Cosmos Digital Assistant News Editor Ian Mannix talked to Lauren Fuge, the winner of the Bragg Prize for Australian Science Writing.
How long have you been a science journalist and what was your background?
I have a slightly eclectic background – I’ve been writing fiction ever since I can remember but I’ve also always been intensely interested in the natural world. At uni I studied both creative writing and physics, and began to meld these two passions while writing for uni magazines and for popular science blogs. I worked for a couple years as a science communicator and outreach officer, then learned the ropes of science journalism during an internship at Cosmos in 2017.
I continued freelancing for a few years while also travelling and working as a kayak guide, before coming to Cosmos fulltime in 2020. I’m now continuing my journey in science writing by undertaking a PhD in creative writing, looking at how we can use literary techniques to better tell stories about the climate crisis.
What did you try to achieve with the “time travel” article?
In my deep time essay, I wanted to explore how science is increasingly enabling us to gaze back through deep time and better comprehend our unfathomably ancient planet. In particular, I wanted to argue that, coming to grips with these vast timescales, is perhaps the only way we can contextualise the massive influences we are having on the Earth’s systems today, and see with clearer eyes how changes will unfold for millennia to come.
I hope the essay gives readers a new understanding of the physical and temporal scale of these transformations, but more importantly I hope it invites them to think more deeply about how our species must urgently change our relationship with the Earth.
How do you define science writing?
To me, science writing is a way to not only convey the wonder and excitement of scientific discovery to non-scientists, but also to use science to explore larger ideas that influence our lives. Through telling stories about science, science writing can perhaps even change the way people see the world.
Where does science writing sit in the conversation about improving our lives?
We’re now in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty, when we must build a more just and liveable world, while we’re in the grips of complex societal and environmental problems. Science itself is an important tool in doing this, as it plays a huge role in all kinds of policies and personal decisions that shape our lives, from transforming our energy systems to ensuring food security to responding to public health crises.
Now more than ever, science must be integrated into policymaking.
Science writing has a part in this by communicating the facts and the research underpinning them, but also – perhaps more importantly – by encouraging critical thinking skills, informed debate, and conversation. As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, people don’t respond well to being told what to do or what to think, so science writing can’t just be about throwing facts at people and hoping they stick. It has to involve engagement and open up conversations.
It’s particularly important to think about whose lives we’re trying to improve through science, how we’re trying to do this, and who gets to make the decisions. We can’t talk about improving lives without thinking about inequality. We have to acknowledge that Western science has colonial roots and has been used over the centuries to do great harm, both directly and indirectly. For example, the rapid technological advancement of the Global North over the last few centuries – driven in part by scientific innovation and discovery – has had and continues to have devastating effects on the Global South, who are bearing the brunt of climate change.
We have to think hard about the ways in which we use the same framework of science to improve lives, both of those who have historically benefited from it and those who have been harmed by it. These are complex and multi-faceted challenges, but I think we have to begin by having conversations and inviting engagement, and science communication has a crucial role in this.
Can we, for example, use more community-based decision-making processes to decide what an improved life would look like and how science can be used to achieve it? I’ve been following the recent citizen assembly set up in France, where a large number of randomly selected members of the public – representing a cross-section of society – were asked to develop policies in response to climate change.
This involved a great deal of science communication to get everyone up to speed on the latest climate science and its implications, but importantly it wasn’t a one-way street: it was a conversation, creating space, both for communicating the science and for discussion about how it would affect people’s lives and what policies they would like to see implemented in response.
It gave people agency as well as knowledge, allowing them to engage with science as a tool to contextualise the situation and provide possible courses of actions. Through informed and critical debate, they then decided what kind of society they wanted to build. The citizen assembly resulted in climate policies far more radical than anything the French government had so far come up with, and I think a big reason for this is because the members were engaging meaningfully and realistically with the science.
I believe that science writing can also help open up these kinds of conversations by making science more transparent and accessible, inviting readers to think about the processes of research, its context, its flaws, its usefulness, its application to their lives, and its role in the bigger picture.
Given the growing strength of the anti-science movement in the past two decades, which has resulted in people questioning basic science and facts, do you think scientists let writing down, or have writers let science down?
I don’t think there’s much point attributing blame to either scientists or writers for this (and in any case I don’t think I’m the person to make the judgement call). It will be more productive to focus now on bringing science back into popular culture and public consciousness by working on improving the stories we tell about science.
What’s to be done to ensure the world can feel confident in science?
I think that trust in science has to be earned. Science isn’t the ultimate answer to everything, and we shouldn’t put it on a pedestal and assume that people should accept it above all other ways of knowing. Science is just a way of understanding the world, and it isn’t without flaws. I think it’s important for people to be able to question science in a rational and informed way, and so we need to be teaching critical thinking skills and trying to encourage more curiosity and questioning. Science communication can do some of this work, and it needs to focus on creating space for conversations and meaningful engagement.
Science and science writing also have to pay attention to the communities that have historically been marginalised by science, as well as elevate other ways of knowing – such as Indigenous and traditional knowledge – that have been ignored or belittled.