Rebecca Priestley honoured for outstanding leadership


Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley from Victoria University of Wellington’s Science in Society group has been announced as a Companion by the Royal Society Te Apārangi recognising outstanding leadership or sustained contributions to promoting and advancing science, technology or the humanities in New Zealand.

The award of Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi (CRSNZ) was introduced in 1999 and there are now 49 Companions.

“The Society’s Council is pleased to be able to recognise the significant impact and the sustained efforts each has made in their respective areas,” says Royal Society Te Apārangi President Professor Wendy Larner. “The honour of Companion is reserved for those who have made a contribution to society far above and beyond what might be expected of them from the roles they have held.”

Rebecca was elected as a Companion for her work in advancing New Zealanders’ understanding of science. She has worked for more than 25 years to communicate about science issues to the New Zealand public.

After an extensive career in science communication, Rebecca co-founded (with Dr Rhian Salmon) the Science in Society group at Victoria University of Wellington, where she teaches and researches topics in science communication and history of science. She also teaches creative science writing at the University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.

Some of Rebecca’s previous awards include the Royal Society Te Apārangi Science Book Prize and the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize, which she used to establish the Aotearoa-New Zealand Science Journalism Fund to support quality science journalism projects in New Zealand.

Read more about the announcement


Science at Wairarapa Moana

Tim Corballis, Lecturer – Science in Society

Over a weekend early in the first trimester of this year, Science in Society staff and masters students took a trip to Lake Ferry and Kohunui Marae in the southern Wairarapa. The focus of the wānanga was ‘freshwater’—the science and culture of it, and of course, given the public debates about the water quality of Aotearoa’s rivers – the politics of it. I suppose we all knew or guessed that water quality was an issue in the South Wairarapa, as it is in many parts of the country. But I don’t think many of us knew quite what kind of landscape, and what kind of history, we were entering.

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Learning in the field

There it was, in the midst of the dry landscape: water. It was in the Tauherenikau and Ruamahanga rivers and their tributaries as we crossed them, and there sloshing up against the shores of Lake Onoke as we approached Lake Ferry campground for our first night’s stay. In the morning Raihania Tipoki, who was hosting us and had collaborated with our colleague Pauline Harris in organising the wānanga, told us about the area. Here, ‘water quality issues’ are just part of a much longer story, and are written into everything about the landscape. There are the usual problems, of course: dairy farmers tapping groundwater for irrigation; farm runoff polluting streams. Lake Wairarapa is supertrophic—of ‘very poor’ water quality, according to Land Air and Water Aotearoa—and Lake Onoke is not much better.

But, as Raihania explained to us, these issues are only one recent part of a history that goes back to the late 19th Century. Wairarapa Moana, the interconnected area of waterways and wetlands that includes the two lakes, was a much larger single lake prior to that time. It was an aquatic environment central to the material and spiritual lives of local Māori. In 1888, after years of passive resistance by the tangata whenua, the sandbar at the ocean’s edge was dug out and the lake drained to ease the flooding of farmland. The landscape as it exists now—flat pasture framed by the ranges to the east and west—is a creation of that past, a drained and managed environment. If the mouth of the lake weren’t regularly opened again, it would eventually flood back to its historic levels.

We were welcomed onto Kohunui Marae, where we spent the day listening to talks from scientists, local activists and whanau. Hearing about science in that context—on the marae, alongside other ways of talking about water—made it into just one part of that longer, bigger and deeper story, a complicated story about a living thing turned into a resource, drained and polluted and managed.

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Hospitality from Kohunui Marae

We had intended this to be a bonding time and an icebreaker for students, and a time to practice thinking about a particular science issue in its social context. It was all those things, but it was more, and left many of us feeling like we now had a lasting connection with that place.


Wairarapa Moana Storm courtesy Teodora, Flickr



Science in Society recognised for excellence in teaching

Breaking the mould yet again, Rebecca Priestley and Rhian Salmon were joint winners of the Early Career Teaching Excellence Award, an honour that is usually awarded to a single recipient.

