Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 2, “Q and A”, (#smp2014 #AdelEd @foreignoffice)

The last formal event was a question and answer session with Professor Robin Grimes, the Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (@foreignoffice). I’ll recover from Question Time and talk about it later. The talk appears to have a secondary title of “The Role of the CSA Network, CSAs in SAGE, the CSA in the FCO & SIN”. Professor Grimes started by talking about the longstanding research collaboration between the UK and AUS. Apparently, it’s a unique relationship (in the positive sense), according to William Hague. Once again, we come back to explaining things to non-scientists or other scientists.

There are apparently a number of Chief Scientists who belong to the CSA Network, SAGE – Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – and the Science and Innovation Network (SIN). (It’s all a bit Quartermass really.) And here’s a picture that the speaker refers to as a rogue’s gallery. We then saw a patchwork quilt that shows how the UK Government Science Advisory Structure, which basically says that they work through permanent secretaries and ministers and other offices – imagine a patchwork quilt representation of the wars in the Netherlands as interpreted by Mondrian in pastoral shades and you have this diagram. There is also another complex diagram that shows that laboratories are many and advisors scale.

Did you know that there is a UK National Risk Register? Well, there is, and there’s a diagram with blue blobs and type I can’t see from the back of the room to talk about it. (Someone did ask why they couldn’t read it and the speaker joked that it was restricted. More seriously, things are rated on their relative likelihood and relative impact.

The UK CSAs and FCO CS are all about communication, mostly by acronym apparently. (I kid.) Also, Stanley Baldwin’s wife could rock a hat. More seriously, fracking is an example of poor communication. Scientific concerns (methane release, seismic events and loss of aquifer integrity) are not meeting the community concerns of general opposition to oil and gas and the NIMBY approach. The speaker also mentioned the L’Aquila incident, where scientists were convicted of a crime for making an incorrect estimation of the likelihood of a seismic event. What does this mean for scientific advice generally? (Hint: don’t give scientific advice in Italy.) Scientists should feel free to express their view and understanding conceding risks, their mitigation and management, freely to the government. If actions discourage scientists from coming forward, then it;s highly undesirable. (UK is common law so the first legal case will be really, really interesting in this regard.)

What is the role of the CSA in emergencies? This is where SAGE comes in. They are “responsible for coordinating and peer reviewing, as far as possible, scientific and technical advice to inform decision-making”. This is chaired by the GCSA, who report to COBRA (seriously! It’s the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) and includes CSAs, sector experts and independent scientists. So swine flu, volcanic ash cloud, Fukushima and the Ash die-back – put up the SAGE signal!

What’s happened with SAGE intervention? Better relationships with science diplomacy. Also, when the media goes well, there is a lot of good news to be had.

The Foreign Office gets science-based advice which relate to security, prosperity and consular – the three priorities of the Foreign Office. It seems that everyone has more science than us. There are networks for Science Networks, Science Evidence and Scientific Leadership, but the Foreign Office is a science-using rather than a science-producing department. There is no dedicated local R&D, scientists and engineer cadre or a departmental science advisory committee.

The Science and Innovation Network (SIN) has two parent departments, Foreign Office (FCO) and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS, hoho). And we saw a slide with a lot of acronyms. This is the equivalent of the parents being Department of Industry and DFAT for our system. 90 people over 28 countries and territories, across 46 cities. There’s even one here (where here is Melbourne and Canberra). (So we support UK scientists coming out to do cool science here. Which is good. If only we had a Minister for Science, eh?) Apparently they produce newsletters and all sorts of tasty things.

They even talk to the EU (relatively often) and travels to the EU quite frequently in an attempt to make the relationships work through the EU and bi-laterally. There aren’t as many Science and Innovation officers in the EU as they can deal directly with the EU. There are also apparently a lot of student opportunities (sound of ears pricking up) but it’s for UK students coming to us. There are also opportunities for UK-origin scientists to either work back in the UK or for them to bring out UK academics that they know. (Paging Martin White!)

There is a Newton Fund (being developed at the moment), a science-based aid program for countries that are eligible for official development assistance (ODA) and this could be a bi-lateral UK-AUS collaboration.

Well, that’s it for the formal program. There’s going to be some wrap-up and then drinks with Adam Bandt, Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens, Hope you’ve enjoyed this!


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 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.)


Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “How to talk like a policy maker” (#smp2014 #AdelED @ANUasiapacific)

Professor Hugh White from the ANU gave this session as the first part of a two part session.

People in the policy world think differently from you. It’s not science. Science is about finding the truth and seeking knowledge. THe business of policy is the business of making decisions – the logic towards making a decision is different from the logic of truth. (Shout out to Aristotle and his syllogisms, especially the practical syllogism that leads towards actions.) Everything you say in a policy debate should assist the policy maker in making a decision. If they think that you are asking for their money to subsidise your knowledge development, they’re probably out. 

There are only three parts to a decision: finding objectives, determining means and allocating resources. How can what you know be slotted into this system? Let’s break it down into five questions:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. Why does it matter and how much?
  3. What are the options and how much do they cost?
  4. Which one is best?
  5. Can we afford it?

