Winner: Professor Lesley Hughes, Macquarie University

Changing the way we talk about the science of climate change

Lesley Hughes thinks she can change sceptical minds about climate change.

Over 20 years of researching and communicating the science of climate change, Professor Lesley Hughes of Macquarie University has learned some valuable lessons. That catastrophising is counterproductive for example. Focusing on catastrophic risks can switch people off, and entrench contrary views even deeper.

For her expansion of public understanding of climate change, Professor Hughes has been awarded the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science Research.

From a research background—predicting and then observing the effects of a changing climate on biodiversity—Lesley moved to communicating beyond her scientific peers. Her goal is to translate the science of climate change in all its breadth and complexity to the wider public.

Moving from a climate researcher to public communicator, Lesley found quickly that:

  • Plain English beats complex reports and rigorous statistics (vital in science) 
  • Visual props grab attention better than graphs
  • Listening to your audience is crucial so you can address their individual situation
  • A rational, logical argument is insufficient. Understanding why someone believes something is as important as understanding what they believe. Speaking to hearts, as well as to minds.

Lesley’s free, online course via Open University Australia explains the science of climate change in straightforward terms for non-scientists. The course even received praise from climate sceptics—for them, what had been lacking was a clear explanation of the science.

“With issues like climate change, the science may be settled, but the debate rages on. For many scientists, this gap between science and public understanding is unfathomable. Lesley Hughes is bridging that gap,” Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay said.

Dr Hughes was appointed commissioner of the independent government advisory Climate Commission in 2011 and became a pro-bono founding councillor of the Climate Council of Australia in 2013. She was a lead author for the UN’s IPCC Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards. The Eureka Prizes have been rewarding science since 1990—celebrating 25 years in 2014.

The other finalists were:

  • The University of Melbourne’s Professor Philip Batterham, a five-time Eureka finalist who engages non-scientists with evolution, climate change and health, and threw a 200th birthday party for Charles Darwin. 
  • University of New South Wales’ Associate Professor Darren Curnoe, who has used his discovery of several species of our ancient hominin cousins, the Red Deer Cave people in China, to engage the public about evolution.

Watch Lesley's YouTube video

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