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 1 “A Guided Tour Through the Policy Factory” (#smp2014 #AdelED )

This session was led of by Dr Subho Banerjee, Deputy Secretary (Science, Research and Skills), Department of Industry, to take us through policy. He also looks after Science policy in the department. His move into public policy was drive by how science could contribute more to the public policy debate – and hence he is a fan of this current activity. Here comes the tour, but wait, here’s the ticket check. And it’s Wonka’s golden ticket!


Like Wonka, policy maker is a process of creation with a somewhat stretched analogy. Oh dear, he just referenced the fact that he wasn’t above a stretched analogy. Is he reading over my shoulder?

What is the policy factory? Most people look in from the outside and have no idea what goes on in the production process. Apparently, Canberra is like this, as well. I should have taken my anti-analogy pills this morning. Back to it, the policy factory takes a number of very rapidly listed elements (cabinet briefs, policy documents, ministerial decisions, etc) and turns it into a public policy, to deliver the agenda of the government of the day and improve Australian life.

What is policy? What is the idea at the heart of the policy? It needs to be explored, mulled over and tested – how it works and how it can be used to define a policy. It should be pushing forward government policy to benefit Australians. Policies are bespoke, we think about each one in a particular way to meet a particular need. But what are the elements that underly every policy process?

There are five basic principles in the simplified policy model:

  1. Anticipation of a problem and establishing what the question is. What are we asking? Unless you think about the question carefully, you’re not serious about addressing the problem.
  2. Formulation: Designing policy options.
  3. Consultation – test the policy options and its feasibility
  4. Adoption – implementing the policy. Getting it done.
  5. Evaluation of the policy – was it effective?

All of these is designed to make the policy consistent but it’s the ideas that are going through the policy machine. How does Science fit in? It helps us to implement all of the steps and provide a good framework for it but it’s not used to make policy directly, it’s part of a conflicting set of conflicting priorities: community views, political capital, financial issues…

Science through the policy cycle, an example, based on Early Childhood Learning.

  1. Anticipation: In the last 10-20 years, there’s been a shift in policy that is significantly driven by fundamental neurological and behavioural science. You can clearly see the imprint of fundamental science on the policy questions being answered.
  2. Formulation: An increased understanding of neuroscience has influenced the design of policy as to what helps to make little brains grow well.
  3. Consultation: There’s been a heap of first order consultation (what do we want to do) with the medical community, with service providers, and the second order consultation as to how this is going to be achieve.
  4. Adoption: Implementation with all of its benefits, costs and impacts.
  5. Evaluation: Studies as part of ongoing policy interventions.

Science interacts with different parts of this process in different ways – but it’s much messier in the real world. (Boy, does this guy really like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and who can blame him?) Policy streams intermingle and run around, an individual could be trying to innovate into several conflicting streams at the same time. We need to realise that it’s not going to be clean and neat – any interaction with a public servant is going to be engaging with someone who is handling and juggling a multi-faceted complicated thing, which is not neatly chronological or procedural. Policy aims to provide the best possible answer to the problem, using the best available tools at that time.

It’s helpful to understand the model and the stages but everyone is working across different parts at the same time. Knowing where your input can be useful and your engagement can be most useful is really important. Policies can take months or years to form but everyone is looking to get to an end point – which is to be implemented. Many high profile policy processes have times when they move very, very quickly indeed and you then have to be ready to move. (Especially, if it’s policy from the PM’s office.) You need to also answer the question that is asked if you’re providing scientific input – what can you say based on what you know, with reasonable caveats on the limits of your knowledge.

How can you get involved? Here are two projects.

Australian Government: Department of Industry project “APS200 Project: the Place of Science in Policy Development in the Public Service (2012)”


Science for Policy: mapping Australian Government Investments and Institutions” (2013) from HC Coombs Policy Forum.

Interesting talk, if a little heavy on the Wonka.

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.