When Science meets Parliament

Last week I had the privilege of spending two days at the 16th “Science meets Parliament”. It was an eye opening experience and I’ve learnt a lot… but let me explain…

Science meets Parliament is an annual event run by Science and Technology Australia (STA), the peak body representing Australian science and technology. It includes career development opportunities related to science communication, media and policy, and the chance to spend a day at Parliament House, meeting politicians and staffers, listening to talks from political leaders and learning about how the parliamentary system works. Each member organisation of STA is able to send two representatives to the event, and this year I was fortunate to attend on behalf of the Genetics Society of AustralAsia. I’m sure I’ll miss a lot of things, but I’ll outline my highlights of the event below.

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Emeritus Professor Jim Piper welcomes delegates to Science meets Parliament 2016

Tuesday

Tuesday was a day for presentations, workshops and developing our skills. Around 200 scientists, including biologists, chemists, physicists and mathematicians, crowded into the conference centre ready to listen, learn, meet, and tweet (check out the hashtag #smp2016). So, what did we learn? Well, here are some of the stand out points for me:

Have patience, be persistent, remain positive

Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt delivered the opening address and provided some great advice to Science meets Parliament newbies and younger scientists in general. His key message: you can’t change the world in one go, so be persistent and change it a bit at a time. He also emphasised the importance of the personal touch when talking to politicians: tell them why your work is important to society, but also why it interests you. And never ever ever whinge to a politician about money!

Your science might be the veggies in someone’s media diet, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the boring veggies

OK, I might have stretched the analogy a little there… but that’s essentially what was discussed in a panel Q&A session on science in the media. The panel included Kylie Walker (Australian Academy of Science), Paul Bongiorno (Network Ten) and Alison Carabine (ABC Radio National). They told us that stories about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll are always going to be the “pie and chips” that their listeners want to gossip about, but that people also want to be informed about the world around them. Science is part of a balanced media diet, even if people don’t always find it as exciting as football finals or the Oscars. As scientists we need to engage more with the media, make our stories accessible to the public, take part in the public debate on contentious issues, and remind people that science is about “investing” in the future rather than “spending” taxpayers’ money.

First, find your policy warriors

In the next Q&A session, STA’s CEO Catriona Jackson chatted with Professor Emily Banks and Dr Subho Banerjee about using science to shape public policy. Professor Banks told us that if we want our science to contribute to policy, we need to understand where our work falls on the policy spectrum and identify the specific people we want to influence with our research. These people may act as “policy warriors” to help us translate science into action. Our input will be more more valuable if we are able to put our own work into the context of all other available evidence – it’s not all about “me, me, me”. Dr Banerjee reminded us that the world of politics can sometimes move very fast indeed, meaning that timing is crucial. If you are in contact with the right people at the right time and have something relevant to contribute (not necessarily your most recent research), you may be able to make a significant contribution to shaping new policy directions.

Are you ready to be a “dial-a-scientist”?

To help prepare newbies like myself for the second day of Science meets Parliament, alumni Dr Jeremy Brownlie, Professor Mark Hutchinson and Dr Krystal Evans gave us some tips for getting the most out of the experience. So why “dial-a-scientist”? It’s all about building lasting relationships between scientists and politicians – looking to a future where every politician can call a trusted scientist or two for advice on scientific questions. In the meantime, if you get the opportunity to meet a politician to talk about your science: always be positive, share the stories behind your research, have an answer prepared in case you are asked “so what would you like me to do about that?”, and leave the door open for future engagement (invite them to visit your uni, follow up on a topic of shared interest, keep in touch with political staffers…).

Prepare your 60 second science story

In the last session of the day, Dr Rod Lamberts and Dr Will Grant taught us how to sell our science in 60 seconds. Yes that’s right, 60 seconds. No 12 minute conference talks for you! When meeting busy people, politicians included, you need to be able to communicate to them who you are, what you do and why they should be interested. Quickly. With no jargon. To be effective, you need to tell a story, and make that story relevant to others. Be enthusiastic, be clear, be concise and (where appropriate) be funny. If you really want to nail it, write it down, practice and get feedback from friends.

Dinner

On Tuesday night we all gathered in the Great Hall at Parliament House for a delicious dinner. Designated seating forced us to make new friends, and every table included a mix of scientists from different disciplines, plus a couple of politicians. Among the dinner speakers were the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP (Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science) and the Hon. Bill Shorten MP (Leader of the Opposition). I was particularly happy to hear both discuss the need to encourage innovation, the need to strengthen Australian research, and the need to attract women and girls to study and stay in science… I hope this means that the future of science will be in good hands whatever the outcome of the upcoming election!

Wednesday

To be honest much of Wednesday now seems a bit of a blur, but an exciting blur! This was the big day at Parliament House. Our schedules were primarily dictated by our meetings with politicians, but outside of those times we were able to attend talks by Professor Ian Chubb (Australia’s former Chief Scientist), Senator Kim Carr (the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry and Shadow Minister assisting the Leader for Science), and for many (but not me) the inaugural address at the National Press Club by Dr Alan Finkel, Australia’s new Chief Scientist. We were also able to observe Question Time from the public gallery – I went to see the House of Representatives in action.

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Australia’s Parliament House (photo taken in 2015 during a hot air balloon trip over Canberra)

Unlike most others, I was lucky to be able to meet with not one, but two politicians, each time as part of a small group with two other delegates. My first meeting was with Senator Nick McKim (Australian Greens Senator for Tasmania). As a mixed bunch of scientists we had a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion covering wildlife conservation, invasive species, nuclear imaging, magnetism, cryptography, prime numbers, law, politics and what an atom actually looks like! Senator McKim had a message for us as well: scientists need to engage more with politics and with the public, we need to make ourselves heard.

My second meeting, this time with two other ecologists, was with Jason Wood MP (Liberal Party member for La Trobe). Mr Wood’s electorate includes the beautiful Dandenong Ranges and he is particularly interested in scientific solutions to control the spread of invasive weeds in this area, as well as European wasps. Whilst these species are outside my experience, we also discussed invasive species more broadly, including cats and foxes, as well as coastal ecology. My take home message from this meeting is that politicians often face specific issues in their local electorates, and they may be motivated to help researchers to access government funds to tackle those issues. So, just as we were told on Tuesday, if you’re fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, make sure you are prepared (perhaps even with a research budget in mind) and can easily explain what you think needs to happen next.

The formal sessions ended with a parliamentary forum, featuring Professor Aidan Byrne (CEO of the Australian Research Council), the Hon. Karen Andrews MP (Assistant Minister for Science), the Hon. Richard Marles (Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), and Dr Adam Bandt MP (Industry, Energy, Science and Research spokesman for the Australian Greens). It was great to see three politicians from three different parts of the political spectrum all agreeing about the importance of science and research. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about science careers: science degrees provide great transferrable skills and we need to encourage employers to recognise this and support science education. And of course I’m always happy to hear a politician propose to increase the national science budget and encourage people to respect it the way they respect the national defence budget!

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The sun sets on Science meets Parliament 2016

So, thus ended Science meets Parliament for 2016. Well, ok, we actually finished off properly, with a couple of drinks… But what a fantastic couple of days it was. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, met lots of new people, hope to keep in touch with many of them, and I will definitely take away some messages about communicating my research more effectively with policy makers. Thanks to STA, GSA and all who organised and contributed to the event!

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