change news is the same writing yesterday’s Bachelor article.  As a reporter, I’ve personally been handed a science story in the morning on a topic I know nothing about, with the expectation there will be a two minute piece on air at 6pm.  A piece which one hopes hasn’t made too many factual errors, or been unwittingly captured by the wrong interests, or tried to create balance in an issue where an overwhelming majority has found consensus (climate change, for instance).  I’ve always taken great pains to try and get things right – and I don’t think any reporters set out to be wrong – but you don’t know what you don’t know, and in science, that’s a lot.

'Silencing Science' considers what role our scientists should have in society.  Should they simply present the public and the politicians with the pros and cons, the available evidence, then step away from the decision making process? Or should they advocate a view, like Mike Joy, and use what they know together with a value judgement, and push back against those who stand in the way of good decision making?

I’ve often said, half-jokingly, that given some of the people we have run the country, I’d be quite happy being ruled by a benevolent wise council of elders. And over the past couple of years on this science communication journey, I’ve met a number of people who I think would qualify. 

[EDIT: A number of people have been talking about John Oliver's take on this issue from just last week, so here it is. Thanks Bob for the link]