Longer articles / features

Articles I’ve written over 400 words in length.

Writing about science? Question everything (for publication in the CareerOne section of The Weekend Australian, articles gives the perspective of a science writer)

Climate change. Nanotechnology. Genetically modified. The solar system. How do we know what any of these terms mean? Most will be ideas that we understand because of the work of a science communicator.

And as new technology and scientific discoveries inch their way from research labs into our daily lives, there is a growing need for experts to talk about what each idea means for society.

What many people don’t know is that, mostly, science communicators do this job, not the scientists. Science communicators are trained to engage and enthuse a wide range of audiences about science, medicine, and technology. For most of them, writing is the major focus of their position.

CareerOne spoke to Mary O’Callaghan, a science communicator at econnect who is using her writing and editing skills to ‘translate’ scientific research. Established in 1995, econnect is a consultancy committed to creative and interesting writing about science.

“I was never an academic writer,” Mary says. “Even at uni I struggled with the style of writing that’s required in literature reviews. It didn’t come naturally to me at all, which is a good thing for me now.”

Audiences for science communication

In any one day, the writers at econnect could be writing for the general public, government policymakers, a farming magazine, museum exhibit text, or research scientists. Such a range of audiences requires careful tailoring of the content and style of each document.

“The first trick is finding out who the audience is, because quite often that’s not as clear as it could be,” Mary says. This is because, like any other writing project, knowing the intended audience is the most crucial part of a science communication plan.

Sometimes the communicators write for audiences with no scientific education. Mary says thinking about the audience helps her write clearly and simply. “The constant question for me, whether I’m writing or editing, is ‘what does that mean?’ ” she says. Often, it involves removing technical jargon or bureaucratic language from the text she was given.

Removing unclear language and jargon from these documents not only makes them more pleasant to read; some government documents that econnect prepares end up as critical policymaking resources.

A recent project was written for Australian Federal Government teams making water decisions for northern Australia. The government teams “are on a taskforce, and their job is to read stuff and make recommendations to the federal minister,” Mary says. “And we need to make sure we pull out what’s helpful for them in making those decisions.”

Complex communication objectives require an unwavering focus on clear, understandable writing. Despite working from research and academic text, Mary says she is “much more into active voice; short, clear sentences. I’m never writing in an academic style at work.”

econnect’s range of projects involve engaging the public with science, working with researchers, training scientists and other professionals about communication strategies, science and nature museum texts, and news and feature articles.

Writing strategies in a science environment

Given the rapidly increasing amount of writing and editing the staff do every day, Mary is always on the look-out for time-saving ideas. She is currently creating a ‘vocabulary guide’ for explaining common natural resource terms, and gives me a tough example: “Do you know what a riparian zone is?” Sadly, I don’t. “A riverbank!” she exclaims with a smile. I can see that this is exactly what she means when she says she loves translating.

These ‘vocabulary guides’ would be specific to organisations like style sheets (guides for conventions on grammar and style) are. “I create a new style sheet for any editing job we do. In theory you should have a different one for each publication,” Mary says. She uses the Commonwealth Style Guide when there is not one specified.

Mary mentions some tips she learnt, and still uses, from the Writing, Editing, and Publishing program at UQ. “Working with accuracy against the clock with Ros Petelin’s editing tests was great experience, because that’s the normal situation here. And her list of editor’s characteristics was enlightening—I can see now how right she was.”

Many corporate collaborative writers could empathise with Mary’s feelings on giving feedback to other writers. “Learning how to be diplomatic in offering feedback on people’s writing was also good, but is something that I am still working on! Most people are quite sensitive or defensive about their writing; I try to always give them some positive feedback up front,” she says.

Luckily, Mary gets to practice those feedback and non-scientific writing skills at econnect’s weekly ‘creative breakout’ session. Over lunch, staff complete a creative writing exercise then read their pieces aloud. “It gets us thinking beyond the everyday science that we work with, and is usually hysterically funny,” she says.

You are not the expert: Mary’s tips for science communicators

Mary appreciates working with scientists who want to communicate their knowledge; she says they like “you to get [the facts] right. We always get them to review, and give us feedback, to make sure they’re happy.”

