Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “The art of the perfect political meeting – experts tell their stories” (#smp2014 #AdelED @DrEmmaLJohnston)

This is another panel, which may be hard to summarise, introduced by Professor Emma Johnston, STA (@DrEmmaLJohnston)  and run by Mr Martin Laverty, CEO, Catholic Health Australia (chair), Mr Gary Dawson, Chief Executive, Australian Food and Grocery Council (@AusFoodGrocery), Mr Simon Banks, Managing Director, Hawker Britton Public Affairs Solutions and Mr Paul Chamberlin, Partner, Endeavour Consulting. (There’s a lot of suit power up on the podium.) Apparently one of the people up on the podium helped put together the power sharing deal that saw Ms Gillard become Prime Minister at the preceding election – please welcome Simon Banks. Gary Dawson dropped Science in Year 10 and ended up as Mr Howard’s Science adviser, so stick to those books, kids. No… wait.

I’d note that everyone on the podium has spent considerable time working for politicians and now they are all CEOs, MDs or partners in consulting firms. What a happy coincidence!

Oh, they’re putting on a playlet. It’s a pro- and anti-science hypothetical entitled “Australian Scientists Need More Money… (and with many other words)” You know what? You really have to be here. I don’t think I can capture this. Be back soon.

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “How to Tweet Like a Pro” (#smp2014 #AdelED @thesiswhisperer)

This is going to be somewhat odd as I’m blogging about someone telling me how to tweet and then this blog will get tweeted.

You might want to read that again. I think I’m bleeting.

Seriously, though, I’ve been looking forward to this as social media is not something I’m very good at. I’m certainly very verbose and my exploding stream of text is a familiar sign at the conferences I’m attending but I don’t think I’m very effective. Let’s throw over to Dr Inger Mewburn, Director of Research Training, The Australian National University (@thesiswhisperer) who has a lot more to say about it. (At 13,000 followers, she’s got good credentials, but it took over 40,000 tweets over 4 years to make this happen.)

In 30 minutes, Dr Mewburn is going to cover some Twitter basics (which I won’t share) and some tactics for growing your network (which I will.) (She thinks one of the reasons she’s grown on Twitter is that Twitter is an allied channel in conjunction with her blog and Facebook.)(I seem to like parenthetical comments.)

Twitter can feel like a firehose in the face but you can channel it to read it at your own pace. (I still find it like a firehose, but I really liked the analogy of FaceBook as a street of dinner parties and Twitter as a noisy pub full of people.)

Is Twitter a good way to drive up download and citation of your papers? Downloads appear to go up and citations do, too, (sadly, this is only two data points but it looks interesting). You’re giving stuff away, in effect, but like a DJ rather than Robin Hood.

If you want to focus your blog then pick one main topic and aim 70% of your tweets at that with two other topics that take up the rest. All of these topics should be something that you know about!

Thick and thin tweets (David SIlver): your tweet should send more value than just text.

Seven primary tactics for growing your network (I’m not showing up anywhere so I’m guessing I need to work on this):

  1. Tell us what’s happening, but use thick tweets – use handles, tags, URLs, link in other people.
  2. Meet people before you get there (introduce yourself before you show up!)
  3. Show us something cool (and tell us why). Share cool URLs in a thick way. (“Crafting your links as academic click bait” is the name of my new band. Forward announce and then back announce in the same tweet!
  4. Please – have an opinion!
  5. Tweets with pictures get more clicks but they have to be the right pictures. Videos show a boost in tweets about music but not in other topics.
  6. When someone talks to you, talk back.
  7. Social media management with a light touch. How do you fit this into your brief time? Use a desktop client (Tweetdeck and Tweetbot) and schedule them for peak hours, morning commute and 8pm, to hit the major periods of reading. Other applications include FlipBoard, Pocket, Zyte (sp?) and Buffer. (Nick note: I must be honest and note that a four application workflow is not what I would call a light touch.)

Lots of great information and really useful – time to start putting it into practice.

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.

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!