Science & Technology Australia (STA) has been offering its flagship event, “Science Meets Parliament” since 1999. It’s objectives are
- To stimulate and inform parliamentarians of how science contributes to and informs public policy, and
- To assist in professional development through providing participants with an insight into political, policy, media and parliamentary processes.
Science meets Parliament plays an important part in Science & Technology Australia’s advocacy effort, as it demonstrates, with real examples, how Australia benefits from public and private investment in science. It is also a terrific networking and professional development opportunity for participants.
In 2021, “Science Meets Parliament” was delivered virtually from 2 March to 1 April. Two lucky members were chosen to represent SSA at this year’s event. We always ask them for a written report on their experience, and here is the first one, written by Jason Whyte:
Science Meets Parliament 2021 - Part 1
Unlike you, gentle reader, few of our parliamentarians have a science qualification. So, they may not appreciate the contributions made by statisticians to Australia’s interests. Science Meets Parliament (SMP) provides an opportunity for statisticians to increase their visibility, and to inform parliamentarians of the scope and value of our work. Through this, SMP aims to forge lasting relationships that will allow scientists to contribute to the processes of setting national priorities and policy development. No pressure….
Unlike the pre-coronavirus SMPs held in Canberra over two days, the 2021 instalment featured around a month of Zoom-like information sessions for delegates scattered across Australia. Those with a full registration would also join three or four other delegates for an online meeting with an MP or senator.
A statistician seeking to engage with SMP for the first time may find the process somewhat daunting (cough!). To help with this, some SMP sessions featured advice from experienced delegates or Canberra insiders on how to approach your scheduled meeting. Some suggestions seem particularly appropriate for statisticians considering SMP participation.
In the session “Preparing to meet a parliamentarian”, I wondered if details of my work might be off-putting, and asked:
“I'm concerned that my meeting might play out like an episode of "First Dates": I want to meet again but the MP is not so keen. Any tips on what materials are likely to best complement my presentation?”
Kylie Walker, CEO Australian Academy of Technology & Engineering, advised: “Sweep right back out for that big picture.” (That is, think beyond than your own specific area of work and its direct implications.) “I’d be interested to hear about the some of the broader applications of the field rather than your specific area if it’s too conceptual to be able to explain succinctly to a non-technical audience.”
Dr Tien Huynh from RMIT (2017-18 Participant and one of the “Superstars of STEM”) suggested: “The three main areas that I thought were really important for most parliamentarians that you can’t get wrong are Environment, Health, and [the] Economy, and amongst those you’ll find maths and statistics in every single part.” Also, it’s appropriate to connect your work to what your field is trying to achieve: “You have to make that linkage for the parliamentarian so that they can see the relevance of what you are doing.”
An SMP meeting can be interrupted when your parliamentarian is summoned for a vote. However, this may give a delegate the opportunity to talk to the parliamentarian’s political staff.
The SMP programme covered this possibility with the session “How to Engage with Advisors”. The panel included Mr Harry Godber, a former Adviser to the Turnbull & Morrison Governments on “tech, innovation, financial regulation & space policy”, and now Head of Strategy at Flare HR. Godber’s advice included some questions to think about before your meeting: “What is the value you provide to Australia as a whole? What could it add to the government’s policy platform? Can you provide case studies?”
“Be very concise in your pitch. What can you provide? What are you asking for? Don’t talk in the abstract so that the meeting doesn’t address these points.”
In preparation for my meeting, I found my MP’s maiden speech quite instructive. I learned that we grew up in demographically similar areas, and we also had intersecting concerns in education and environmental management.
Following the conclusion of the information sessions, my group of SMP attendees spent around an hour with our MP, zooming in from her home on April 1st. Each delegate gave a short presentation and responded to questions. The MP seemed to show a genuine interest in these contributions.
Immediately following the meeting I sent the MP links to my publications and outreach activities relating to our discussion. After almost three months, I am yet to receive a reply. Perhaps some MPs really don’t have the time for a second meeting, or maybe I had spinach in my teeth? Delegates may wonder what data there is on meetings between scientists and parliamentarians that have led to continuing relationships. If only there was some professional body that had the skills to look into this….
By Jason Whyte
Interested in attending Science Meets Parliament next year? Keep an eye out for of search for expressions of interest in the SSA newsletters from early 2022.