Science Meets Parliament 2016: Day 1

  Last updated March 6, 2017 at 3:20 pm


This is the sixteenth time that Science Meets Parliament has been held in Canberra and, over the years, they have refined a format discussed in the previous blog. But today, the rubber hit the road and Science Meets Parliament 2016 started on a clear and warm spring morning.

Welcome and Opening Address

After a welcome and introductory comments from both Emeritus Professor Jim Piper (President of Science & Technology Australia, STA) and Catriona Jackson (CEO of STA) there was a cracking opening address from everyone’s favourite Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt. He drew on a wealth of experience of dealing with pollies to dish out a cornucopia of top tips.

“Don’t get defensive.”

“Don’t talk money, engage their interest in your research.”

“Don’t whinge or complain about lack of funding.”

But more importantly:

“Be personal; they are people and they want to know about this person in front of them.”

“Remember they are tired, busy and often grumpy. So be gentle and friendly with them.”

All in all, Brian put a very human face on to the daunting prospect of talking to a politician.

Meet the Media – A day in the life of a journalist: what they need to turn your science into news

This was followed by a morning panel session where Kylie Walker from the Australian Academy of Science took journalists Paul Bongiorno and Alison Carabine through Meet the Media. Perhaps I’m a little jaded and too close to the issues having had to deal with them on a daily basis for the last 20 years but much of this discussion ought to be covered off in the media training of scientists by their respective institutions. It’s still important to hear these messages from old pros within the media but don’t scientists now know that the media works to a different timetable, that scientific interest does not necessarily mean newsworthiness or that the social and political impact of science is of more interest to the audience than the science? Both being political journalists it was interesting to hear their take on these and other issues, the subtext of the session being how to use the media to influence the political or social discussion around research. I tweeted that this session should be mandatory viewing for any researcher wishing to take their stories to the media. My hope is that researchers have already been exposed to much of this content in their media training.

Getting into policy: how to use science to shape public policy

The late morning session saw Catriona Jackson back as chair with Prof Emily Banks from ANU and Dr Subho Banerjee, Dept of Education and Training. Both Emily and Subho made some very important points. Emily said that you need to start from a point where you know who you want to influence and why. Good policy is built on all the evidence, not just your research and you need to work hard to make your research relevant to the politicians. She also cautioned that you need to be realistic and patient and that enjoying the journey helps to get you through. Subho’s comments were similar in nature with key insights such as the fact that politicians are generally interested in science so the door is already open for you to present your research to them. He also underlined the importance of respecting the craft of the politician, even if you don’t actually understand it. They are trained in their professions and that demands respect. You also need to be confident in what you know and why it’s important.

The ensuing discussion fleshed out these and other points around how to get your research to influence policy and, for most of the audience, this is the untested ground where they wish to tread. What researcher would want their hard-earned knowledge to not influence public policy? And great emphasis was placed on being ready to act to influence: there are moments in time, windows of opportunity, where your words and knowledge can carry the most weight. You need to learn to recognise these moments and be prepared to act on them.

The day filled out with presentations such a Sue Weston from the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science talking about what the National Innovation and Science Agenda means for you (as we previously blogged about!). Graham Durant from Questacon talked about Inspiring Australia and there was a variety of messages from a variety of sponsors.

The afternoon was spent in sessions aimed at grooming the scientists for their one-one-one meetings with politicians tomorrow. And this evening there will be the Gala Dinner where we can all put on our glad rags and party on as MC (and my old mate) Bernie Hobbs presents a string of presentations including from Minister Christopher Pyne and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

It’s worth noting in closing that there was great social media supporting the whole proceedings of Science Meets Parliament with #smp2016 frequently topping the local trends for Australia beating #HappyBirthdayJustinBieber into second place! Australia’s Science Channel pioneered the use of Palisade to live curate the social media (and can be viewed here!) and, in all, this social media buzz demonstrated that there is broad interest in the process under discussion here: Just how do we get scientists and politicians talking to each other? That level of interest bodes well for a greater and more significant interaction between the two in the future.

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About the Author

Paul Willis
Paul is a respected leader in the science community with an impressive career in science. He has a background in vertebrate palaeontology, studying the fossils of crocodiles and other reptiles. He also has a long history as a science communicator, with a career spanning as Director of The Royal Institution of Australia, presenter and host for Australia’s Science Channel, working for the ABC on TV programs such as Catalyst and Quantum as well as radio and online. He’s written books and articles on dinosaurs, fossils and rocks and is finding new ways to engage the people of Australia with the science that underpins their world. Follow him on Twitter @fossilcrox.

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The Royal Institution of Australia is an independent charity, and the sister organisation of the prestigious Royal Institution of Great Britain, tasked with promoting public awareness and understanding of science.

The Royal Institution of Australia is passionate about building and connecting communities engaged with science, and as such works closely with scientific organisations, institutions, universities from Australia, and leaders to inspire the next generation of innovators and to create a lasting legacy for Australia.

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