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Smiles all round as Georgia (Rhian’s 2 yr old daughter) calls ‘Mama’ from the back of the room

Rhian and Rebecca, who co-lead the Science in Society group, have, since they started working together in 2013, developed a suite of courses, including an undergraduate minor in Science in Society and a Master in Science in Society.   As a complement to their many undergraduate online courses, they have also been closely involved in the development and delivery of the university’s first massive open online courses (MOOC) – Antarctica: From Geology to Human History delivered through the edX platform last year. At Victoria University of Wellington’s recent teaching and research awards evening, the duo were recognised for developing an excellent teaching programme in a only a handful of years.

As she presented the award, Provost Wendy Larner commended what they have achieved together in only a few years, “Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley and Dr Rhian Salmon are joint leaders, close collaborators and team teachers in the extremely successful Science in Society programme.  They develop and evaluate their courses using a research framework and utilise innovative modes of delivery to facilitate student learning.  They regularly pilot new digital technologies such as a massive open online course and other online resources, allowing other staff who contribute to the courses to develop.  Rebecca and Rhian both engage in continual professional development and reflective practice and their individual teaching scores demonstrate sustained teaching excellence.”

Speaking at the ceremony, Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford said that the awards were a chance to recognise the University’s most engaged and hardworking people.

You can find all out about all the award winners at Victoria University of Wellington Celebrates Staff Excellence


Come work with us!

There are exciting new science communication and tutoring opportunities in the Science in Society group, Victoria University of Wellington

The Science in Society group at Victoria University of Wellington is seeking expressions of interest from experienced science communicators and / or tutors to work on a number of new projects, such as:

  • working with Rebecca Priestley on projects associated with the 2016 Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize, eg, the development of a science communication website and online course and the maintenance and growth of the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund
  • creating a website, and researching and creating (written and AV content) regular news updates, for an exciting scientific research project related to climate change and sea level rise
  • mentoring students as they plan, develop and complete major science communication projects
  • providing administrative oversight for an internship work-placement programme for postgraduate students
  • engaging with students on discussion forums for a series of online courses about Antarctica.

The terms and conditions are flexible and negotiable so could be a contracting or employment relationship, full time or part time. You would need to be based in Wellington and available from May/June 2018 for six months. You would need some or all of these skills:

  • a wide background in science communication and the ability to mentor students on a variety of projects using a diverse range of media
  • experience in digital communication
  • excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • a proven record of implementing projects effectively and enthusiastically
  • a proven record of working independently while collaborating with a wider team
  • a fun and reliable colleague
  • some teaching or tutoring experience.

This is an exciting short term opportunity for a high performing individual/s.  In the first instance please email by Monday 12 March to indicate your interest in these opportunities and outline how, and in which areas, you think you could contribute.

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Making Mars

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Tim Corballis

This summer the Science in Society Group added a new module on going to Mars as part of their ‘Science in Everyday Life’ course. Tim Corballis found himself in charge of the mission. He reflects on the experience here.

NASAElon MuskDonald Trump. They all want to go to Mars – or at least send other people there. Jeff Bezos from Amazon too, and countless other tech entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, people with money and lots more without. They all seem drawn to the allure, the image of the red planet, the fantasy of setting foot on its soil.

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Mars. Photo credit: NASA

For the last module of our first year summer course ‘Science in Everyday Life’ we decided to follow them there – or at least least try to work out how to get there, why to go there, and what it might be like if we do.

To be sure, going to Mars might not be what you’d call ‘everyday life’. The bus doesn’t go, and if it does finally start up you won’t be able to afford it. But, then, perhaps, that was the point of putting Mars right there in amongst the (other) scientific issues of concern for us here and now.


On the one hand, maybe, it can give us a perspective on our own planet to think about it from an external point of view. On the other – well, is Mars really so far away? Hasn’t it been with us for years? For centuries?

