Science meets Parliament
Monday, 20 November 2000
As October turned into November, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) held its Science meets Parliament Day. Extending over the two days of October 31 and Nov 1, it was the second time that the function had been held.
The idea for the day was prompted by concerns that parliament, with few politicians having any science background, is remote from the concerns of scientists, and inadequately informed of the achievements and potential of Australian science and technology.
Australian scientists have also been accused of being poor at the process of lobbying for their science, setting it at a disadvantage when compared with the interests of other more pro-active groups.
Science meets Parliament bring scientists and federal politicians together. This year, a number of university academics were involved. Dr Rob Morrison sought impressions of how the day had gone from Adelaide University's Associate Professor Andy Austin and from Mr Toss Gascoigne, CEO of FASTS, and the organiser of the event. This account is from the university's paper, 'Adelaidean.'
RM: What was involved?
TG: Our office had to recruit 185 scientists, recruit as many MPs as possible, organise meeting times, match up the two sides, and inform each other of what was happening. We collected brief CVs from scientists, and organised the briefing day, with televised address by Dr Neal Lane (Science Adviser to President Clinton) and talks by three MPs, 2 chiefs of staff, the Chief Scientist and so on.
Then there was a cocktail reception for 300 that night. On Wednesday we organised a breakfast venue, issued a series of media releases, put on a media conference at Parliament House that morning, organised morning teas for the Minister. There was also a feedback session at lunch time that day.
AA: It was most impressive. I thought it was successful for several reasons. One was the recent Batterham report, A Chance to Change, which argues for better treatment of R&D in Australia and which will go to cabinet. Rather than general statements, this report includes a series of hard-nosed recommendations, such as doubling the ARC funds, improving university research infrastructure, developing career structures for young scientists, better HECS treatment for science teachers and so on. We had these recommendations to hammer home, and we could discuss the ramifications of not dealing with them.
Parliament is now starting to notice the scientists who come; who say "we're here, this is what we're doing." It is not done self-indulgently, it is to show how research is linked to the future of Australia and to environmental sustainability.
RM: How are the meetings with politicians organised?
TG: We go in with a handful of issues, and the conversation will swing round these, the work of the scientists and the interests of the MPs. This year the two reports (Batterham and ISIG) provided an extra focus, because the Government is considering those now.
Compared with last year, politicians were more relaxed about the meetings, and very ready to meet with a couple of scientists. They are essentially a communication-building exercise, and we don't expect them to end with the visit. We are suggesting that the scientists invite politicians out to inspect labs, experimental sites - places where you wear gumboots or labcoats rather than grey suits.
AA: We were placed in groups of 2 or 3 scientists with the same number of politicians. The two in our group were both from South Australia, and we were able to talk about the CRC for vertebrate pest control, for example the research going on in controlling rabbits and locusts, in which this country leads the world.
RM: What impact did Dr Neal Lane's talk have?
AA: One thing that Neal Lane pushed was that the Americans take the view that, irrespective of how or where science is funded, whatever money is put into scientific research is returned several fold. It might be some way down the track, but he believes that you can't take the short-term view of backing only 'applied' science. You can't predict where the benefits will come from, therefore R&D is supported very broadly, with the expectation that the benefits will come at some time in the future.
RM: Scientists are sometimes said to be the victims of their own stereotype; the eccentric, vague, wild-haired, unworldly genius. It doesn't help when you are trying to convey a serious message.
AA: You had to be there to see the exact opposite of the stereotype. The scientists gave the impression of being very much on the ball; science businessmen. The stereotype is manufactured by the media, which then cottons on to it and promotes it. We need to be seen as being at the top end.
RM: They are also accused of having been very poor at lobbying for their science. Barry Jones made that point some years ago, when he argued for better R&D resources. What was the award you gave him this year?
TG: The wording was: "For distinguished service to the nation through tireless advocacy of science and technology in the Parliament of Australia 1977 to 1998. A special award to Hon Barry Owen Jones AO. Awarded on behalf of 60,000 appreciative scientists and technologists by FASTS, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies"
RM: What evidence have you that this event is changing the way that politicians view science and scientists?
TG: We assess feedback from participants and politicians, the fact that the meetings frequently last longer than scheduled, and the follow-up actions they trigger.
AA: I have no doubt of it, and others said so as well. I'm sure that we can all do even better, but this was a good start, and it should improve each year. We would expect an announcement on Batterham early in the new year. That will be the ultimate test in the short term.
I was heartened. I'll not jump up and down until I see the dollars, but through these meetings with senior politicians, I believe that they saw the point, and that they will look seriously at Batterham and see the consequences of not funding science beyond current levels.
RM: Ostensibly, the day is for changing the attitude of politicians. How much is it also to change the attitude of scientists in lobbying, making their case clear and so on?
TG: Scientists learn a lot in just walking through the corridors of Parliament House. They learn to modify their messages to meet the concerns of the other side; to couch their case in positive terms, and to be brief and to the point to meet the crowded world of the MP.
AA: As university academics, we are all much more aware of our obligations to lobby on behalf of our science.