Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 2, Meeting the Parliamentarian, (#smp2014 #AdelEd @KarenAndrewsMP

We had a midday meeting scheduled with Mrs Karen Andrews MP, Member for McPherson in Queensland, Liberal Party. Mrs Andrews gave an excellent speech on her role as Chair as the Parliamentary Friends of Science, a bipartisan (and very large) group of parliamentarians who support science and scientific endeavours. Given the current absence of a dedicated Federal Minister for Science, a group of 76 cross-party and bicameral representatives is a great start.

The Parliamentary Friends of Science has three primary goals:

  • To enable a meaningful dialogue between scientific leaders and parliamentarians about the science that underpins policy and to inform political debate.
  • To provide a forum for eminent Australian and visiting scientists to engage with parliamentarians.
  • To provide a mechanism for parliamentarians to seek expertise from scientists in relevant disciplines.

(All rather hard to argue with, really.)

The group going to Mrs Andrews included an Astrophysicist, a Radiation Specialist and your humble narrator, who is (if I may remind you) representing Computing Research and Education (CORE). The existence of the bipartisan committee focused on science, chaired by someone with a strong focus on education and early childhood education, was a fantastic start and our group happily complimented the member on her speech and the overall initiative. I then moved on to ask about the National Curriculum, currently under review, and whether the science, maths and digital technology aspects of that curriculum were on that group’s radar, as the near-future release and approval of the curriculum would be a great help to all of the bodies involved (ACARA, Schools, Teachers and resource providers like CSER Digital Technologies – of course). Mrs Andrews agreed that this was something that they should be worried about and, of course, there’re a lot of steps between that and the Federal Minister for Education releasing the curriculum but it’s a start. We don’t have enough STEM graduates because we don’t have enough people going to Uni because not enough people study the pre-requsities in Uni – a lot of which stems (ha ha) from a less than stellar experience early on and low overall support. Once again, this is never about the dedication or ability of teachers, it’s about having an appropriate skill set to be comfortable and confident with material. You can’t expect a junior primary teacher to suddenly become a computer skills teacher overnight and without help – more reinforcement that the National Curriculum is a great thing but support for it is essential.

Of course, my colleague the astrophysicist had a really big telescope to talk about and he leapt in with an invitation to visit. I always feel that computing is a little bit of a disadvantage here as the awesomeness of our endeavours can be seen on just about any screen, which can rob it a little of its majesty! My colleague in radiation (and there are lots of radiation people here, incidentally) talked about support for information resources and future developments.

I did have a chance to talk about the MOOC support in the CSER project and the whole group concurred on the importance of science education, from early stages all the way through to the end of university. Mrs Andrews was on a working group while in opposition that looked into on-line learning and MOOCs, before the explosion that we’re currently seeing, so was very well versed in it. This is both great and slightly a shame: great because it’s always good to have informed parliamentarians but a shame because I’m far less impressive when people know what I’m talking about. ( 🙂 ) Mrs Andrews welcomed the opportunity to get more information from our sector on those developments in computing education.

That was it, all done in 15 minutes as Parliamentarians are a very busy lot. Across the days I’ve been trying to represent both Computing Research and Education, but the fates decreed that my meeting would be far more involved with someone who is working across both through personal interest and chairing committees in the house. In terms of who I could have spoken to, it’s the best result I could have achieved in terms of possible impact and awareness.

This has been a great day so far, and we have question time yet to come! I cannot live blog that event as it is an electronics-free event, so my apologies. I may try to summarise it but, for once, I may yield to my humanity and just experience it.

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 2, “Science and Research at the Cutting Edge of Social Change”, (#smp2014 #AdelEd @SenKimCarr)

ParliamentHenge! All praise to the Sun!

ParliamentHenge! All praise to the Sun! (Sorry, I think the inherent ACT geomancy is rubbing off on me.)

This talk was given by Senator Kim Carr, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry and Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science. Senator Carr has a long and distinguished career in the Parliament and, a a designated science advocate in the Parliament, was always going to be an interesting speaker for this audience. (This is also his 14th SmP, which makes him the most veteran of veterans.)

