Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “Opposition Leader Address” (#smp2014 #AdelED @billshortenmp)

The start of the Opposition Leader’s Address we delayed because he was doing media outside (chuckles from the crowd). While we waited, Simon took Q&A. The first question was “How do we get a better media for reporting science/more accountable media?” This was thrown to the Australian Science and Media association but briefings are apparently key. Ah, here’s the Opposition Leader, The Hon Bill Shorten MP, Leader of the Opposition (@billshortenmp). Probably the last thing he really wants to do given the recent elections but he’s looking pretty chipper. (Strong applause from the crowd)

Mr Shorten referred to the dark arts of politics and the media, as Labour leader and as science policy leader for his party. He encouraged us to give 1% of ourselves to political communicators – stay 99% science but get ready to explain things to the people on the hill and Australians. Science and Innovation are matters of national political importance and what scientists to is important to the future of Australian in 10-30 years in the future. A reference was made to shunting of science into DoI with no dedicated Science minster (here heres, from the crowd). Industry needs science. Health needs new ideas. Education needs new ideas. The economy needs new ideas underpinned by innovation, research and education. Basically, Australia needs science. Environmental policy should be based on scientific consensus rather than ideological repudiation (his words).

The beauty and rightness of science will not guarantee its success – it has to be communicate properly to become a successful political issue. That’s a bitter pill but it’s probably the right medicine. Mr Shorten referred to Einstein’s musing on politics, that politics is more difficult than physics. He referred to disability issues that, prior to 2007-8, were not regarded as a national political issue – it was a moral imperative but, until a national disability initiative, it didn’t feature on the national level in a meaningful and contributory way. (I’m paraphrasing here without editorial, you may disagree with Mr Shorten’s perspective.) The two key elements that moved it from charity to outcome, from forgotten tragedy to an issue supported in a bipartisan fashion. The first factor was people who knew about the issue raising the profile with a positive-message focused grass roots message. Different groups on the same issue can either work together or form a Tower of Babel. Are you focusing on the 10% of things you disagree on or the 90% you agree on? The sterile competition of conflicting points of view fighting for the same resources are counter-productive. The groups then focussed on a single successful outcome – the national disability insurance scheme. We are all fighting for limited resources – but we can still have a unifying message. A consensus that will delver goals that will benefit all of us and build a richer political narrative of the benefits of science for all Australians.

The second factor was support evidence from recognised experts who could provide a cogent argument as to how this approach will benefit all Australians, not just parliamentarians. The productivity commission were able to puncture the myth that a national disability insurance scheme would be a bottomless pit of debt – this made the policy more attractive. As well, the productivity commission argued that empowering all of the people associated with the disabled would be a net positive. This added economic soundness and policy logic to the moral imperative of the initiative.

Innovative Australian business are 78% more likely to report improvements in productivity but only 25% of Australian businesses collaborate on this innovation. There is a great need for more research collaboration. Industry relies on science and we, as scientists, have a role in communicating and collaborating as part of this.

Building meaningful consensus in parliament is not easy and it’s harder for science. Simply presenting the same system of funding and expecting a different outcome would be a pipe dream. Science is under constant assault from the crank blogosphere and fringe opinion is often presented in the media as being an alternative – which is irritating, as Mr Shorten noted. We need to triumph over gossip and prejudice. All good stuff, but we need to be able to communicate what we do, even if it means stepping back to the first principles.

Mr Shorten spoken on climate change and noted that we often make the mistake of assuming that our view of a community, especially within the scientific community, can be mapped to the general community, which means that we get caught flat-footed when the people are swayed by poor, incorrect, misleading and negative reporting. (We’ve seen the bubble before in the Bush/Gore election.) Mr Shorten, it would fair to say, disagrees with the government on this. None of us were shocked by this.

Mr Shorten called for a discussion of real science, evidence-based research, and far more informed work in parliament, including letting projects run to completion without ideological interference and, of great interest to me, to also being able to change direction when we discover that we are on the wrong path – but without being mocked for so-called indecisiveness. He sees Science as the industry that will underwrite our successes in the 21st Century.

We are more than just a rock or a crop. The Hon Bill Shorten, MP, Leader of the Opposition.

Science needs a long term and sustainable funding profile and we need to focused on educating more scientists now, because too many students have no real grasp of science because we have neither the teachers nor the desire to increase the knowledge. Australia can either get smarter or poorer, compete or give up. Then there were some more partisan points but I was still interested to hear about allowing failure and recognising that failure sometimes is a key part of the movement to success. Our scientist graduates should have professional skills as well as their discipline skills (something I also agree with, I note), but they should also have good lives where they don’t have to flog themselves to get ahead.

Politics might be a dirty business but we can’t stay hands off any more – giving 1% of your science brain to working out how to communicate and enter the political debate in a way that makes change happen.

(Nick: Very interesting talk indeed. Not a great week for Labour but it was a relatively simple and powerful message: get out of your lab and push your message further.)

The first question was on the nuclear fuel cycle and how it related to ALP policy, with a plea for it to be treated fairly on its scientific and environmental merits. The second question was on what message do we need to give Young Scientists to get engaged (the flippant answer he gave was “Join the Labor party”, which he modified to “Join any party, but you’ll be less happy elsewhere.”)

The answer to the first question summarised Labor policy and focused on the cost of starting a new technology cycle now but he conceded that the debate should be held on its merits and noted that the Far Left approach could be as fundamentalist as the Far Right. He then raised storage and economic start-up issues. (I shall wait for arguments in the comments. 🙂 )

The second question was “get political”, even to the point of going into parliament. Politics are not that mysterious and scientists need to believe that politics can change the community and can speak to the lives of everyday Australians. (First reference to rebuilding Labor.)

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