For many civilisations and cultures, Mars, like the other objects in the sky, was and is something very much part of everyday life. People had, and have, relationships with celestial objects. Their movements around the sky – regular and erratic – would reflect our own movements in the world. They would be like gods, and they would tell us about ourselves. Or perhaps they would be used to navigate or to tell the seasons. They were and are the clocks and compasses for many many people.

So, when I was reading and talking to people about the new module, I became interested in is how these celestial companions and tools became something else. How they were taken out of our world to become worlds in their own right.

Payson Ridge, Erebus Crater, Mars Opportunity Rover courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Photo Credit: NASA

I came across this story often: in the opening pages of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, in Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series Cosmos, and in anthropologist Lisa Messeri’s book Placing Outer Space (send my way by a colleague from Victoria’s School of Social and Cultural Studies, Nayantara Sheoran Appleton). The story of how Mars became a place – for a few of us, then many of us, over the last 2000 or so years. It’s a story that involved orreries and telescopes and maps and spaceships – unmanned – that have orbited, landed and sent back images, all of which transformed Mars from a point in the sky into a landscape.

Pauline Harris from our group, and Elf Eldridge from Engineering, gave a lectures on the physics and technology of Mars – where it is, what it is, how to get a spaceship there, what efforts are currently underway. People would have to cope with an 8 month trip, with the problems of getting along in cramped conditions, with landing safely, and with the temperature and low air pressure – Mars is cold and doesn’t have much of an atmosphere. What is more, the planet doesn’t have much of a magnetic field either to deflect solar radiation, so life might well have to be lived largely underground or inside other shielding structures. It won’t be a holiday.

Pauline also brought another perspective. If I was beginning to wonder if the desire to go to Mars is just all another great colonial enterprise – science in the aid of conquest, like the 19th century all over again – Pauline was imagining different voyages. Not the colonial ships of empire, but the oceangoing waka that are right now navigating the Pacific and the coast of Aotearoa. Space starts to seem like the great ocean, and all the skills and attitudes of the waka voyagers – preparation, navigation, coping with all that time at sea, kaitiakitanga towards what they encounter – become of use for the next voyage to other planets.

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Haunui Waka. Taken at the Festival of Sail, 2011 in San Diego, California by Michael R Perry. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

What was the upshot of all this? I hope students will make up their own minds, but I came away wondering whether, despite all the promises, the trip to Mars was possible and what it might mean for us. If it happens, it seems clear to me that it should be done with great care, not only for us but for Mars itself, and not with any cowboy attitude.


But I also wondered if the idea is something that most importantly puts our own life on Earth in a different light. The tiny spaceship in the middle of nowhere, having to survive in the midst of radiation and nothingness; the struggle for life on a hostile planet – they seem to tell us, like all that old Buckminster Fuller stuff about ‘spaceship Earth’, something about the precarious and easily forgotten balance of our own lives, huddled inside our thin atmosphere, under the umbrella of the Earth’s magnetic field, and not heading anywhere else in a hurry.


For more information check out SCIS 101:Science in everyday life.



NZ must be global leaders in climate change

Professor James Renwick and Dr Rhian Salmon will be expanding on the themes of this article in ‘Climate change: What’s coming our way?’, 11.30am–12.30pm, Thursday 15 February, Lecture Theatre 2, Government Buildings, Pipitea Campus, 55 Lambton Quay, as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s free Spotlight Lecture Series. Register here.

Newsroom 13 February 2018

The climate is changing and sea levels are rising, undermining our long-held ideas

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Dr Rhian Salmon

about where we can live, where and what we grow and farm, and how we operate as a society and a culture.

How is this happening and what can we do about it?

The earth’s climate is governed by a balance between the amount of energy coming in and the amount going out. All that energy comes originally from the sun, so the brightness of the sun is one of the key factors in defining the climate, but not the only one. The other key one is the composition of the air, the atmosphere.

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Professor James Renwick

Because the earth is warmed by the sun, it radiates heat energy back to space. Some of the gases in the air are really good at soaking up heat the earth radiates, then sending some of it back down to keep us warmer – just like a duvet is good at soaking up our body heat, keeping us warmer in bed. The thicker the duvet, the warmer we are; the more of those “greenhouse” gases in the air, the warmer we all are.