But it’s not actually linear, it’s a complicated loop. The process is dynamic because data, costs and objectives shift. Serious policy engagement is a long-term engagement. It’s not giving a brick to a wall, it’s playing tennis. There are also lots and lots of players. A good policy maker will be working through the policy logic – so try and get to them through the media if you can, rather than directly, because politicians still read papers. If your message can attract an editor, then you’re 98% of the way to putting your message together in a way that other participants will listen to it and hear it.

You don’t have to just talk like a policy maker, you have to think like one, which can be very challenging. How do we bring our principles to bear if we’re being forced to adopt a new mode of presentation? Here are some simple guidelines.

  • Simplify without distortion. How simply can you say it? Put the most work into this.
  • Be vivid without provocation. Don’t be rude or outrageous. Be vivd or striking, without being needlessly provocative.
  • Recognise the difference between advocacy (support based on analysis) and polemic (an attack based on dogma).

Three last observations: when you throw your ideas to the policy debate, you lose them, they’re no longer yours. It’s not like publishing. You have to brave enough to not be afraid of criticism. Once the criticism starts, don’t respond to the critics, just their arguments.

The second part of the session (and final part of the day) was “Raising the standard of the climate ‘debate’: what ‘debate’?” presented by Professor Will Steffen. How can you become a successful communicator and academic? How do people from outside the policy world influence policy?

There hasn’t been a debate for several decades. We know the climate is being rapidly destabilised and the reason is increased greenhouse gases, this destabilisation is increasing risk across the board for our wellbeing. However you measure it, 95-100% of scientists in that field agree on this. The problem occurs when science enters the policy arena. This debate is also mostly an issue in the Anglo, English-speaking world, and is more dominant in the resource-rich and new lands (AUS, US, CAN) and much less in the UK. Professor Steffen thinks this is coming from a more divisive political system in these countries, especially when compared to consensus based approaches to solutions across the political system. Climate change is caught up in polemic in Australia at the moment.

Many people are coming to climate change from pre-existing belief systems (which is on the polemic side) whereas European (Scando) debates are far more on the analytic side. A mention was made of the lobby groups that are seeking to hold things up for powerful vested interest groups who have a strong interest in defeating any moves to combating climate change.

How do we move beyond this phoney debate?

There’s not a whole lot scientists can do about this. This isn’t in the science space anymore. There’s a false balance idea in the media that allows science to be pitted against anecdote. However, there are more fundamental points in the media, fairness, balance and professionalism, that dominate the anecdotal quotes so perhaps it’s time to remind the media of this. Let’s look at the world and ask why Australia has a problem – what do their Academies of science say? What do their other institutions say?

There’s an advantage to talking about change as a good thing, looking at what has happened to societies in the past that have failed to recognise threats to their development and wellbeing. Historically, many societies reach a high point and then collapse. It’s rare to see societies transform themselves. Those that do threaten and challenge their fundamental beliefs but this is hard to get into a policy development setting.


Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “Your Science in 60 Seconds” (#smp2014 #AdelED @rodl @willozap)

This is the second part of the talk and apparently we have to present 30-60 second summaries of what we’re going to talk about. I think this is something that we just do on our tables and then further so I can’t really summarise this either. Ok! See you next post!


Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “Getting your science out of the lab” (#smp2014 #AdelED @rodl @willozap)

Ok, the play is over and it was interesting but effectively uncaptureable in this format – you can see it in the Tweet stream. Sorry about that. The speakers for this session Dr Rod Lambert and Dr Will Grant, both of the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Here’s a chance to practice a 60 second pitch of your science – which will be held after the convenience break.

It’s been an intense morning so the banter, which would normally be quite engaging, appears to be losing some of the people in the audience from looking around. Hopefully they’ll settle in shortly.

A question from the floor – there’s some anxiety about the purpose of the meeting, how to approach it, how to build for it and how to build on it afterwards. Answer: all communication is personal. What are you trying to say? Say it to the person opposite you as if they are a person – because they are. Remember that the politician is happy to meet you – let’s start from there and build some common ground. Stick to your own persona and be yourself. You can tailor your personality but don’t go overboard. The meeting may not go to the details you want, but don’t overwhelm with caveats and detail. Listen to the other person, hear their values and motivations and, once again, tailor your message.

Question from the floor – scientists are trained to respond in a particular way where we are very rarely certain but we are actually quite certain enough for most intentions out in the community. How much do you present the uncertainty (without misrepresenting it). Politicians don’t act in certainty and have to make risk calculations before they take action. Talk enough but know when to stop.

You can’t offer a doom and gloom – you need to offer a solution and a way out, something that the politician can do. Be simple in discussions: “My research can do X, then possibly label it.” If you get a blank look, back off, shift down, go forward. You are aiming to communicate, not impress with your intellect. Remember you’re representing someone and you can fall back onto their agendas!

I realise many of my friends don’t necessarily agree with this but the common message is that you have to be good at the show, as well as good at the science, because without communications it doesn’t get communicated. It makes me a bit sad to agree with this because I know some wonderful people who aren’t as great in front of an audience – but this means you need a screaming front person who can help you with it to get the ‘right’ people listening.

And, yes, I’m for hire. (You’ll need to speak to my manager.)