ASC delegates at Science Meets Parliament

Written by Claire Harris.

Science (communication) meets Parliament

The Australian Science Communicators became an official organisation member of STA in November 2022. This momentous (and long-worked on membership) opened the door to parliament… Well… to Science Meets Parliament – an annual event (COVID aside) that aims to directly connect parliamentarians with scientists, technologists and science communicators.

A 2023 record for SMP

87 MPs and advisors were part of the main program
95 parliamentarians have taken part in some way eg. Dinner
This constitutes 40% of Parliament; a record in 2023.

SMP was delivered in 2 parts:

ASC delegates

The ASC’s delegates attended through the STA membership and other ASC members also registered as individuals. This blog post shares some thoughts about the experience from four of the delegates as well as a little more background about SMP.

Who attended:

Overall the delegates gained: education about parliament generally, met with MPs or parliamentary staff, insights into view of science, networking with other attendees. Here’s more about their experience.

1-2 point snapshot: What our delegates gained from SMP as individuals

Preeti Castle: 

  • Insights into others’ experiences and what they have learned from their own practices. Some good ideas to incorporate into what I do. 
  • A greater awareness of resources available to access information about parliamentary committees/groups.

Claire Harris: 

  • Ground-truthing about what science and engagement priorities are being discussed by the individuals in leadership positions of some of our high-profile STEM organisations. 
  • Particularly enjoyed hearing Cathy Foley talking about innovation and that a lot of STEM nowadays is too incremental. (Refer to the inventiveness metric).

Phil Dooley:

  • Realised that, as science communicators we do understand how to engage with non-scientists. For most science communicators it is a given that we will need to find out from parliamentarians and their staff what their values, needs and priorities are before we decide how to engage with them.

Adam Selinger:

  • I was always curious about SMP, especially as my engagement with parliamentarians, advisors and Departments increased over time. 
  • Very interesting to hear from and meet senior people in Government, and have some of my views validated; and to gain insights into the ways others in the STEM policy space think and work.

A taste of the parliamentary patchwork

All delegates have been around science and science communication for a while. But being in the room to get a 2023 view of how parliamentarians are engaging with STEM, was extremely valuable.

“Being a fly on the wall, hearing from senior people was super valuable,” said Phil. 

“Science communication 101, obviously, is stuff that we all know. But SMP gave me a reminder that a lot of people don’t know we’ve been swimming in that for the last 20 years. There’s still a lot of people who it doesn’t reach,” said Phil.

Preeti has a lot of experience working with government. While she felt that SMP would be a fantastic experience for more junior science communicators, she gained a lot from participating. 

“SMP reminded me of the basics, including when we’re dealing with government, it’s really all about understanding what the priorities are for the government of the day,” said Preeti. 

“The timing of what’s being proposed and what changes are on the horizon means it’s important to make sure that our science communication is aligned to that. Oh and to make sure you have good briefing notes and can be succinct.

“Something new I learned about was the huge resources available online — such as Hansard records — to find out what parliamentarians are interested in and how to get access to groups and committees,” said Preeti.

Key takeaways:

  • It’s important to keep relevant advisors in the loop and to be in touch regularly.
  • Parliamentary Friends of Science established in 2012 and going strong.
  • Tools like Hansard records can greatly reduce research time.
  • Leverage timing, networks and partnerships in science communication to get cut-through into policy.

Where do parliamentarians get their science information?

It’s important to encourage parliamentarians, like all decision makers, to consider: “Where do they get their science information from?”.

Parliamentarians get their science information and perspectives from a range of sources, including:

  • organisations and formal bodies such as STA
  • their parliamentary counterparts in state and territory governments
  • information that goes through their office including media stories or briefs
  • contacts they’ve formed relationships with, for example, through meeting at events such as SMP.

“SMP reinforced for me how important it is to constantly keep your relevant advisors in the loop, keep them informed, engage early, engage consistently,” said Preeti.

“MPs are generally very well informed, they are curious, they do want to engage, they do want to learn, they want to understand and get across the issues of the day. It’s the advisors who will delve down into the detail and will quite often decide what’s on the agenda, and will help prioritise the issues,” said Preeti.

“Listening to the MP that I had a chance to meet was interesting,” said Phil. 

“He was a new MP, from country Victoria and he was very, very excited to be meeting the scientists and me. He was also very proud to say that he had a science degree in agriculture. 

