The inbetweeners

If we’re going to address the big issues affecting our planet, Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley says we need to look beyond science.

Rebecca is director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Science in Society, and programme director of the new Master of Science in Society. Launched last year, the one-year Master’s builds on the success of the undergraduate Science in Society programme that was developed by Rebecca and Dr Rhian Salmon and has been offered since 2013.

Rebecca says she first got the idea for the multidisciplinary Master’s at the 2012 Transit of Venus Forum, which brought together scholars, dignitaries, and iwi representatives from around New Zealand to address Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision of New Zealand as ‘a place where talent wants to live’.

“At the end of the forum, we were asked how we were going to make a difference in the world. The next year I met Rhian and we started planning what is now the Centre for Science in Society. Rhian led the development of our undergraduate programme and, in 2017, we were able to launch a postgraduate programme.

“Most people who do a science degree don’t go on to be research scientists, but many still work in the science sector. The Master’s can give them a broader context for their degree and make them more aware of the relationship between science and wider society.”

The programme takes a multidisciplinary approach, with perspectives from the sciences, humanities, arts, and mātauranga Māori on contemporary issues such as freshwater decline, artificial intelligence, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Students also develop science communication skills and an understanding of theories that inform public engagement with science.

Rebecca says not all students in the programme have a science background—some come from arts and humanities backgrounds, and this year’s cohort includes practising artists.

“We’re very comfortable sitting between science, the humanities, and the arts, and we seem to attract students who are excited about working at that dynamic interface between different disciplines and traditions.”

The first cohort of Master’s students graduated in May and have either gone on to do further study or have secured jobs in the science sector.

Students doing the Master’s have the opportunity to do a summer internship with partner organisations. Last summer, students had placements with the Science Media Centre, the Ministry for the Environment, the Robinson Institute, and the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions. Two of the first graduates now have ongoing paid work with their intern hosts.

“We had many more opportunities for internships than we had students to take them up—our partners are really keen to have our students in these roles,” Rebecca says.

Graduate Shaun Thomason says, “The programme developed my science communication skills and allowed me to meet and work with people involved with conservation in Wellington. The internship also gave me ‘real-life’ work experience in the field I wanted to work in.

“I was lucky enough to be offered a graduate position before I finished studying, and I’m now with Land Information New Zealand as a biodiversity and biosecurity adviser.”

Rebecca says the course reflects a more holistic approach to problem-solving that is gaining traction across the academic spectrum.

“We saw a real demand for this—it’s the sort of Master’s I would have wanted to do if it had existed back in the 1990s.”