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Will J Grant works for the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, recently affiliated with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University New York.
Rod Lamberts works for the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, recently affiliated with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University New York. Alan is in Australia this month to help spread his message about the importance of communicating science and he spoke with Will Grant and Rod Lamberts from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the ANU. Alan: I think I’ve been interested in science, like all humans I think, since I was a little boy. Oddly enough, he could make a living as an entertainer rather than as something more stable. He went into show business and didn’t become a doctor, as he had always wanted, so he wanted me to be a doctor.
Alan: I was afraid it would lead to a life of blood-spattered clothes, talking to sick people. I partly purposely did poorly in the course, and partly it was my own natural incompetence that allowed me to get a final grade of, on the final exam, I got a score of ten out of a hundred. Will: You’re meant to inspire people to want to become a scientist or move into this career but you’re saying it’s only after college that you developed that interest, that’s a failing from our profession really.
Alan: One of the things that I’m lucky that I have is curiosity plus a healthy dose of ignorance.
Alan: It’s really wonderful if it’s combined with curiosity it’s perfect because then you have this empty hole to fill and your curiosity keeps urging you to pile it in.
I just love to find out what new things scientists are discovering and, when I find out, I love to tell my friends what I just found out: “Can you believe this microbe they’ve found?” But I’m so enthused about it, their eyes don’t glaze over so I’m happy about that. Rod: When did you make the transition to say “I’m involved in science communication” rather than just science in general? Alan: That grew out of the television show I did on public television in the United States for 11 years, a show called Scientific American Frontiers. When the show was over, I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if scientists could do that naturally without somebody next to them like me, drawing it out of them?
Whenever I would be at a university where they taught science, I would try to talk the president of the university into the idea of teaching communication while they taught science, because if you can graduate experienced scientists, capable scientists who are also capable communicators, then the public has a chance to learn something from them. Rod: Did you experience any particular kinds of resistance to try to sell this message that scientists should communicate more? Alan: Ten or 15 years ago, when I began trying to sell this idea, I did get plenty of resistance. Now we will be sharing it with you and we hope to get your innovations and ideas, and help to share them because we now have the network that’s growing.
We have 17 universities and medical schools and institutions in America that are hooked into this network. That really appeals to me because the people who really want to see communication thrive, the communication of science, they get so enthused about it.
Alan Alda at the official opening of new Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) facilities at ANU in Canberra, March 8, 2016. Will: Do you think you can go too far, where the scientist gets so enthusiastic that people start to run away or turn away or indeed trivialise the communication enterprise? Alan: And to be vivid, to me, is to show us how it affects our daily lives, what the stories are that led to these discoveries. So he wrote about it, he and his graduate student who discovered it together, wrote about it in a science journal and it got a little attention. He then started, when he talked about it to the press, he led with that story and it turns out news of his work started to spread in newspapers and blog posts all across the United States and the United Kingdom.
Rod: I think that it’s kind of frightening, the idea that they have to somehow be able to tell a story. Will: I’ve always thought, everyone is used to stories in the sense that everyone hears stories all the time. I think when we see scientists as human beings, the door is open for us a little bit, we can go into their lives. Brian Greene and Alan Alda discuss Einstein at the 2014 World Science Festival in New York. Will: In terms of your Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook, what’s your dream scenario in five years or ten years' time?