Humans have become really good at putting greenhouse gases in the air since we discovered the potential of coal and oil to power our lives. This would all be fine if what goes up comes down again quickly. Some greenhouse gases are like that, but carbon dioxide isn’t. It stays in the air for centuries and builds up over time. Since we started burning coal, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air has gone up over 40 percent, a change the earth alone might take a million years to achieve.

So the world is getting warmer, and the cold bits are melting. Right now is the warmest the world has been for more than 1000 years. Hot days are more common and extreme floods are happening more often (since warmer air contains more moisture). Two degrees of warming would see a tripling of the number of droughts and wildfires in the already-dry eastern parts of New Zealand, as well as big increases in the occurrence and severity of floods. The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers would be only stories to our grandchildren.

For the first time in thousands of years, the oceans are rising. Less than 30cm so far, but we’ll see that much again in the next 40 years when we could be in for a lot more. If warming goes much beyond two degrees, we’ll likely see large parts of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt away, with 10m or more of sea level rise over centuries, enough to inundate millions of people and to change coastlines around the world.

That’s why the Paris Agreement on climate is so important, getting the world on track to keep warming well below two degrees. How do we do it? By stopping our release of greenhouse gases. How soon do we have to stop emitting? Soon.

At present rates, within 20 years the world will have added enough carbon dioxide to reach two degrees of warming. Getting on a downward path no later than 2020 and getting to zero around 2050 or soon after is what we need to do. A big ask, but it can be done. Every country needs to get to zero emissions, including New Zealand, where emissions per capita are in the top 10 globally.

As individuals, we can make more use of our public transport networks, reduce the amount we throw away, and move to low-energy light bulbs, among many other things. As a nation, we can promote electric vehicles, get to 100 percent renewable electricity, boost public transport, find lower-carbon farming solutions and invest in green technology.

In order to achieve these goals, we also have to develop – and practise – ways of exploring how the changing climate is going to impact our lives, sectors and communities. As well as learning about what’s coming our way, we have to identify how we can change our lives and the way we live – including the systems and rules that run this country – so a sustainable future is both achievable and something to look forward to.

We could be global leaders – if any country can do it, surely New Zealand can.


New book for James Beattie

Associate Professor James Beattie is the latest addition to the Science in Society research group at Victoria University. Previously with the University of

James Beattie Dir
Associate Professor James Beattie

Waikato, James is an environmental historian whose research focuses on the Asia-Pacific region and examines the nexus between environmental history, history of science, landscape and garden history, and health history. In addition, James works on Chinese art collecting in New Zealand.

James is a co-editor of a new book, New China Eye Witness, that has received widespread accolades and has been named in the longlist for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards provides a unique insight to the world of museums historical artefacts against a backdrop of international relations and diplomacy. According to Dr Beattie, “The beautifully-captured, yet ‘gritty’ street photographs of everyday life provide fascinating detail about the domestic, political and cultural situation of China in the 1950s.”

Published by Canterbury University Press, New China James Beattie book coverEye Witness provides insight into the diplomacy involved in obtaining Aotearoa New Zealand’s most extensive collection of Chinese art, and provides a fascinating account of the 1956 visit to the People’s Republic of China by a group of prominent New Zealanders. Among them was Canterbury Museum’s Director Dr Roger Duff, whose diary details efforts to secure a collection of antiquities gifted to the museum by long-time China resident, Aotearoa New Zealand–born writer Rewi Alley.

Through Alley’s connections with the highest levels of China’s communist leadership, including Chairman Mao, combined with Dr Duff’s diplomatic skills, they obtained the sanction of the Chinese government to circumvent its own export ban on antiquities. This permitted the gifting of seven crates of treasures that formed the basis for the museum’s Rewi Alley Collection of around 1,400 Chinese artifacts.