(As a personal note, the chair of this session was someone I met at Science Association Orientation Camp back in Adelaide in 1986. We call it the Adelaide Effect – there’s about 1.7 degrees of separation of most professionals in Adelaide, dropping to about 1 for academics.)

Senator Carr led off by asking us to save the world in exchange for the resources we get as scientists. We need to work with society and be responsible to and for society in terms of our research. He mentioned that a lot of media cover of science is nothing more than a presentation of prejudice and, in his words, humbug. (Hello, unnamed nation broadsheet.) So he commented that it was a harsh part of the cutting edge that so much is asked of scientists and yet they are often represented so poorly. We are at our most technical and yet our scientific literacy may well be at its lowest. There is a growing level of anti-Science behaviour: the merchants of doubt are incredibly strong. Climate change is the obvious example here (yes, it’s happening and, yes, it’s us. Get over it.) There are so many questioned areas and, while science thrives on scepticism, it does not thrive on anti-scientific attacks that cannot be refuted because the attack is irrational. We have a low standard of scientific debate and the nation’s future is on the line.

On Senator Carr’s desk is a (loaned) book from the CSIRO, by J. B. Bernal, The Social Functions of Science.

The frustration of Science is a very bitter thing.

Science can change so much for us but it has to work with social forces that understand its purpose and march to the same end. Right now we have no Science Minister, the ARC is under attack, under-funded Unis (both sides did this) and we are stepping backwards on issues such as Climate Science. The Senator’s message is that we have to engage. We have to engage with the political system and growing enquiries and public debate need to ensue. We need to get back to curing the sick, feeding the hungry and saving the world. The Senator looks forward to having this discussion.

The floor was then thrown open to questions. We then descended into meta-quote that, if the ruling class found the Pythagorean theorem to be against their interests, it would have been disproven long ago. Science must face accountability and contestability but we come back to the realities of a political system that trades on values. We have to ground our facts in terms of the societal context, so that we can communicate science to Parliament. Senator Carr referred back to the scientific method: we collect evidence to inform our thinking as scientists and the role of the politician is to ensure that the resources are there and that the climate can support the question.

Science is a dangerous pursuit. You ask questions. You’re not satisfied with the status quo… you are a threat.

We need to have scientists and social scientists working together to ground in the social context and thus advance our knowledge of the world and the Universe.

Associate Professor Ritchie then asked about impacts on changes to the R&D regime on commercialisation in Australia. We know that we’re not collaborating much and business/academe engagement is not high, in fact it’s really rather low. Business, however, wants to know how much money is involved. Everywhere in the world, Governments and Businesses partner to accelerate the adoption of new technologies – except us. If you want to attract new technologies and jobs then you need to change government behaviour and policy.

The next question was how could we compete with such a small production base and market. Do research incentives lead to smaller and more fragmented clusters – when we should be encouraging critical mass and aggregated innovation clusters? (We touched on automative, which is apparently our largest single R&D investor. Pity we’re getting rid of it then, really.) 30,000-300,000 parts per car makes it a serious innovation candidate but the task of attracting innovation in this space is hard: transport, dollar rate, and so on. What should be the quantum of investment? Which area do we prioritise? Are cars more important than health? (Aside: we only invest 8% of the ARC budget into humanities research.) This is why we shouldn’t have politicians ranking and comparing grants, but instead a defendable and rational ranking process conducted by peers. Senator Carr is a fan of the hubs and spokes model, favoured by ERA. We can’t dilute the research vote down to capture every vote in the country so collaboration is a good idea.

Just because the forces of darkness have a bit of win, you don’t give up. (Anonymous Source)

Keep communicating – letters to the editor, on-line engagement, stand up for what you believe to be true! Political cycles are just that, cycles, and just because you’re at the bottom now doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.

Senator Carr was asked his opinion on 457 Visas. He responded in terms of global science focus and international research training as part of the development of a strong local research culture. However, he had concerns about the abuse of this system for things like the meat industry. The Senator was worried about the cut travel budget at CSIRO for international conferences – the implications of reducing people’s capacity to travel is worrying.

