Keeping The Conversation going

By Victoria Metcalf 14/05/2015

Conversation logo

Over the ditch there’s a little madness going on. The need for humans to converse with each other, to engage in conversation, is in a fashion under threat. That’s because the latest government budget announced includes a halt to the funding for the Australian media website initiative The Conversation.

Launched just four years ago in 2011, The Conversation has been a fresh approach to media. In essence, this independent entity cut the middle man out and has provided academics and researchers a means by which to take their opinions and research straight to the public, albeit via the assistance of professional editors to ensure journalistic rigor.

It was a stance to bring integrity to journalism and to ensure the public had access to independent and high quality writing. After all this is a world of misinformation and sensationalist spin, especially in science reporting.  The Conversation is a great way in which to present and receive accurate science information.

An admirable aim has been to increase literacy (across all subjects, including science) among communities. And there’s no commercial pop-ups to ensure true independence. Conversation by readers in the form of comments is actively encouraged and I am a member of the Community Council for The Conversation which exists to ensure comments are appropriate through moderation.

The founding partners in The Conversation are Australian universities and all articles published are open access. To date, The Conversation features articles from 22,000 experts at 1195 universities and research institutes from around the world. Not bad for a bunch of academics- perhaps we are less of the stereotypical closeted types after all.

Authors are in general only allowed to write on a subject on which they have proven expertise, although my one criticism of the site is how does one define expertise sometimes as an academic? Can one as a geneticist write about women in science, or science communication, or other matters to do with research and academia? Judgment on expertise can depend, from personal experience, on the editor encountered. This wrangle about expertise is a broader issue beyond this site for academics and researchers and one increasingly under discussion. Who can truly speak out on matters and who should decide what a scientist’s expertise boundaries really are? The individual or some authority?

That The Conversation model is a success is demonstrated by its expansion elsewhere in the world. There is now The Conversation UK, US and the very recently launched Africa version. In the UK, The Conversation relies on universities, research institutes, SAGE and Wellcome Trust, as well as other foundations for funding and in the US funding comes from foundations. In Africa, funding comes from major foundations and corporates, as well as the National Research Foundation.

The government chopping block of The Conversation Australia shouldn’t mean the final guillotine and The Conversation itself remain optimistic in reacting to this financial doomsday news. It’s a 25% reduction in their budget but money also comes from universities, research institutes, corporates and foundations.

Undoubtedly, though it’s troubling times. Minister Pyne explained his decision by saying The Conversation does “a great job” but taxpayers should not be paying for it. ​Maybe that’s the case- true independence away from government waxes and wanes of whimsy is a powerful thing.

We don’t have anything like this site in New Zealand and given the increasing syndication of our stories here, allegations of Dirty Politics in media and a lack of specialist science reporters, it would be nice to see it also expanded here to provide our researchers another forum for public access and vice versa. New Zealand researchers though, can still contribute to the site. I’ve written three science-related articles for The Conversation and found it gave a profile to my writing that I wouldn’t typically get as the readership tends to be high.

The Conversation cuts come at the same time as climate change contrarian Bjorn Lomborg has been ejected from a potential housing of his consensus centre in the University of Western Australia, but with the same Minister Pyne keen to axe The Conversation, vowing to find him a new home. Troubling, join-the-dots times indeed.