Sarah Keenihan Reviews The Curious Country

Review by Sarah Keenihan

The Curious Country
Edited by Leigh Dayton

Synopsis: What do Australians think about science? It’s an issue that interests – even plagues – many of us who conduct scientific research, or communicate science outside of specialist environments. In 2012 Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb decided to seek an answer to this question. By surveying ordinary Australians and asking them to identify the important issues they wanted science to address, a book was born – The Curious Country (freely available as a PDF at The book was launched on December 3 2013.

Edited and introduced by science writer and broadcaster Leigh Dayton, the book is presented as a series of essays addressing common issues identified in survey responses. The work is further organised according to key societal challenges that had been previously highlighted by the Office of the Chief Scientist. Thus chapters are entitled:

  • Living in a changing environment;
  • Promoting health and wellbeing;
  • Managing our food and water assets;
  • Securing Australia’s place in a changing world;
  • Lifting productivity and economic growth;
  • Sustainable energy and productivity; and
  • Curiosity.

The book is a thorough, diverse and balanced guide to science in Australia – past, present and future. The 26 essays addressing each of the important issues across the chapters have been written by some of the best communicators of science this country has to offer. Pleasingly, the authors include not only professional writers and journalists highly familiar with science – such as Amy Corderoy, Wilson da Silva and Elizabeth Finkel – but also research scientists, research leaders and those with experience of science in a broader context. The Fruits of Science – a piece which describes innovation and the difficult journey from the lab to the real world – comes from Dr Craig Cormick, the newly-crowned recipient of the 2014 Unsung Hero of Science Communication award. Ecologist and scientist Professor David Bowman presents a call to action in response to extreme weather events such as bushfire, torrential rain and drought in Adaptation is the Key to Survival. Epidemiologist Professor Tony McMichael considers diseases, their occurrence and their impact at a population level in Population health: Understanding Why Disease Rates Change Over Time. Former Minister and diplomat Dr Brendan Nelson offers Science Diplomacy: in essence an Australian case study showing that engaging other nations in the pursuit of knowledge promotes international relations and national wellbeing.

While some of our politicians, business leaders and indeed journalists continue to question the existence of human-induced climate change, writers in The Curious Country know that it is happening. It appears as a challenge and influence requiring current and future action in many of the book pieces, even those not directly addressing climate.

All essays in The Curious Country are pitched at an interested reader who may or may not have any prior experience with science. While many readers will devour the content over a few sittings, the book could (should!) easily sit on coffee tables in homes and businesses across Australia, to be picked up and read as interest and time allow. It certainly deserves a position alongside other more popular and glossy compilations themed around art, design, literature and sport. The Curious Country would also form a fantastic set of reading material for high school and tertiary teachers and students looking to explore science, medicine, education, society, technology, innovation, futures thinking and philosophy. To that end, the office of the Chief Scientist has recently distributed the book e-link to 8000 schools across Australia, and has arranged an on-paper print run for distribution to politicians and other decision makers. Free downloadable versions in e-reader format will soon be available.  The book content has been released under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial – Share Alike 3.0 Australia license.

Sarah-KeenihanSarah Keenihan

Sarah is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide, South Australia. She established her writing business in early 2012 after 15 years working in immunology research and science communication in Australia and Indonesia. She currently works with a range of clients in science, medicine, research, education, outreach and communications. She has a Bachelor of Medical Science with honours, a PhD and a Graduate Diploma in Sciences Communication. When not reading and writing, Sarah indulges in cooking, eating and exercise.

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