However, communicating a scientific concept is rarely perfect from the beginning. Mary emphasises that she is “not expected to know all the answers. When I say ‘what does that mean?’, they’re always happy to explain. Sometimes it can take a couple of goes to get to the bottom of something.”

And that is essential too. Mary explains: “Don’t feel like you have to be the subject matter expert. You are not the subject matter expert. So even though you might sometimes have an inclination to pretend you understand something, you really have to watch that. Question everything.” A risk in pretending you understand something, she says, is that the next person who reads it can tell that you didn’t understand.

Science writers, she says, need to be suspicious about everything, especially their own assumptions. This is the opposite situation to not understanding, for a communicator. Mary says that already knowing scientific concepts or ideas “can be a bit of a hindrance. You might forget that the person in the street may not understand that term.”

Mary finishes her interview with a piece of advice for new science communicators. “Question everything, and don’t feel like you have to know everything. Ask the dumb questions. Chances are, someone else is thinking it.”

Riparian zones. I was definitely wondering what they were. Maybe other readers were too? Neuroplasticity. Ephemeral waterways. The AI singularity. Black hole evaporation.

Many of us wouldn’t know exactly what all of these scientific ideas mean yet. But with science writers like Mary O’Callaghan committed to clear, simple explanations, we may yet understand and embrace them.



Sharing bush trails – a hot topic for Brisbane’s reserves (Outdoors Australia readers, Eco section)

The brightly coloured bird visible through your binoculars sits perfectly still on a branch. You glance at its feathers, hoping your book can help identify it. But then, you hear noises approaching from around a corner – a group of runners. The bird takes flight and is gone.

Or perhaps you are cycling down a hill in the bush, enjoying the cool air of the morning and the quiet. You slow and move right to avoid a family on the track. But a dog runs out from behind a person. You swerve quickly, just managing to keep your bike upright.

Coexistence of different user groups on trails in Australian natural reserves is often a difficult balancing act, and not always an amicable one.

Managing Reserves

A recent survey by Brisbane City Council (BCC) asked for resident’s opinions about managing their natural reserves. This survey has subsequently prompted renewed debate about BCC’s current policies and about the safety and compatibility of reserve user groups.

Results of the last two South East Queensland Outdoor Recreation Studies confirm that people are increasingly choosing natural settings to run, bushwalk, cycle, watch wildlife and ride horses.

Because of this increase, issues of safely and amicably sharing trails have become more prominent. A source within Brisbane City Council says that ‘council is recognising that the current management approach perhaps isn’t working and is seeking to come up with something new.’

Of Brisbane’s 14 natural reserves, all allow foot-traffic and some allow horses. Bike-only trails exist only in Mt Coot-tha Forest, and some do not allow cycling at all.

Reserves may designate multi-use trails for cyclists and people on foot, and many have single-use trails for walkers, horse riders or cyclists only. This means cyclists, runners, bushwalkers, dog walkers, birdwatchers and horse riders may be using one track at once, at different speeds.

Although studies have shown faster users are far more likely to injure themselves than injure others, addressing safety concerns is essential for harmony between park users. However, for some environmentalists, concerns about bike and horse riders are not only limited to safety issues, but also environmental impacts.

Damage may include erosion, silting of watercourses, disturbance of animals in brush or on the ground, and carrying weeds into parks, and although all users are responsible for this to some extent, bike and horse riders may be more so.

Bikes versus People

Most perceived social conflict in reserves occurs between walkers and mountain bikers, because of the difference in speed and control of walking and riding. The International Mountain Biking Association has developed guidelines for mountain bikers to reduce shared-trail conflict.

Relevant rules include always being in control of one’s bike, always giving way, never spooking animals and planning for the track ahead. However, not all mountain bikers or park users adhere to these guidelines. Additionally, many trails in reserves lack signs to indicate proper trail behaviour, like keeping left, for new or once-off users.

Wayne Cameron represents Save Our Bushlands, an anti-mountain biking lobby group. He says cyclists ‘have a plan to take over every reserve in Brisbane and grow their sport.’ Mr Cameron believes that ‘you can’t expect them to worry about nature, conservation values.’