Are research scientists just lobbyists. trying to schmooze some cash? Question moved across into a discussion established versus speculative areas. There’s a lot of ignorance being peddled – what are you doing to combat that? We need to address and counter the Tea Party elements popping up in the far right.

We were asked to change 1% of ourselves to become more like policy makers and Senator Carr was asked if politicians should change 1% as well? Senator Carr noted that it would have to be more than 1%. He is History trained but didn’t feel this was an impediment to understanding science but that the task was to able to argue a case and get key points across to someone who isn’t in your discipline.

A great session and an obviously very seasoned campaigner!

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “How journalists work and how to help them make your science into news” (#smp2014 #AdelED @Science_Academy @jamesmassola @lyndalcurtis)

This session was an interactive panel on how journalists turn science into news and I suspect this is going to be nearly impossible to capture live so I’ll summarise key points. The panellists were Kylie Walker (Chair of AAS), Lyndal Curtis (Political Editor, ABC News 24) and James Massola (Political Correspondent, Fairfax).

James started off by giving us an overview of the day in a newsroom. Journos start looking for stories from about 6:30-7:00 and the chief of staff gets their picks for stories by about 8:30-9:00, then the stories start getting pursued. The expectation is that you will put stories in press and on-line spaces as well. (Newspapers have finite space but on-line is infinite) There’s some lobbying to the editor involved as to which stories get up, with political editors, night editors and so on. When James started he wrote about 500-1000 words a day, now he writes 2-4000 words a day – comment and analysis pieces, or later pieces from 4:30pm. (How much am I producing a day is an interesting question!) There’s a 9:30am editorial conference which works out what is happening. Deadlines for most stories is 4:30-5 and for front page is a bit later. With any luck, the front page the next day will hit you with something you don’t already know. The stories for the next day will probably be decided around midday.

Lyndal’s experience was that deadlines are much shorter in her news cycle – she still has two news conferences to work out what is going to be a story. Not all stories get up into every medium. The ABC 24 approach allows for continuous rolling breaking news cycles – such as the Malaysian plane, which caused them to dump everything else they had planned for a slow news day. TV news bulletins are actually quite short so, again, there’s a filtering process. Radio can unwind the story a bit more and evolve it. When people think media, they think the high profile avenues (New bulletins, 7:30 reports) but there’s a lot of space on the local radio, 24 hour channels, which may then be passed on if it’s a sufficiently slow news day.

What makes a story something that will be considered newsworthy? Lyndal answered that it was part of the dark arts of journalism and there’s a list of about 20 things that are given to cadets to explain newsworthiness, including impact of people, proximity, interest to people, timeliness. In the end, it’s a dark art (hint: use a media handler) but the impact and effect on people is probably the most important factor – which explains why medical science has such a high profile in the media.

Kylie talked about her role of marketing as another dark art – the impact and the relevance of the story. Kylie then asked James a question about big science stories but he noted that journalism is driven by conflict and crisis, blood and gore, where science was a more noble pursuit but had stories to tell that were harder to communicate. Interest in science is often driven by criss (nuclear science in the wake of Fukushima). Have a story to tell. Have some good images. It will still be hard to get it into the paper.

There are few shades of grey in this area and the timeframe is not long – which of course works against some complex issues. Changing your delivery mode may get you more time and have enough unfiltered time to talk out the issue. Local radio and talkback is one good way to do this.

Kylie ased about any terrible examples of science insertion. James hasn’t experienced it first hand but he’d held a story at SM previously. A friend was interviewing a scientist who had done early work in matter transportation. The interviewer kept referring to Star Trek (despite the scientists refuting this) and this ended up jammed together with the story. Newspaper stories have 3-500 words and have to be simple enough to read – make sure your message is very, very clear. The question came back to James, from Kylie, as to why fact checking doesn’t involve sending it back to the scientist for checking? Two answers: time  lines for production and avoiding subject censorship (which seemed a little shaky to me).