“One of the things he’s on a mission to do was to get rid of this notion that he keeps hearing around the place that “the science is settled”. This was encouraging to hear. For those of us who care about the matter of what science is, it’s common to understand that science doesn’t settle things, science is never satisfied. Scientists always state: “But, what if”. It’s an important message, that this isn’t a weakness of science. But it’s a strength; that we don’t know for sure and that we use the evidence,” said Adam.

Key takeaways:

  • Use the MPs in your local region. (Think about the MP that’s the contact for both the scientists and end users/advocates.) 
  • Connect with specific portfolios, look at committees that are going on at the moment, or what inquiries are happening. 

What are MPs really like?

Living their lives as representatives of their constituents and leaders on a national stage, MPs are generally knowledgeable and able to talk with people from any background.

Phil said: “Pollies generally have a good working knowledge of issues already – they were not a blank slate on which I could write new science knowledge. They see issues arising from a good way away and get on top of them.”

According to Claire, they are ‘people people’, saying “a big part of the job is to listen and comprehend different issues to implement (or block) policy.

“The meeting I had with Senator Jessica Walsh showed me that she was extremely interested in hearing from scientists. I was with an Associate Professor and PhD student in the field of health/medicine. Senator Walsh was very engaged and intelligent and I heard this same observation from a lot of SMP delegates about the people they met with,” said Claire.

Adam had an energetic meeting with his MP and walked away feeling that there was genuine interest and enthusiasm from MPs in meeting working scientists and communicators.

“They want to hear our stories and share theirs. I would hope this would make Parliamentarians more receptive to response to letters or meeting requests down the track. It will be interesting to hear if that’s the case,” said Adam.

Opportunities for science communication, as a profession

“Certainly much opportunity to be involved and show leadership in all the current ‘dialogue’ around STEM (i.e. engaging more/all Australians; reaching under-represented cohorts and the like). The risk is not being active enough! As this is the very work many science communicators are committed to. For example, can we do more to promote wide participation from our various members / audiences in the current Diversity in STEM Dialogue Starter?”

– Adam Selinger

“With all the momentum behind STEM, now is a great opportunity to develop a narrative around what is good science communication and / or best practice science communications guidelines. It’d probably be good to do this in conjunction with STA/others, leveraging their reach, to help elevate the profession and to demonstrate the value of expertise.”

– Preeti Castle

“If the STA material was anything to go by, scientists need a bunch more familiarisation with how to talk to people with different values to themselves (i.e. policymakers)”

– Phil Dooley

“I think there’s an opportunity (and a need) to address the lack of understanding of how much professional science communicators can assist scientists and science organisations to engage with political and government systems and processes. We need to better demonstrate how communication, education, engagement – the bridging work – can add value and to guide investment, rather than accepting the status quo.”

– Claire Harris

More sophisticated investment in science communication needed

It’s probably less clear if parliamentarians understand and can make use of science communicators. Science communicators can be incredibly valuable for producing engaging stories, but it can go deeper than that, according to Claire.

“Science communicators understand different contexts and translating between areas. While there’s frequently encouragement or imploring of scientists to ‘tell your story’, ‘engage with kids’, and ‘talk in the media’, I’ve been hearing this for 20 years,” she said.

“I wanted leaders in these organisations to be able to say: ‘We need this communication and this is how we’re incentivising it. This is how we’re making it possible for scientists and technologists in these different organisations to do this’. It would move the action forward, rather than asking everyone else for it to happen. I feel like this is where ASC and science communicators can really step in and say, ‘Look, we need to bridge these gaps and this is how we can do it. This is how you can invest. This is how we can have an impact,’ said Claire.

Phil agreed saying, “Communication is often such an afterthought. We need to plan things from the beginning and make them more organised.”

Preeti added, “It’s so important to have an end-user perspective and think about the purpose or why you’re telling the story.”

“If you’re looking for government investment, or private investment in your science, it will be a different story. I think until we tighten that lens as to who we are aiming for, we are just putting out stories. They might be beautiful, and compelling but they might diffuse and not reach the intended audience,” she said.

Key takeaways:

  • It’s important to understand the priorities of government, their challenges, and what changes are afoot; timing is important. 
  • Science communicators have a breadth of experience and understanding different contexts and how they interact with each other.
  • What is a powerful role science communicators can play? Is it entertainment, is it brokering knowledge?
  • There’s still a lack of awareness around science communication.

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