Mountain bike lobbyist, Gillian Duncan, is similarly vehement – she says the real issue policymakers find is ‘a few noisy complainants who are philosophically opposed to the idea of a bike in bushland, there’ll be no shift from that.’

She says that it is about ‘generational change: there’s a lot of misunderstanding, there are a lot of perceptions that aren’t related to reality. In reality, mountain biking is appropriate, acceptable and manageable.’

Mark Gray, an experienced bushwalker and mountain biker, says: ‘It would be wrong to say that all mountain bikers are aware of the impact they have on the bush,’ but if people are ‘against mountain bikers they usually don’t even listen, they don’t even entertain the thought of it being a sustainable use [of natural reserves].’

Trevor Page is a BCC council officer who advises on mountain bike issues. He says that ‘you get a lot of animosity between different user groups in natural areas; conservationists think that it’s illegal activity and one that council should be policing, and the mountain bike riders don’t understand what the fuss is about, because they’re also out there trying to enjoy the natural environment.’

‘Because there are polarised and passionate views on this, we’re probably going to end up not keeping anyone happy,’ Mr Page says. ‘Basically you do two different user groups that have different speeds at which they appreciate the bush. That in itself can have some very real and also perceived conflicts between the user groups if they are competing for the same trails.’

Birds Queensland President Mike West believes Brisbane residents ‘really have to get a balance with an expanding city but we don’t want to put people racing through on bikes. Mountain bikers and birdwatchers are totally incompatible. Runners frighten birds but that isn’t anything like bikes.’

Compatible Trail-sharing

However, in spite of animosity from some users, it is encouraging to hear of harmonious trail-sharing. Mr West says that personally he has ‘seen no examples’ of user conflict in any reserves.

Mark Gray says: ‘The only times I can think of any sort of problems are usually in relation to dogs, where dogs tend to run out in front of bikers, or people complain about bikes, worrying about their pets.’

He believes that ‘if you’re going to have a park and you want that park looked after, it can’t be really specific to any specific group. I think multi-use is the way to go with select tracks in each area that may be mountain bike specific or horse specific.’

Andrew Demack, Bicycle Queensland’s cycling development officer, says ‘we believe the experience at Gap Creek, Daisy Hill and Bunyaville shows that you can have multiple uses of a bushland area and not necessarily have any worse impact for having cyclists and horse riders using these areas for recreation.’

With his own riding experiences, Mr Demack says: ‘I’m not sure that there’s a lot of user conflict. I’m a regular user of the Daisy Hill area, and I’ve never seen a conflict between any cyclists and walkers.’ He believes that some people ‘certainly play up a conflict angle where they can find one.’

BCC Response

BCC’s Trevor Page says that council tries to recognise the legitimacy of all the values of the reserves. He says BCC may end up with a model where ‘significant conservation areas are off limits to mountain bikes and other outdoor recreation pursuits; perhaps other areas that are less pristine, maybe we should be looking at greater access to those.’

BCC does not have a set time-frame for public response or any policy decisions that may come from the survey or related research. In the meantime, it will be up to park users to share trails by abiding by official and unofficial trail guidelines, by helping to educate new users, and communicating with fellow users out in the bush.

Mr Page is keenly aware of the importance of these areas to Brisbane’s future: ‘Essentially we’ve got to learn to share and to better manage those areas, for not only the people that are there now but also the people in the future.

Management of Brisbane’s bushland to receive overhaul (Mountain Biking Australia, Policy/Access section)

Brisbane City Council has been criticised for their management of Brisbane’s natural reserves – will the recent user survey prompt policy changes?

The bushland around me is burning fiercely. I am standing at an entrance to the Mt Coot-tha Forest, and the people entering walk through the flames and smoke as they go in. Dry undergrowth crackles, the source unseen.

This natural reserve is on fire with the passion of a controversy that has consumed recreational users, environmental conservationists, councillors and policymakers in South East Queensland for the last ten years.

