Gentlemen’s rules are out, scientists: it’s time to unleash the beast

by Rod Lamberts and Will J. Grant

War has been declared, and those who recognise the fundamental role science plays in everyday life need to decide where they stand.

Building on the budgetary and rhetorical slights of recent months, rumours are now afield that the Gillard government is looking at cutting the National Health and Medical Research Council budget by $400 million.

Let’s hear that again. Four. Hundred. Million. Dollars. This is not blue sky research, not theoretical explorations at the edges of science, but health and medical research. Could any science be more obviously in the public interest?

The more politically aware of our colleagues have already suggested that this could be an ambit claim, the government threatening lots before taking only a little. This is one of the oldest tricks in the politics of budgeting, and it should be called as it is: simply appalling.

But here’s the thing: rather than whine about how unfair this is, bang our fists on our lab benches in outrage – and then dutifully accept the crumbs we’re given – how about we act?

Science is political. The science we do is inherently shaped by the funding landscape of government and the problems and issues of society. This means that to have any influence on how science is organised and funded in Australia, we as scientists and science communicators must act in ways that matter in the arena of politics.

But our scientists and science communicators are a remarkably polite species, playing – and self-limited – by the rules and niceties of science.

The Inspiring Australia Conference held in Melbourne last week was yet another in a long line of science communication conferences that exemplified this trait.

We are well-meaning and passionate people, but hamstrung by an inability to force our political and industrial leaders to support the strong role for science in Australia that mainstream Australians want.

Our scientists and science communicators need to play on the political stage. But you can’t expect to get traction playing only by the “gentlemanly” rules of science. Others don’t. So what can we do?

1) Get involved in opinion writing, and support those who do. Get your stories and arguments out there in The Conversation, The Drum or Crikey, or in any newspaper in Australia. Don’t aim for just the stuff you read, aim for the stuff read by voters in key marginals. Tailor what you’re writing for that audience.

2) Get out there on radio and TV. And again, don’t just go to the ABC, go to as many different outlets as possible. You might despise the stance of any particular shock jock on any number of issues, but if you can get to their listeners then that is a win. You never know – on your particular issue, the shock jock might agree with you.

3) Use stories. One image of a sick child suffering is a very powerful tool, but a more positive version is to play on success stories, “I had X, but research into it improved my life”. People love stories, and we communicators know this very well, as do those who communicate against us.

4) Write letters to government departments, questioning the implications of any funding decision. Follow Bernard Keane’s advice and be creative in your questions. For example, you might write to the Minister for School Education and ask them how a decline in medical research might affect childhood obesity and schooling policies.

5) PhD students should be trained in a culture that recognises that alongside scholarly communication with peers, their work belongs in a discourse with society. Supervisors should make it clear to students that they must know not only what is happening in the Advanced Journal of X, they must also pay some attention to each and every media outlet.

Of course we recognise that not all scientists and science communicators are able, motivated or in even allowed to do this. Many are located in organisations that dictate the extent and manner in which they can express personal opinion in the public sphere.

So it is time to draw on colleagues and supporters in other areas to use the freedoms they have. Academics, use your pulpits! We’re probably best placed to begin making more noise. In fact, it’s our job.

Political communication is not beneath us. It is what we as scientists and science communicators must do.