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Social Sciences Week: Researcher Profile - Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas

Social Sciences Week: Researcher Profile - Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas

Social science scholar Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas has made his career out of exploring how society communicates through digital settings.

Treading the line between the humanities and social sciences, Professor Thomas’ primary expertise is in the volatile and fluid relationship between digital communications and society. His first foray into the discipline was during his undergraduate degree at the Australian National University, where he studied history and was excited by the emergence of a new wave of research connecting the nascent fields of cultural and media studies with historical scholarship.

“I continue to be interested in the history of new communications technologies,” said Professor Thomas.

“Media and communications are often the places where we see emerging technologies being intensively deployed and applied before they appear in other areas of the economy or society.”

“Digital media is a good place therefore to understand how technologies are shaping our social and economic life. Media and communications give us a window into wider transformations across our social world, and therefore are increasingly relevant for anybody interested in the social sciences.”

In the early 2000s he was a Chief Investigator on several ARC-funded projects which examined how we maintain and continue the social and cultural policy objectives that underpin our regulation and control of media and communications industries in a period of significant change.

“We know that our communications systems, from the telephone to television broadcasting were in part designed around certain policy aspirations — the idea that those services should be available to as many people as possible, and should sustain Australian cultures,” said Thomas.

“Those projects enabled us to identify technological and market dynamics which had the potential to jeopardise those aspirations but were also an opportunity to refresh and revise policy and regulation. Those concerns have stayed with us over a generation of scholarship, international policy and industry debate.”

Professor Thomas has been a Chief Investigator on many other ARC-funded research projects, including the ongoing development of the Analysis & Policy Observatory (formerly Australian Policy Online [APO]). The APO is an online archive of policy-related social science research from a growing array of centres, institutes and departments, that functions as a digital repository for academic researchers, librarians, public servants, journalist and students.

“I have a strong interest in research infrastructure — the systems and tools we use to do the research — and for me those capabilities have always been connected with the imperative to communicate our research more effectively and accessibly,” said Thomas.

“APO really grew out of a recognition that there were many people outside universities who had a strong interest in research, especially where it was addressing problems in public policy.”

“At the same time, we wanted to develop a platform that all researchers could use, to do our work better. When we were building APO we could also see a remarkable proliferation of research beyond universities and large organisations, so the web gave us the opportunity to connect that work with researchers, working across governments, universities, civil society, or international organisations.”

APO most recently received ARC funding through the Linkage Project scheme to add interoperability across major social science databases and new analytical tools to improve research capability in evidence-based policy making.

“We’ve been fortunate to have a series of ARC infrastructure grants to support the ongoing development and expansion of APO’s capability,” said Thomas. “It’s been vital for APO to combine a level of continuing operational assistance at the university level with our capacity to apply for ARC funding, to support new facilities that make it more useful for researchers generally.”

Professor Thomas says it was many of these cross-institutional projects that prepared him for his current role as Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S Centre).

“A key role for me at the ADM+S Centre is enabling my colleagues and students to work as effectively as possible across both institutional and disciplinary boundaries,” said Thomas. “The Centre’s work is made possible by those connections, together with the links to our partner organisations and our international research network.”

As Director since 2019, Professor Thomas has brought together social researchers and technologists to reduce the risks of automated decision-making and improve outcomes across news and media, transport, social services, and health.

Automated decision making, or the process of machines making decisions without human involvement, is already widely used in cars, in digital media platforms, in medical diagnoses and in government services.

“We have an ambitious research program to address ongoing automation, driven especially by AI and related technologies, and to identify how we can manage automation in responsible, inclusive and ethical ways,” said Thomas. “It’s a challenging and exciting project that requires humanities and social sciences researchers to work with our colleagues in the key technological disciplines. The ARC enables us to do that.”

New technologies have the potential to transform industry, science and public services, but to ensure these technologies provide the best outcomes for all Australians, we need to know much more about how they are being used and who is using them.

“One of the projects I’m particularly proud of in the Centre is called Mapping the Digital Gap, which is providing the first study of how First Nations communities in remote Australia are using digital technologies,” said Thomas. “That’s providing key indicators for the Government’s response to the Closing the Gap targets and informing important initiatives such as the new First Nations Digital Inclusion Plan.”

At this stage of his career, Thomas’ focus is the emergence of the next generation of researchers, and making sure they have the opportunities and tools to explore exciting new questions.

“As social scientists I think we do feel obliged to take on the difficult and challenging problems, although many of us as emerging researchers worry about whether we’re on the right track, or whether we are the right people to do it. I would say be confident about focussing on what most interests you, on what you know you want to do. I had terrific mentors but could’ve saved myself time learning that earlier,” said Thomas.

Alongside his role at the ARC Centre of Excellence, Thomas works out of the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, where he’s currently involved in the development of the Society 5.0 Ethics Initiative, to address the inseparable interconnections between humans and machines in the era of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas will be discussing the initiative with colleagues during Social Sciences Week on 8 September.

For more information, visit: Society 5.0 Ethics: The Future of Digital Disruptions - Social Sciences Week

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