The issue of mountain biking access in Brisbane has reignited recently with a much-anticipated survey from Brisbane City Council (BCC) about how best to manage outdoor recreation in reserves, specifically mountain biking.

The issues echo many controversies already seen over natural areas close to Australian capital cities.

Trevor Page is a council officer involved in advising BCC about mountain bike (MTB) access issues. He says the ‘council were probably hoping it would just go away’ for the last decade or two.

‘What we’ve found is that the popularity of MTB riding has continued to increase,’ he says.

Health, social and economic benefits of mountain biking often compete for prominence with vocal concerns about the environmental, social and economic impacts of riding in natural reserves.

BCC Management

BCC’s reserve management policies have been heavily criticised in the past by environmentalists, mountain biking lobbyists, bushwalkers and wildlife enthusiasts alike. BCC does not police or prosecute bikers in MTB-prohibited areas, according to Mr Page; nor do they have areas where mountain biking is extensively allowed.

He says that BCC is recognising that the ‘current management approach perhaps isn’t working and is seeking to come up with something new.’

Councils facing MTB access issues often have difficulties balancing environmental damage concerns and user-group conflicts, with policies encouraging outdoor activity and less dependence on vehicles.

Save Our Bushlands is an environmental organisation on one side of this debate, and would like to see BCC to prohibit MTB riding in Brisbane’s reserves.

Representative Christine Hosking is angered by BCC’s current management. ‘A lot of environmental vandalism in the form of illegal mountain bike riding is going on under BCC management,’ she says.

The Gap Creek Trails Alliance group advocates for more MTB access in Brisbane; and spokesperson Gillian Duncan also criticises BCC. ‘It’s not properly treated with qualified people following a management procedure or guidelines,’ she says.

Ms Duncan has been involved in lobbying for the best part of a decade and is possibly Brisbane’s best-known MTB advocate. She says that ‘with best practice principles, the environmental impacts of mountain biking… are miniscule.’

In the last eight years, BCC has undertaken several resident surveys and studies of park users. Recommendations from these surveys and studies have, for the most part, have not been implemented or integrated into management policies.

For this reason, some environmentalists, MTB lobbyists and park users were sceptical about the potential impact of this recent survey.

Recent Survey

BCC’s latest outdoor recreation survey mentioned activities in reserves such as the Brisbane Koala Bushlands, Karawatha Forest, Lake Manchestor Road Park, Mt Gravatt Outlook and Toohey Forest.

Although the survey covered recreation like hiking, fishing and canoeing, from question eight onwards, the focus had turned to cycling in natural reserves. The survey closed for responses at the end of April this year.

BCC’s survey garnered over 2800 responses. Eighty percent of respondents cycle at least weekly, and 83% of those on a MTB. About half were 25-39 years old, and a third aged 45-54 years. A fifth of the respondents were women. Ten percent of people are recreational cyclists, 77% mountain bike and 10% are downhill mountain bikers.

Mr Page says that the council will be ‘taking on board now a lot of information that’s come through from the survey, and some of the other research and submissions we’ve received, and in theory, [councillors] will make some determination.’

‘The difficulty that we know is that because there are polarised and passionate views on this, we’re probably going to end up not keeping anyone happy,’ he says. BCC are also considering their own environmental assessments.

Current MTB Access

Of 14 natural reserves managed in Brisbane by BCC, exclusive MTB tracks only exist in Mt Coot-tha Forest. When I called BCC as a resident wanting to know where I could MTB in Brisbane, the only information I received in the mail days later was a single track map: Mt Coot-tha.

A visit to BCC’s website under their ‘natural areas’ section gives access to maps showing other bike-friendly trails. These are limited to one or two tracks per area, if any, and all are multi-use.

This means cyclists, runners, bushwalkers, dog walkers, birdwatchers, and sometimes horse riders, may be using the one track at different speeds and for varying purposes.

Gillian Duncan says: ‘Brisbane City is already managing to world’s best practice at Mt Coot-tha. The issue is that there’s nowhere else [for MTB-only tracks].’

Ms Duncan says that ‘if you have reserves in a capital city surrounded by half a million people, it’s unrealistic to expect them not to go in there.’ In the meantime, she says, Brisbane cyclists are out riding because they ‘are encouraged to cycle by every form of policy there is.’

