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Published: 5 May 2014

Science meets Parliament in Canberra: 2014

Kathryn Holt A and Mike Manefield B

A Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne

B School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, University of New South Wales

The ASM sponsored Kathryn Holt and Mike Manefield to participate in the Science Meets Parliament event in Canberra organised by Science and Technology Australia (STA) on the 16th and 17th of March 2014. Formed in 1985 in response to ‘wimpish’ lobbying efforts from the scientific community, STA represents 68,000 scientists and technologists and promotes their views on a wide range of policy issues to government, industry and the community.

Leader of the Australian Labor Party Bill Shorten took the opportunity to impress upon the 200 scientists present his belief in the critical role of science in government, policy making and to the future of the economy. He announced the ALP will be calling for an inquiry into science and research in Australia, with opportunities for scientists to contribute when the time comes. The opposition leader urged the audience to change 1% of what they do – that is to spend this 1% engaging with the political system. He argued that scientists must stand up for themselves in political debate to prevent debates being hijacked by minorities representing information in a flawed manner. As an example of how the relationship between parliament and the media works, within a couple of hours of delivery, Bill Shorten’s speech was reported in The Age newspaper in Melbourne.

The key advice that the politicians, media representatives and lobbyists had for scientists was to present as unified a message as possible when dealing with Government. That is, to focus on effectively communicating the 90% of an issue on which scientists agree, rather than being bogged down in the 10% of matters on which we may have differing views and approaches. The National Disability Insurance Scheme was offered as an example, whereby a diverse array of scientific, clinical and community groups lobbied effectively for change, by focusing together on their common goals rather than minor points of difference.

Former Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research in the previous Labor government Senator Kim Carr also expounded on the importance of science and technology to Australia’s future, asking all politicians to respect the peer-review process and expressing dismay over the current governments planned removal of existing R&D tax incentives, the Researchers in Business programme and Commercialisation Australia.

Attendees also heard from ARC CEO Aidan Byrne over breakfast at Parliament House and the Chief Scientist of Australia, Ian Chubb over lunch in the National Press Club. Byrne reflected on life in the public service (be careful what you say) and fielded questions about ARC operations. When asked about the burden of the reviewing process on researchers he examined options before commenting that the burden would be less if researchers abstained from submitting undercooked proposals. He also indicated that Centres of Excellence were viewed as the most rewarding of the ARC’s investments.

Ian Chubb spoke about what we can do as scientists to engage better with media and parliament to get science on the Australian political agenda and to ensure that the scientific method is respected above all other mechanisms to generate information. He considered why Australia has the lowest engagement of researchers in industry in the OECD and intimated that his office is moving to take on responsibilities that may fall through the cracks with the science portfolio split between ministries in the current government (first time since 1931 that Australia has not had a science minister).

Mike spent an hour with the Labor MP for Parramatta Julie Owens discussing the importance of microbes and microbiologists to society and the inner workings of Federal Parliament. Minister Owens has a genuine respect and fascination for science and places great value on tertiary education. She has championed increased university enrolments in her electorate, 70% of increased enrolments are the first in their family to enter university. Julie agreed to attend the public lecture at the ASM annual conference in Canberra 2015.

Kathryn met with the Liberal MP for Gilmore Ann Sudmalis, and spoke to her about the problem of antibiotic resistance. Minister Sudmalis has a BSc and worked as a high school science teacher for 10 years and, as a newly elected member of the Government, now serves on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health, as well as Education and Training. She was highly engaged in the discussion about antibiotic resistance and understood the depth of the problem, as well as noting her own personal experiences with antibiotics and hospital infections.

Mike also attended question time in the House of Representatives. For a scientist this seemed to be a pointless exercise with a complete lack of constructive debate, collegiality or respect in the House. We expect more from our sporting champions. Our federal politicians need to consider the example they are setting as role models for young Australians.

There was a fair bit of doom and gloom surrounding the current Government’s lack of appreciation of the value of science and the risk of real cuts in the upcoming May budget.

Greens MP Adam Bandt spoke to delegates about the Greens Science and Research Policy (a road map to increase R&D investment to 3% of GDP) and their concern about cuts in the upcoming budget. He presented the Respect Research campaign seeking signatures to a petition that will empower the Greens to move a motion in the House of Representatives to ask the government about science funding in the lead up to the Federal Budget. The campaign rapidly attracted 10,000 signatures and has already been raised in the Senate on March 27, which called on the government to protect research funding from cuts in the upcoming budget.

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