How can you educate the journalist so the journalist can educate the public?

Consider wargaming the interview before you go in, so that you’re ready for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

The first question was on why there aren’t more features on science in the Australian, given the number of articles on art. There are only three science reporters in Australia, compared with lots of Art reporters. Lots of discussion ensured on advocacy, perceived relevance of science. Bit of a shame to see that the stereotypical scientist is seen to be unpolished, when all of us are here to apply a light buffing of carborundum.

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.)

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “Inspiring Australia: how can we help you communicate your science?” (#smp2014 #AdelED #questacon @questacon)


The speaker is Simon France, Program Manager, Questacon (@questacon). Simon had recently returned from Chicago and was noting that we had here in terms of science engagement is unique and desirable from another country’s perspective, in terms of our strategy. If we were confident that parliamentarians were listening, science literate and, even when they differed, we knew that they were taking it seriously – that would be fantastic. It would be great if your neighbours were also taking science seriously. It would be great if every graduating student in Australia, whether in Science or not, understood enough science to take part in serious and well-fromed debate. This is part of the Inspiring Australia initiative. This, of course, requires scientists to be able to communicate in a way that facilitates this, another part of Inspiring Australia.

Simon then showed a short video talking about how we can match the interest of an audience to the message of a scientist – which led to the formation of the Inspiring Australia initiative. The groups formed as part of this is designed to provide leadership in scientific communications, supported by experts in the area, to work with media, evidence-based research, and indigenous strategic elements.

What can this offer us? Media training skills – are we able to work with media as we want to? What about social media? (I’ve probably got that covered but let’s see about that.) There’s a … three week … social media training program, as well as a science in newsroom program. (Three weeks???) We have to communicate science more effectively and Questacon have platforms and training – National Science Week (which I’ve done before) is one of these activities, with 1.6 million Australians involved. A number of other initiatives were discussed, including national hubs for regional science promotion, on the collective side. One group, the Science Sector Group, is trying to build up a strong message on one theme to drive change.  Questacon has a booth here and they want to know where to go next – I’ll have to think about that before morning tea! What training and tools do we need? How can we engage better with industry? How can we do citizen science better? Prizes? Clubs? Science and tourism? How do we communicate the value and importance of science in Australia?

When we communicate poorly, we might not get our real message across. What do our listeners miss when we confuse and mumble our message? (I have a lot more to say on this but will have to update after this event.) Have you tested your talk on someone out of your area or who is more critical before you present? Interesting…

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “Welcome and Overview” (#smp2014 #AdelED)


(Disturbing social media fact: the people sitting next to me had seen my breakfast view tweet on the Canberra twitter site before they met me. I think I’m having my 15 bits of fame.)

(Colour aside: there’s a lot of orange in use here. I feel at home.)

The welcome and overview to the session was given by Dr Ross Smith (President) and Catriona Jackson (CEO) of Science and Technology Australia (STA). This is the 29th year of the even, which is a pretty impressive run! This event is being supported by the Department of Industry and a host of sponsors (who I won’t list here although I will note that a couple of Unis were sponsoring, which I found interesting, along with the NTEU). This has attracted a lot of sponsorship. There are roughly 200 scientists here, for development activities to improve our ability to communicate with parliament and the media.

Science thrives in the creation of networks.

There’ll be a launch of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Science tonight, which sounds very interesting and I’m looking forward to find out what that’s about. We have almost half the whole parliament arranged for meetings tomorrow – about 120 people – which is quite surprising and a very high level of exposure to parliament. There’s a media minder available, which I doubt I’ll need as there’s still a very low level of media interest in much of the educational stuff I work with, but it’s good to know that they’re there.

Today we’re in the NGA but tomorrow we’re in the “belly of the parliament” and have very strict rules for when we can enter the parliament. I suspect I’ll be having a very early morning tomorrow to make the early breakfast entry point. (I must check to see if there are equipment limits to what we can bring in, given I travel with a small electronics shop.)

That’s it, time for the first talk!