Figure 1: Starting with Why: Adapted from Sinek

By Ros Gleadow (Monash University).

Third post of our “Global Collaboration” series

My first job was as a research assistant in a wheat physiology lab. I read a few papers on the effect of rising CO2 on yield and grain quality (e.g. Gifford 1979, Hocking & Meyer 1991). “That’s interesting“, I thought, but surely this won’t be an issue in my life time? The effect of CO2 emissions on grain protein and bread quality have only recently come to the fore but the science has been known for decades. Why does it take so long to get the message across? It took 50 years from discovery that tobacco was harmful and addictive to stopping advertising it; 30 years from the observation that putting babies to sleep on their fronts was associated with increased SIDS to a change in parenting patterns. But do we have that luxury? Can the process be sped up?

You often hear “scientists just need to communicate better“. But communication is a two-way street. You can talk all you like but if no one is listening, then it’s not going to get very far. In this blog post, I want to challenge my fellow scientist to think beyond talking at people to facilitating genuine knowledge exchange.

Knowledge Exchange programs: Start with the Why

There are four main questions to ask when developing knowledge exchange programs:

  • Who is doing the exchanging?
  • What do we want to communicate?
  • How can this be facilitated?
  • And most importantly – Why? To improve food security in a changing world

Simon Sinek is famous for challenging businesses and communicators to start with the Why, and then everything else takes on a new perspective (Fig. 1) In the case of the Global Plant Council, the why is to improve food security in a changing world. Much as we love plants, the point of the Global Plant Council is not plant biology, it’s the preservation of biodiversity and food security.

Sinek then moves onto the HOW and the WHAT. As researchers, I believe we need to add another layer in there – WHO. This comes from our WHY. There are many different audiences – policy makers, research agencies, researchers, consortiums, industry, the general public, managers, students, journalists. farmers, climate change deniers. 

Effective communication demands that understand the purpose of the communication (WHY), and the wants, needs and desires of the different stake holders (WHO).

Communicating so that people get the message

Scientists are experts. That’s a good thing – we need experts. Back in the 1950s, people believed experts; they did whatever the doctor said without questioning it. But in this world of ‘alternative facts, a fresh approach is needed.  Social scientists have shown that giving your audience more and more facts does little to shift opinions. I believe we need to break out of the paradigm where, as Julian Cribb puts it (Cribb and Hartomo 2002), scientists are the “high priests” of knowledge because that makes scientific knowledge seem like a religion, something you can choose to believe in or not.

Fig2: Levels of communication (adapted from Cribb and Hartomo)

There are different ways of communicating with your audience (Fig. 2). If the audience respects the science then a monologue where you are the expert works well, although even then an effort should be made to make what you are saying relevant to the audience.

Ask yourself: What does THIS audience need to know? The answer usually comes from dialogue, where you as the scientist listen to what the person is interested in, or what the needs of the industry group are, and then you respond. At both these levels, the scientist is still the ‘expert’.

With community engagement knowledge is built collaboratively – the scientist is just one part of the conversation. This is hard for those of us who think we know everything, but it can lead to new and valuable perspectives. One example stands out in my mind.  This was at a workshop that Prof Tim Cavagnaro and I ran on cyanide in cassava with plant breeders, dieticians, epidemiologist and agricultural extension workers from Mozambique (Burns et al. 2012). One of the agricultural scientists commented that they preferred to grow cassava with big leaves. I’m immediately thinking, yes, that makes sense –  a high leaf area increased photosynthesis, etc. Then Tim asked: “Why do you do that?” and he answered, “Well, we eat the leaves, and if they are big, we don’t need to pick as many.” This was an important lesson for me in listening to the end user.

Facilitating Knowledge Exchange

The question remains, is there a role for the Global Plant Council in helping to improve knowledge exchange in line with our purpose of promoting plant science with the view to improving global food security? We’d love to hear from our member organizations about what you find helpful that we currently do, and what we could we do more of.

This blog post has been mostly about informal knowledge exchange programs but the principles apply to formal programs as well. Practical information like what language to use or the appropriate medium can be readily found with a quick internet search. You need to find a style you are comfortable with. Prof Sir Gustav Nossal, one of Australia’s leading scientists, once said: “Assume infinite intelligence and zero knowledge” [of your audience]. Good advice.

Our WHY is too important – we can’t afford to wait another 50 years.


Hocking, P. J. & Meyer, C. P. 1991 Effects of CO2 enrichment and nitrogen stress on growth, and partitioning of dry matter and nitrogen in wheat and maize.

Gifford, R.M. 1979 Growth and yield of CO2-enriched wheat under water-limited conditions. Australian Journal of Plant Physiology 6: 367-378  

Cribb, J & Hartomo, TS 2002, ‘Chapter 1: A case for sharing knowledge’. Sharing knowledge: a guide to effective science communication, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, pp.1-15.

Sinek, S 2009 “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” Penguin, NY.

Burns AE, Gleadow RM, Zacarias A, Cuambe CE, Miller RE, Cavagnaro TR (2012) Variations in the chemical composition of cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) leaves and roots as affected by genotypic and environmental variation. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 60:4946–4956.