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Leading overseas academics join Science Communication Centre

Friday 11 July 2014

Leading overseas academics join Otago’s Science Communication Centre

The University of Otago has appointed an internationally leading science communicator as its new professor in the discipline.

Professor Nancy Longnecker joins Otago’s Centre for Science Communication at the start of next month. She was previously a Professor of Science Communication at the University of Western Australia (UWA) where she developed and led UWA’s science communication teaching and research programme between 2002 and 2014.

Two other international appointments have also recently been made to the Otago Centre; Jesse Bering, who came from the US this month to take up an Associate Professor role, and Dr Fabien Medvecky, formerly of the University of Queensland, joined as a Lecturer this month.

Associate Professor Bering was Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast from 2006 until 2011, after which he returned to the United States to become a fulltime author and science writer. He has written three books and contributed to a number of outlets including Scientific American, Slate, New York Magazine, The Guardian and The New Republic.

Dr Medvecky gained his PhD from the University of Sydney in 2012 and joined the University of Queensland’s Science Communication Programme as a Research Fellow. He has published in the areas of science communication ethics, ethics and technology, and economics and justice.

University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne says she is delighted that Professor Longnecker and two further colleagues are joining the Centre for Science Communication.

“This leading Centre provides the largest science communication programme in the world and it’s exciting to see it attract new academic staff of such high calibre. This bodes well for Otago to continue to lead the way internationally in a discipline crucial to ensuring public understanding of, and support for, scientific endeavour,” says Professor Hayne.

Professor Longnecker’s research in science communication looks at factors that affect people’s attitudes towards science-related issues. She has authored 50 books, book chapters, research papers and websites and obtained funding of more than $2.5 million for 22 research, education and communication grants and supervised 26 student research projects and 16 staff.

“It is fascinating to find out what people really think about science and what they want. Our studies have involved a whole spectrum of groups – people who are or want to become scientists, people who volunteer to work with scientists, people who want to know more about science and people who have no apparent interest in science at all. Ultimately, the aim is to improve relevance and usability of scientific information as well as effectiveness of science outreach and engagement,” she says.

One of the areas that Professor Longnecker will focus on at Otago is citizen science. She and her research students have examined motivations and barriers to participation in citizen science programmes and whether participation changes attitudes, understanding and behaviour.

As she enjoys working collaboratively, she is looking forward to exploring research opportunities at Otago to work with museums and ecotourism operators to examine the impact of participation in activities.

Before her transition to science communication, Professor Longnecker gained her Bachelor’s in Biology at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and her Master’s and PhD in crop science and plant nutrition at Cornell University. She then moved to Australia and conducted agricultural research at the Waite Institute in Adelaide and at UWA.

“The early part of my career in agricultural research provided perspective that has been important to my development as a professional science communicator and as a science communication academic,” she says.

“Otago’s Centre for Science Communication is world renowned for its storytelling. I have studied the role of stories in learning science. With the combined expertise that is available, we’ll aim to improve our understanding of why stories have such impact.”

Professor Longnecker and the Centre for Science Communication’s Director, Professor Lloyd Davis, recently attended the 13th International Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference in Brazil.

“The buzz at the conference was palpable. The New Zealand bid to host the 2018 conference was compelling and beat out the Canadian and Japanese bids. I’m excited to be joining the Centre and contributing to science communication at Otago – a world leader in this field.”

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