Author: Will Rifkin – University of Newcastle, Australia

Kathy Witt – University of Queensland

How can risk communication keep a population informed but not unnecessarily alarmed? How does one obtain the authorisation from government and industry – and the personal confidence as a science communicator – to provide levels of transparency that are increasingly sought by communities, the media, and other stakeholders? The focus of this ‘idea in progress’ discussion is on what research can help to answer these questions.

Consider recent cases of concern about possible environmental and health effects from – the fire-fighting foam referred to as ‘PFAS’, development of natural gas from onshore reservoirs in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, and construction of wind farms.

Concerns of nearby residents can be traced to distrust of large corporations, distrust of government agencies, perceived lack of transparency, domains where the science is not perceived to be definitive – even though it may suggest little or no impact, and feelings of disenfranchisement.

In these instances, a growing body of literature suggests a rise in psychosocial stress among concerned residents in nearby communities. Some in government, industry, and the community see stress as being the predominant, near-term, health impact. Stress can increase the body’s allostatic load, which then contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease and other ailments.

Psychosocial stress can be exacerbated if residents are experiencing a boom-bust economic cycle and if they feel that they are living in a ‘contaminated’ zone, which suggests that their home may have lost its value, creating financial stress for the family. Additionally, hostility and distrust in communities can incur stress, defensiveness, and increased turnover among community liaison staff from industry or government. That can exacerbate levels of stress experienced in the community, a sort of vicious cycle.

With such a wicked problem for risk communication, what should be key elements of our research agenda?

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Idea in progress
Theme: Society
Area of interest: Building a theoretical basis for science communication

Author: Will Rifkin – University of Newcastle, Australia

Martin Espig – University of Queensland
Lucy Mercer-Mapstone – University of Queensland

White trucks kick up dust in lanes across farmers’ fields. Pipes and pumping equipment are being placed to extract salty water and release natural gas from coal seams 300 metres below the surface of Queensland, Australia’s Darling Downs agricultural region.

The operator may be gaining a ‘social license’ among half of the town’s residents, surveys suggest. Reassurances from staff of the gas company and the government regulator provide one ‘science communication narrative’ about natural gas and groundwater. Additionally, each of thousands of farmers receives annual compensation of $5,000 plus for every well on their land.

One ‘community science communication narrative’ reflects disquiet about possible environmental and health impacts among the generally conservative, long-term, rural landholders. That is shared by a mix of more recently arrived residents of the estates from which the protest group, Lock the Gate, emerged.

Where the ‘government and industry’ narrative addresses an apparent lack of understanding of the science, this ‘community’ narrative suggests a more fundamental societal debate relating to land rights, procedural fairness, and distributive justice – not the usual fodder of science communication.

We explored these dynamics by addressing: (1) dialogue processes involving resource companies and communities near their operations; (2) residents’ experiences of living with uncertainty about groundwater impacts of development of this natural gas; and (3) concepts related to ‘participation status’ in expert-nonexpert communication. Case material includes interviews of residents and experts in community engagement as well as community survey data.

Reconciling the two narratives seems to require dialogue as a process of mutual learning and validation of individual worth and experience for both community members and scientific actors. Science communicators can re-imagine their role as supporting a participation status for all parties that enables questioning, understanding, and shaping of investigations into possible environmental and health effects.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Society
Area of interest: Building a theoretical basis for science communication