How does a 190-year-old research icon remain relevant? Just ask the Australian Museum. Director and CEO (and UTS Luminary) Kim McKay AO reveals how, as the museum celebrates its 190th anniversary, it continues to engage with and involve the public, and why community participation is so important.
Scientific research institutes tend to be, by nature, inward-looking and often solitary in the work they do. My perspective has always been from the public engagement side – how can we be ‘social’ scientists working to engage the community?
In my role at the Australian Museum I bring a very generalist and outward-looking perspective; one based on how you can effectively communicate science to the public and involve them.
It’s perhaps no surprise; my background is in communication – I graduated from UTS in 1981 with a Bachelor of Arts (Communication), co-founded Clean Up Australia in the 1990s and, since 2014, have been part of the UTS Vice-Chancellor’s Industry Advisory Board (among other things).
In my experience, the way you change public opinion or influence people’s belief systems, and change behaviour, is through participation. Once you have actually participated in something you have a whole different perspective and understanding.
At the Australian Museum, and with IBM’s assistance, we’ve been developing a citizen science initiative related to frogs. The initiative will launch later this year as part of our 190th anniversary celebrations. Through it, we hope to see 500,000 citizen scientists, not just 10 to 20 scientific experts, working in the field to gather data about the 250-plus frog species living in Australia. It’s an incredibly exciting project!
At the more extreme end, the museum recently enlisted experienced climbers to help our scientists scale Ball’s Pyramid – the incredible, spikey volcanic spire sitting out in the middle of the Tasman Sea 20 kilometres from Lord Howe Island. It’s also the only known home of the rare Lord Howe Island Phasmid, once thought to be extinct.
The live specimens the scientists and climbers collected have since been sent to Melbourne Zoo to join a breeding program. The plan is to reintroduce them to their native home sometime in the near future. It’s exactly the sort of thing I want to do more of at the Australian Museum.
“When people can see the real-world impact of research, and how their participation can contribute to the bigger picture, that’s when they become engaged”
We have more than 18 million specimens and artefacts in our collection that can be used to show the impacts of issues like climate change and the effects on biodiversity. And our Australian Museum Research Institute works with the collections to conduct relevant and practical science that helps inform decision-making for governments and non-government organisations, and that educates the community.
However, explaining to the public why research is important in a museum context has its challenges. We are not advocates in the political sense. Our role is to present the facts to the public and to help them interpret science through our exhibitions and other outreach.
Recent research in the United States ranks museums as the number one most trusted science institution, so we have an important role to play in communicating contemporary issues.
And technology can help us. Not only have those wonderful little smart devices we all hold in the palm of our hands enabled a new way for the public to engage, but so too has data science. I’m very passionate about exploring how we can make use of data through our citizen science initiatives.
UTS has been leading the study of data science with their research and the UTS Data Arena. It’s so impressive! Once you start visualising data, what it can tell you is mind-blowing. It’s therefore fitting that UTS is sponsoring the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Excellence in Data Science. The award, which was established this year, highlights the pioneering reputation of UTS in both academia and scientific fields.
It’s so exciting to be part of a university that has such a bold vision and is really passionate about making a difference in the world. When people can see the real-world impact of research, and how their participation can contribute to the bigger picture, that’s when they become engaged. And those are stories we can all share.