Q&A with ACSA’s Patron…Dr Geoff Garrett AO

One of our Member’s recently mentioned that they’d like to know a little bit more about ACSA’s Patron Dr Geoff Garrett AO, and the work he is doing behind the scenes for ACSA. What follows here is an amusing, honest and engaging account of the years since citizen science first crossed Geoff’s radar (which was not as early as you might have expected for a Chief Scientist!) But perhaps that is just testament to the times that were. Not anymore! Read on to find out a little more about our Patron.

Geoff and his avid birdwatcher wife, Janet

ACSA: How did you get interested in Citizen Science? And why?

Geoff Garrett: To my considerable embarrassment, during my time as CSIRO’s Chief Executive and, thereafter, as Queensland’s Chief Scientist, citizen science hadn’t really crossed my radar.

I was probably not alone in this as, for example, up to that point I can’t recall any discussion on the topic with the other States’ Chief Scientists, who regularly got together under the leadership of Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel.

But then, late in 2016, towards the end of our time in Queensland, I got an interesting (and some might say pushy!) letter from a devoted citizen science evangelist, Libby Hepburn.

She wanted to meet. I didn’t at that stage know her from the proverbial bar of soap so (as one does, or did) I politely ducked her kind invitation saying I was finishing off, then going to be overseas for the first half of 2017 but “please feel free to contact me again when I’m back in Canberra”…. thinking (of course) that it would go away. It didn’t.

Early in July 2017 Libby got in touch again, too passionate on the topic for me to put off meeting with her. And at our first meeting the scales started falling from my eyes, around the scope, potential and importance of better involving – meaningfully – the broader community, young and old, in science, and scientific research.

My emerging enthusiasm was further ignited a couple of weeks later when Libby suggested I get in touch with Canberra-based Andrew Robinson of Questagame.

I had mentioned to Andrew our visiting UK brother-in-law, Ron Johns (for a decade Britain’s top ‘twitcher’), so birding was a prime topic. We had an awesome meeting and compelling roadshow through Questagame‘s objectives and activities.

Also around that time I had just joined the Board of the brilliant National Youth Science Forum, so enthusing young kids around science was also pretty much top of mind.

I was hooked.

And the rest just unfolded. ACSA was emerging as the organising vehicle here in Australia and I had some intriguing conversations with Erin Roger as Chairperson, especially around science leadership, politics, engaging key decision-makers and funding – stuff I’ve spent, happily(?), quite a lot of my career getting to grips with. I offered to help.

ACSA: So how, as Patron, have you been involved?

GG: First off, I was – and am – honoured, and indeed flattered, to have been invited by Erin and the Committee to take up this role.

Now – relationships are key…..

I still had some useful connections into, for example, the Office of the Commonwealth Chief Scientist, and we persuaded Alan to do a keynote address – which was great! – at ACSA’s February 2018 conference; into Department decision-makers around extending core funding; to my ‘old’ colleagues back in Queensland and the then Acting Chief Scientist, Dr Christine Williams and my former boss, the excellent Minister Leeanne Enoch. These ladies both got as excited as I was and devoted time and resources to getting Citizen Science well and truly launched in Queensland through a formal Strategy piece and $500+k initial grant funding for Citizen Science projects. And so on.

And all a great pleasure to be able to assist.

ACSA: So why do you think Citizen Science is important?

Geoff sharing a science story with one of his granddaughters, Evie

GG: For any ACSA Newsletter reader looking for a motivational briefing on this question – for pals, colleagues, family or bosses – if you haven’t yet come across it, this link might be helpful…

https://govoluntouring.com/what-is-citizen-science-why-is-it-important/

From my side, in particular, there are a couple of key drivers here…

Firstly, on capacity…. involving enthusiastic lay people in research studies can drastically expand for researchers the volume and spread of valuable data collection. My previously-noted brother-in-law and engaging the birdwatching community at large is a great example.

Secondly, debunking elitism and mystique…. which sometimes, unfortunately, scientists like to hide behind: “this is all very hard, and complicated, and you need to be very clever (like me) with decades of training behind you (also like me), to be able to contribute.”

Citizen science projects open up how science actually works, and exposing scientists to the broader community as real people, nice people, helpful people doing important work for the benefit of all of us, is very beneficial.

Thirdly, promoting collaboration… which we are still struggling with here in Australia, sadly.

I’m fond of quoting that “all business is people business” and that “communication excellence is the baton of leadership” (and that’s maybe twice as much listening as talking – the two ears/one mouth story!) Key skills essential for the broader ‘professional’ scientific corps, to hone and improve. Learning through doing.

ACSA: And finally, what would be your vision for citizen science in Australia in say 3 to 5 years time?

GG:

  1.  Track record. A burgeoning engagement of citizens in science projects – and results – of importance to communities, meaningfully influencing policy at local, State and Federal level.
  2. No Heads of Science Agencies or Chief Scientists (mea culpa again!) – nor indeed any Ministers of Science – that don’t have citizen science on their priority action list. With funding.
  3. The secret of success. Word-of-mouth spreading like wildfire with both professional scientists and community groups.

 

Thank you Geoff!

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