Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 2, Updates (#smp2014 #AdelEd)

As noted on Twitter, I couldn’t live blog the dinner as hauling a laptop to dinner is a gauche and I cannot keep up with the speeches on a tablet. (Note to Apple and Microsoft: if you need a beta tester to give your next keyless keyboard a workout, I will volunteer.) The dinner was good, with a lot of interesting speakers, and the official National Treasure, Robin Williams, being  a very … diplomatic MC. Points on the night for audience capture and enthusiasm has to go the Honourable Bill Shorten, MP, Leader of the Opposition, who seemed very keen indeed.

The dinner was held in the Great Hall of Parliament House and we got a brief foreshadowing of the scrutiny we’d have to go through today, before entering. The Parliament Building itself is pretty impressive, but you’d certainly hope so!

This morning, the keen among us arrived before 7am to go through security and head up to a breakfast, where the guest speaker was Professor Aidan Byrne, CEO of the Australian Research Council, who had a great deal of interest to say (most of which I capture on the twitter feed – @nickfalkner) but who also reinforced the message that we have to be very careful in how we express our complex ideas to summarise them without trivialising them. Again. if you want ARC funds, communicate for ideas in a way that the audience can understand. Many of the issues of concern (increasing ECR funding, increasing overall funding, support for fundamental science) were asked about in question time but the biggest problem is finding the money, getting the rules approved by two other government departments (Finance and PM’s Office) and then getting it signed off by the Minister. That’s about a 5 month process for simple rule changes, which explains why the rules are often not that early in coming out. Also, this CEO has served under 6 Ministers in 2 years, which gives you some idea of the inherent stability of political office. When funding has been increased in the past, such as to the NHMRC, demand has outstripped the increased supply, leading to an overall reduction in success rate – although there must be an upper bound to this resourcing, I can only surmise.  Professor Byrne noted that the ARC is a very, very lean organisation and that this meant that things like software system updates took longer than you’d expect. For example, that irritating question on Discover Projects (Do you have any other ARC grants) actually can’t be answered automatically because the existing systems won’t do it. This is being worked on but, without extra staff and funds, it will be years before it’s all bedded in.

If I’ve learnt nothing else on this trip, it’s that simple changes are more complex than they appear, and complex changes are Byzantine to the ‘fractured empire’ level, once you get policy makers involved. It is, I must confess, more fascinating than I thought it would be.

One of the most surreal moments after breakfast was stepping out of the lift and nearly walking into the Prime Minister of Australia, who was deep in conversation with a Minister. There is a lot of security in this building and we got scanned coming in but, still, there were no large men with no necks talking into their cuffs and saying things like “Parakeet has left the building.” We’re still in Australia. Hooray!

We’re currently sitting in a large briefing room, waiting for Senator Kim Carr to come and speak to us at 10:30. It’s a little cramped but there are regular coffee runs and there are a lot of fascinating people to talk to. (Although, having tried the coffee, I can now understand some of the policy directions coming out from here.)

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