Alan: What I hope is that we have inspired every university in the world that teaches science to also teach the communication of science. You can’t do science without talking about it to other scientists and if you want funding you’ve got to talk about it to the public, and to the policy makers.
That wouldn’t have occurred to anybody, it certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me, until scientists who took our training started to tell us that they actually were doing better science. They were thinking about their science better the more they learned to focus their description of their work.
Will: That’s a real contribution to the world of science, to have people doing science better. Alan: And the other way they do it better, of course, is that if two scientists meet to collaborate but don’t speak the same language, it’s only if they are good at communicating that they can actually collaborate in the same language. The full conversation between Alan Alda, Will Grant and Rod Lamberts is available here, including more on science communication, and his thoughts as a actor on the difference between playing the good guy or the bad guy in any drama. Alan Alda will be speaking at the National Press Club on Thursday, March 10, 2016, and then heading to the World Science Festival in Brisbane (March 9 to 13, 2016).
Sometimes science needs to look at the bigger picture in order to best influence public policy. Australia’s chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb, at the National Press Club in Canberra, in 2013. Dianjing Li does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
A new Chinese rule banning all foreign media from publishing online will come into effect on March 10, affecting everything from the press, radio and television to music and computer games.
Those Chinese media companies already acting as mouthpieces for the communist party now have legal backing that enforces their monopoly over online content.
The new directive, jointly issued by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, prohibits any foreign media companies from engaging in online publishing in China. This is not new: foreign media outfits, such as the Financial Times, New York Times and Reuters who have invested in Chinese-language services, are frequently blocked in China. The BBC has also experienced difficulties, despite establishing different websites aimed at different demographics. The new law will, however, allow foreign media institutions to cooperate on individual projects with firms that are wholly-owned and based in mainland China, as long as they obtain prior permission from authorities.
There is little new about the thrust of the law and it is the product of increasing Chinese observation and regulation of the internet that began in 2002. So the new rule will have little impact on the way foreign media currently operate, although it’s still unclear how it will impact other foreign tech companies producing online content. The Chinese government has paid very close attention to how the internet and social media are changing society. By stopping foreign media from publishing online in China, the new law is aimed at encouraging native Chinese media institutions to develop online publishing services. Native Chinese internet companies and media institutions have already benefited from the government’s censorship and regional protectionism.
Baidu – also one of the Chinese companies in the new Internet Plus alliance – experienced a 33% increase in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. According to a US court, ‘free speech’ means internet search engines can choose what they allow to show up and filter out. We use a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives licence, so you can republish our articles for free, online or in print.
But he’s also passionate about science and is the visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University in New York. I think we all start out as little scientists trying to figure out how things work and how we fit in and what we can do with the things around us.
My father wanted me to be a doctor because he had always wanted to be a doctor but then went into show business at an early age because of the Depression. And when I was in college he pled with me to take a pre-med course in chemistry to see if I would be interested in following through and becoming a doctor, and I really didn’t want to do well in the course.
They’ve got a bunch of microbes that expand or contract, depending on whether or not they’re wet.
Here he is with physicist Steven Goldfarb (right) during a visit to the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland in 2012.
I just wanted to understand them and there was something about that that was so personal, that it brought out the personality of the scientists and they were real people, they weren’t lecturing.

I don’t know how many universities I talked to, it was just a handful, but I didn’t get any enthusiasm until I talked to Stony Brook University in New York, and they started the Center for Communicating Science there, which I’m so thrilled is now collaborating with the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Obviously there’s nothing in it for us, we’re just doing this out of the kindness of our hearts (laughs). We’re going to be sharing all the things, all the creative ideas that come out of each of these places. It’s hard to get them to stop working night and day on it because you see the results blooming and it makes me very happy. It was only one atom thick and it was referred to as two-dimensional glass because the top layer of it is the same atom as the bottom layer of it, so it’s, in a way, two dimensional. If you’re not accustomed to telling stories, sometimes you can reduce everything to the final, the bottom line thing, there’s not much of a story in that. We watch TV, we read books, those kinds of things, so we’ve got an implicit understanding of it but it’s a very different to tell the story.
Now, rather than people needing to be sold on the idea that communication is important in science, now they’re knocking on our door.
Something that they probably don’t think to ask is why it seems to be good for the public to hear about science through good communication. Because once they’d got used to distilling the message about their work, they looked at their work in a more focused way.
The edict provides legislative backing for the government’s existing control of the internet and will empower the Chinese cyber-police to further assert their “cyber sovereignty” inside the country’s online Great Wall. The nature documentary series Wild China, for example, co-produced in 2008 by the BBC Natural History Unit and China Central Television, was approved by the government. A 2005 regulation named Opinions on Canvassing Foreign Investment into the Cultural Sector banned foreign investors from establishing and managing news agencies and providing online publishing services in China. And of course, online content by foreign media will still be available to Chinese netizens who use a virtual private network or other tricks to get around the censors. It is a signal that China is hardening its line in the ongoing battle between communist party doctrine, the cyber police, commercialisation, and the consumption habits of sophisticated Chinese netizens. It relies on more than two million cyber police to maintain internal security through censorship.
This fits with a new economic “Internet Plus” action plan launched in 2015 by Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
For example, the search engine Baidu was one of the biggest beneficiaries after China expelled Google in 2010.
Yet, there are signs that Chinese citizens are wary of increased control of their online habits, and some are boycotting Baidu for its collaborations with censors and unethical commercialisation. And by fixing the government’s quest for cyber-sovereignty further into law, the Chinese public’s position as consumers has been weakened yet again. The presentation was taken at a workshop on managing communication in the context of an IT company.
Since then, most of the things I read have to do with science because I find it so fascinating. And if you have a couple of pounds of them, they’re so strong when you wet them they’d lift the back end of a car.
We kind of use the Stony Brook University setting as our laboratory and we then spread what we’ve learned around the States.
We have more requests to affiliate with us than we can handle at the moment, we’ll have to reorganise in the next couple of months.
And it actually helped them think more clearly about the things that they were doing in the lab. These kind of collaborations have been well received by Chinese audiences, and the BBC now is co-operating with the Chinese film company SGM Pictures to produce the documentary Earth: One Amazing Day, for release in cinemas in 2017.
This is aimed at driving economic growth through the integration of internet technologies, manufacturing and business. Brian Greene, the physicist, is doing a show that tells stories of Einstein and I’ve written a theatre piece that covers Einstein’s letters to his two wives.

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