“Roger Duff’s detailed and highly readable diary, enhanced by extracts from others on the delegation, provides a remarkable eyewitness account of a rapidly developing China, at a unique time and unprecedented moment in its history,” says co-editor Dr Richard Bullen, Head of the Art History and Theory Department at the University of Canterbury.

The book is part of a larger research project centred on Canterbury Museum’s Rewi Alley Collection, which was supported by a Marsden grant. Chinese translations in the book have been provided by doctoral student Mr Xiongbo Shi from UC’s Department of Art History and Theory. The sumptuous book design is by award-winning designer Mr Aaron Beehre, a senior lecturer in UC’s School of Fine Arts. New China Eyewitness: Roger Duff, Rewi Alley and the art of museum diplomacy, J Beattie and R Bullen, Canterbury University Press (RRP$59.99), will be published in November 2017. For more details, see

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New academic home for James Beattie at Victoria University. Photo: Lorraine Taylor

Imagining alternative futures | new book from Tim Corballis

Our Future is in the Air is the latest novel by Wellington author and Science in Society lecturer Dr Tim Corballis. The novel explores an alternative history of the 1970s, triggered by time-travel technology.  Lorraine Taylor talked to Tim about about his new book, his work and the ability of science fiction to ask the questions science can’t.

Set in the past, your book Our Future is in the Air explores an alternative past (or is it a present?) where a certain form of technology that we are all quite attached to (no spoilers!) has been rejected by society to protect its citizens. What were you trying to invite reader to think about?

This book, like a lot of science fiction (sci-fi) has an element of social thinking about science. There’s often a fictional theory or gadget or technology at the heart of sci-fi, which then builds a fictional world around the social consequences of that technology. It gives you a lot of resources to think about how technology works in the world, what effects it has, and how it might work differently, how life would be different if we had or didn’t have a certain technology and so on. And this works not just at the nerdy technical level but at the level of meaning. It can be a way to think about how technology alters the meaning of our lives. In Our Future is in the Air there are technological changes that effect how people think of their geographical place in the world and their relationship to the future – these are profound existential questions that science and technology influences.

Thinking of this alternative past or present – how much of this vision was hope and how much caution?

What the book imagines most clearly is an alternative past. The present, which is the future of the book’s past (confused?) is actually very vaguely evoked. I’m not sure this is about either hope or caution. It’s more about where we look for the seeds of the future, and how we face a future that’s unknown. I don’t think the book provides easy answers either way, though I would like readers to get a sense of openness from the ending – the positive side of that future vagueness or unknowness perhaps.

The work explores a number of social societal constructs as well, beyond science and technology.  How much of Tim Corballis is in this novel?

I’ve said this in other fora too, but I’m a bit of a fan of Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Carrier Bag’ theory of fiction: more or less, that a book is a nice handy bag that you can put a whole lot of stuff into, rather than a neat plot line from start to finish.  So if I’m in the book, it’s because I put in a lot of what I was interested in, what I came across, while I was writing it. For example, the Russian Biocosmists, who believed in the revolutionary necessity of a scientific programme to bring back the dead – and who really existed I should add – they’re in there, largely because I was interested in them at the time and wanted to build something around them.

You have one of the most diverse academic backgrounds I know.  Tell me about your academic whakapapa, and what led you to such variety?

Should I mention carrier bags again? I was a maths and physics geek as a kid, but after studying it a little at university my interest drifted. I think I was excited by the imagination of the world and the universe in those fields, but it just wasn’t there after a few years. Not for me anyway.  I crossed into philosophy via logic, which provides a bit of a bridge from maths. There I discovered versions of aesthetics and existentialism. Writing seemed like an obvious thing at some point, partly out of a sort of embarrassing young man’s existential desire to do something with my life, and partly again chasing that imagination of the world and other worlds. I’ve sort of wavered between writing and academic work ever since, but I’ve been interested in all kinds of subjects and ways of seeing things. My doctorate had elements of sociology, cultural studies, history, environmental humanities, architecture… I think it probably followed on from my philosophy studies, but broader (philosophy can be frustratingly narrow).

