Science meets parliament, as the name indicates, is a platform for the scientists to engage with politicians and a chance to highlight the importance of science in the Australian society. Started in 1999, the SmP has allowed the advocacy of science in the federal level and continued to provide outstanding opportunities to elevate visibility, awareness and understanding of scientific community in Australia. Scientists from various disciplines participate in the SmP to represent their respective societies/ organizations.
I was fortunate enough to participate in the SmP 2017 as the delegate of Statistical Society of Australia (SSA). I was sponsored by SSA to attend the two-day conference in Canberra, ACT. Both days were packed with various seminars, discussions, and meeting with parliamentarians. We got to hear from Dr Alan Finkel, Dr Alex Zelinsky, Dr Subho Banerjee, Professor Anne Kelso,Dr Bobby Cerini, Senator the Hon Kim Carr, The Hon Bill Shorten MP, Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos AO and many others. Each segment highlighted various ways of displaying our findings in the media, so that it reaches the general mass.
The conference had a number of training schemes, particularly for the early career researchers. Over 200 scientists of various expertise participated and the sheer diversity gave me a glimpse of the vast research ongoing across Australia. A conference, in general, is comprised of experts of the same discipline. However, the SmP provides a rare opportunity to meet experts from other fields. The mutual exchange of knowledge itself is worth mentioning. I personally got to know about the upcoming plans of mining industries, which was quite opposite of what I thought. Meeting with the astronomy group was encouraging as they showed immense interest in statistics, and described how much quantitative statistics and statistical models are part of their study.
Political liaisons and grant applications are part of scientific study. On the first day, we had a panel discussion among Dr Alex Zelinsky, Chief Defence Scientist; Dr Subho Banerjee, Deputy Secretary, Department of Education and Training, and Professor Anne Kelso, CEO, NHMRC regarding contribution of science in shaping various policies and why it is important to have evident based policies. The amazing part is that the persons, who generally decide the grant allocations, actually told us what convinced them when they assess the applications. The ‘trick’, according to Professor Kelso, is to think like a donor or government policymaker: ‘What will convince you to give your application a grant if you had very limited resources?’ Amidst all these, one cannot but consider why we are politicizing scientific community. It was answered brilliantly by Dr Zelinsky,
‘Scientist can be politically active without politicizing their science.’
The ability to pitch an idea in a short span of time is important. Particularly, if you want a parliamentarian to listen to your project. A parliamentarian or a senior federal officer has a busy schedule and s/he meets numerous persons each day. Therefore, a pitch has to be short and attractive to rise above all the other comments and ideas. Furthermore, it must be simple enough so anyone outside the field study can understand. We had a group discussion on the first day, where we practiced pitches of only 15 seconds (Yes we did!). Another way to make sure the message reaches properly is to keep in touch with the senator’s team, especially via email. The general advice is to mail them as soon as possible after meeting them; even if it is a simple greeting, it will start the commutation.
A parameter of scientific exposure is the citations of a published paper. However, print and electronic media are the best ways to reach the parliamentarians and others, who are not the common readers of the scientific journals. A scientific study that might have implication on policy should be advertised though mass media. We had a panel discussion where the journalists suggested that media article should not have heavy scientific jargons and must show real life applications which they can sale to the public. Application of social media is also important; however, the privacy issues were also discussed.
Gala dinner on the first day was adorned by a debate between Senator Sinodinos, Minister for Industry, Innovation & Science and Mr Shorten, Leader of the Opposition. On the following day, we heard from Senator Carr, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science & Research. All the politicians had one common advice – always approach cross-bench. Scientific studies usually have long-term implications and it is important that both side of the house know the importance of such projects. Thus, the budget is going to accumulate the important studies despite any change in the parliament. In the dinner, I was fortunate enough to seat beside Gary Moorhead, chief of staff from the Office of Senator Carr. We had a long chat regarding my project and he offered to help me further in future. The SmP provided many such discussions between the scientists and the federal employees.
We were partitioned into various teams before the conference to meet with one parliamentarian and discuss about our project. The aim was to overcome our nerve and understand their view of science in person. I was assigned to meet with Mr Tim Hammond MP, elected representative from Perth, Western Australia. Unfortunately, our meeting lasted only 10 minutes as Mr Hammond had to leave for a vote in the house. However, it gave us a glimpse of their busy schedule. Later that day, we had lunch in the press club, where we watched Senator Sinodinos tackle a number of questions from the journalists. And again I felt good about my career choice!
The conference provided a lot of information within a short period of time. I enjoyed the amazing mixture of scientists. It gave us a chance to suit up unlike our day-to-day lab coats! The conference reduced my ‘fear to approach’ anyone, specially the parliamentarians. Their motivation to invest more in science was visible. Furthermore, their interest in informed decision-making, backed by scientific evidence encouraged us to study about the local policies and aid them with our studies.
Raaj Kishore Biswas
Chair, Young Statisticians Network
Statistical Society of Australia