Other organisations in Brisbane, like Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Logan City Council and Redlands Council, maintain sustainable trails by working with all types of park users committed to trail care groups in the area.

‘It’s a win for mountain bikers and also a good win for the local councils because it provides recreation facilities for their local residents,’ says Andrew Demack, a cycling development officer from Bicycle Queensland.

In light of environmental and social concerns, many MTB management plans worldwide take a precautionary approach. This often means closing tracks to bikes until it can be proven no damage occurs with riding.

Gillian Duncan says that once trails are properly constructed, damage and maintenance is very minimal. ‘There’s no compromise when it comes to protecting the environment. The conservation angle definitely has to be listened to.’

‘I believe it is a public health policy, a social policy that government, local and state, should look after these reserves, augmented by volunteers who care,’ she says.

However Save Our Bushlands believes that sustainable MTB trails cannot exist. Ms Hosking believes BCC ‘needs to take up precautionary principles and stop MTB access destroying reserves.’

Environmental Impacts

Currently, scientific researchers remain divided about whether MTB riding causes more environmental damage than other outdoor recreation; and whether mountain biking is a sustainable activity.

What scientists do agree on is that all activities have an impact on the environment. Many studies conclude that hiking can do as much damage as mountain biking, and activities like horse riding or trail bike riding, even more damage still.

Erosion is the predominant environmental concern for mountain biking. Most soil damage occurs when cyclists skid or ride trails in the wet. Poorly constructed trails can significantly accelerate this erosion process.

Human recreation can disturb animals like birds, lizards and wallabies, which may end up avoiding the area. Building new tracks may displace or injure animals living in undergrowth or on the ground.

Birds Queensland President Mike West says: ‘Mountain bikers and birdwatchers are totally incompatible. Runners might frighten birds but that isn’t anything like bikes.’

Trails across watercourses that create excessive silt are of concern for resident animals and plants. Ms Hosking says that at least one creek in Mt Coot-tha Forest is a known platypus habitat, but that ‘MTB tracks crisscross just hundreds of metres downstream.’

Council advisor Trevor Page recognises multiple stressors. He says it is difficult when ‘even without the pressures of MTB riding, some of our natural areas are under fairly significant stresses – repopulating native fauna in those areas, weed infestation and fires.’

Managing Different Users

Conflict between different users of trails is the other main consideration in MTB access issues. Although studies have shown MTB riders are far more likely to injure themselves than anyone else, addressing safety concerns is essential for goodwill between users.

Bicycle Queensland’s Andrew Demack says that ‘we believe the experience at Gap Creek, Daisy Hill and Bunyaville shows that you can have multiple uses of a bushland area and not necessarily have any worse impact for having cyclists and horse riders using these areas for recreation.’

Christine Hosking says of her environmental aims: ‘We look at what we’re leaving our grandchildren. We’re here to defend it. If I can make a difference on a small scale, then I can start a precedent.’

Gillian Duncan says that it is a ‘social conflict with a few noisy complainants who are philosophically opposed to the idea of a bike in bushland, that’s all it is. But all around the world… bikes are accepted and appropriate.’

Trevor Page says that council tries to ‘recognise the legitimacy of all the values of the reserves’. He says BCC may end up with a model where ‘significant conservation areas are off limits to mountain bikes and other outdoor recreation pursuits; perhaps other areas that are less pristine, maybe we should be looking at greater access to those.’

BCC does not have a time-frame set for public response or policy decisions. It seems likely that BCC will not appease all users of Brisbane’s reserves in its policy decisions to come, but an updated management system is eagerly anticipated.

It will take careful Council management, cooperation between advocacy groups and also individual users, to douse the fires of conflict, share their bushlands and work on caring for them.

Trevor Page is aware of the importance of these areas to Brisbane’s future: ‘We are dealing with a finite resource in terms of the number of bushland and natural areas that we’ve got around Brisbane.

‘Essentially we’ve got to learn to share and to better manage those areas, for not only the people that are there now but also the people in the future.’


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