You teach within the Science in Society group at VUW.  How does your humanities work influence your understanding of science and how does your obvious scientific obsessions influence your work in the humanities?

I think the humanities, and the social sciences too, offer very good ways to think about how things might appear from other perspectives. They offer ways to think about what science might mean to people, and to put things in terms of the rituals and meanings they accrue around themselves. So, what kind of ritual is science (or the sciences, since I don’t really think there is a singular thing called science)?

I’m also really interested in new sciences – the forefronts of computing, biological sciences and climate sciences are really having profound social impacts, and aesthetic impacts too. So much of our culture obsesses over them, it’s hard not to be interested. So, I think you miss a lot by seeing them just as technical phenomena, or as new knowledge. They’re cultural phenomena too, full of undreamed of ways to imagine ourselves and the universe. I think they offer us amazing visions and stories.

Do you think fiction or literature or even the humanities have a particular way of doing this that science does not?

Literature and the humanities are both hugely diverse, obviously, but I think of them as doing quite particular things. They are both focused on things that science finds hard to measure, even qualitatively: meaning, interpretation, the imagination. And literature of course is free to make things up. Writers of fiction especially aren’t constrained by the need to get anything right. I think it’s really important to keep that sense of imagination unconstrained by boundaries and methodologies. It’s important politically – it allows us to think about how the world might be different. I happen to think it’s also important for science. This might not make me a lot of friends, but I’m a cautious follower of Paul Feyerabend, who argues against the idea of methodology in science too.


Tim Corballis at the launch of Our Future is in the Air at Unity Books. Image by John Duke


Lorraine Taylor is the Centre Manager for the Science in Society group at VUW 

Call for papers: Polar Record special issue on education, outreach & engagement

Polar Record: special issue on polar education, outreach and communication  

Guest editors: Rhian Salmon and Rebecca Priestley

Submission deadline: 31 January 2018

Ten years ago, the International Polar Year 2007-2008 led to an upwelling of Education, Outreach and Communication (EOC) initiatives across the polar research community that have had long-lasting effect. At the 2016 SCAR conference in Kuala Lumpur, the Humanities and Social Science Expert Group identified science communication as a research priority. This special Issue of Polar Record will be dedicated to Education, Outreach, and Engagement related to polar research, and will help to draw scholarly attention to this important, but neglected, aspect of polar research. It will be published in January 2019, in conjunction with the tenth anniversary of the International Polar Year 2007-2008 (which ran from March 2017-March 2019).

Sciecne historia Rebecca Pristley interviews Andrew McMinn wearing an aviation hat in Antarctica

Rebecca Priestley interviews Andrew McMinn, from the University of Tasmania, at a field camp on the sea ice near Turtle Rock, Ross Island, in 2011

The guest co-editors of this issue, Drs Rebecca Priestley and Rhian Salmon invite submissions of Original Research Articles of 9,000-12,000 words in length. Research Notes (peer reviewed short articles up to 3,000 words) and Commentaries (focused, view-point coverage of topics relevant to this special issue topic) will also considered by the editors (but please discuss with the editors if considering this option).

Submission deadline is 31 January 2018

If you would like to discuss your ideas before submitting – and we encourage you to do so – please contact the guest co-editors Dr Rebecca Priestley ( or Dr Rhian Salmon ( directly.

Submission of Papers is through the journal’s online submission centre:

Please choose the special issue: ’10 years of Polar Education, Outreach and Communication initiatives’ from the drop down list, in the ‘special issue question’ on ScholarOne.

All papers will be subject to the journal’s usual peer-review process and submission does not guarantee acceptance. If you have difficulties with the electronic submission process, please contact one of the editors. Accepted papers will be published in FirstView within a month after acceptance with the full special issue due for publication in January 2019.



Journalist Veronika Meduna sits with miscrophone next to 5 emperor penguins

New Zealand broadcaster Veronika Meduna on the sea ice next to group of Emperor Penguins during the International Polar Year