Science Meets Parliament 2016: Day 2

  Last updated March 6, 2017 at 3:21 pm

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It started yesterday afternoon: slowly the Twitter stream around #smp2016 began to fill with tweets from delegates excited at the prospect of meeting particular politicians today.


They had been well set up, particularly by the afternoon sessions where people such as Mark Hutchinson from the Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics and Krystal Evans, CEO of BioMelbourne Network talked through their top tips for talking to politicians. Take home message: do your homework before the meeting. At the very least, know the party the pollie represents and their electorates. Have a look at their Twitter stream and see what they are interested in. Can you find out what football team they follow? What areas of common ground can you establish before you walk in the door? And telegraph your excitement around the honour of meeting the pollie with a Tweet using their Twitter handle. Hence the consistent stream of tweets threaded through the #smp2016 tag. There was an air of excitement building, conveyed on and barely contained by the internet.


And, as the morning unfolded, there was a constant trickle in and out of the theatrette of keen young people going off to meet politicians or returning from such meetings. When I caught up with some of them at morning tea there were universal positive reactions to their engagements with the politicians. Almost a sense of disbelief that, one-on-one, politicians are ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs and that they were genuinely interested in what the scientists had to say. Word began to circulate that this was shaping up as the most successful Science Meet Parliament in its 16-year history.



This morning’s presentations were both Q&A sessions, one with Former Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb and the other with Shadow Minister for Science Senator Kim Carr. Both drew upon a long personal history of being in the thick of the discussions between science and politics. Ian was keen to impress on the attendees that politicians are mostly full of good intent, they are particularly busy and hard working, they have a constant stream of people asking for money and they have to prioritise their time and attention to cope. This is an important realisation for anyone thinking of approaching pollies for support for their research. Building on the various lessons from yesterday, it is crucial that you present as something different from all the other people going to them, it’s critical that you treat them as humans, be friendly and conversational. You’re starting a relationship here so you need to charm rather than demand.


Being Shadow Minister for Science it would be hard for Senator Carr not to dive into party politics but this was interwoven through other less contentious observations and comments. “It’s all about who gets what, when and why” was a succinct recitation of much of what we had heard over the last couple of days. He’s concerned that the term ‘Innovation’ is currently being overused to the point of becoming meaningless. There’s no real innovation without a foundation of solid basic science and tying research programs to financial outcomes would lead to disaster. This is particularly the case, he argued, over at the CSIRO where external funding targets were shaping the nature and quality of research conducted. Carr argues that the CSIRO is not a glorified consultancy and that the on-going reshaping of it into such a beast undermines the broader national research agenda.


Lunch was spent at the National Press Club listening to pearls of wisdom from the new Chief Scientist Alan Finkel. I particularly liked how he bookended his talk with lessons from the Wasa, the Swedish warship that sunk on its maiden voyage. He opened with how this as a classic case of innovation done badly but closed with the observation that Sweden learnt from those mistakes and went on to build a cutting edge ship building industry based on those lessons. Innovation, according to Finkel, is about the intelligent management of risk and if you don’t take risks, you can’t innovate.


All in all Finkel painted a broad picture of the current science, research and innovation landscape in Australia today and identified the challenges that lay in his future during his tenure of the job of Chief Scientist. There’s cause for concern, there are causes for optimism, there are opportunities identified and doors now closed to us – it’s a pretty mixed picture and we will make of it what we choose to. With Alan leading us through this landscape for the next three years, I have confidence that there will be more positives than negatives if the political masters will listen to his advice.


I suppose the most fitting point to end this triptych of blogs about Science Meets Parliament 2016 was an observation made by Senator Carr this morning.


You have to engage. If you don’t, someone else will and you may not like the outcome. So, if your research really could change the world, tell it to someone who can turn those ideas into realities.


Science must engage with Parliament. It must do so more regularly and more intimately than we have ever done before. Our futures depend on it.


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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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