A new climate in Canberra

Thanks to Brigid Mullane for this opinion piece for Scope.

Since Tony Abbott announced his new cabinet in September, much has been made of the absence of the word ‘science’ in any minister’s title.

Ian Macfarlane is now Minister for Industry, which includes responsibility for the CSIRO. In the previous government, Kim Carr was Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. So, could the change be mainly a expression of Tony Abbott’s stated preference for short titles, rather than a sidelining of science?

The government has disbanded the Climate Commission, seeing no need for a dedicated body to review local and worldwide climate research, and explain it to the government and the people of Australia. It must have great confidence in its Direct Action policies as a way to deal with climate change.

The new Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, expressed this confidence in an interview with the ABC, where he also affirmed his government’s acceptance of climate science and the existing (5% by 2020) emissions targets for Australia, and its in-principle support for ratifying the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol. He noted that research by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO was available to the government, so he is not averse to climate research as such.

At the same time, the government is moving to shut down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Climate Change Authority, as promised during its campaign. This will require legislation, which the government might find difficult to get through the Senate, whether the existing one, or the new one in July next year. The uncertainty is disruptive, particularly for the CEFC and its clients.

The Senate might also oppose the planned carbon-tax repeal bill, but this could present an opportunity for some negotiation. One part of the Direct Action plan is an Emissions Reduction Fund to buy emissions abatements. This has something in common with emissions trading schemes, in that it seeks to use market mechanisms to reduce lowest-cost emissions first.  Perhaps some compromise bill could be devised, that would be acceptable to the House and the Senate.

Apart from climate science, there was not much talk about science during the campaign. Science in education is the province of the new Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, who has not made any announcements about this. Meanwhile, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority continues its work on a national curriculum.

And on the subject of education, some people seem to think that political conservatives are generally anti-science, a view expressed by a recent ABC website contributor. In a personal-attack-style piece on the new government he advised, “don’t be at all surprised to see a push for ‘intelligent design’ to be included in school curriculums”.  This kind of hyperbolic speculation might say more about the ABC’s editorial policy, than about government science policy.

A more rational assessment would suggest that there will be disruption, perhaps for months, to activities meant to deal with climate change, as the new government seeks to replace existing programs with its own. In other areas, there is no evidence so far that the role of science in informing government policy will change very much. Of course, there are many other Abbott policies that could mean big changes if enacted, but that topic is outside the scope of Scope.

Event review: Simon McKeon Big Picture Seminar

Thanks to Maia Sauren for the run down of the Big Picture Seminar.

The problem with research, say hospital CEOs, is that no one is held accountable for it. If the Australian government followed the recommendations of the McKeon review, that might not be the case. The Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research 2013, chaired by Simon McKeon, highlights that the majority of the 1998 Wills Review recommendations were successfully implemented, and delivered a substantial positive impact on the sector.

Hospital CEOs begin each fiscal year with a nice line item for research, but there’s no KPI that holds them to it. Over the year, amounts are slowly shaved off for urgent and accountable matters; if reducing surgery waiting times is on the public’s mind, then that’s where the money goes.

In terms of bang for buck, Australia does pretty well. Our life expectancy is 82 years, a good 3 years above that of the US, at half their per capita cost. While total investment in HMR is not known, it was estimated to be over $6bn in 2012. In 2009-2010, government expenditure on health care amounted to 4% of government expenditure, estimated to rise to an unsustainable 7% in 2049. Just by addressing healthcare-associated infections by translating research into policies, Australian healthcare costs could drop by up to $1–2bn p.a.

The catchphrase of the McKeon review recommendations is “embed research into the health system”. This includes optimising investments, tying health outcomes to research recommendations, translating existing and new research into practices and policies, monitoring and evaluating outcomes, and supporting research commercialisation. To support this, the McKeon review recommends helping drive philanthropic investment in health and medical research, similar to overseas models.

So what can you do, as a science communicator? Bang the drum.

The summary report has clear, specific, strategic recommendations, supported by facts and figures, clear visualisations, and case studies. Ensure policymakers know the about it. Highlight the economic value of streamlined investments, of commercialising research outcomes, of priority driven research. Ensure people in decision making capacities have the facts.

The full 300-page McKeon Report and the summary version are available online at http://www.mckeonreview.org.au

From the President – Rod’s update

Howdy folks,

Well aren’t these exciting times to be an ASC-ist? This month marks the beginning of the formal process we hope will lead the ASC down the path to professionalisation.

Professionalisation will lift the value of everyone’s ASC membership to the next level. Being a member of a professional ASC association should be a peer-endorsement of competence (hell, let’s say excellence) in whatever aspect of science communication that member operates. I personally would love to see a time where people who want to engage science communication services actively look for membership of the ASC as a badge of trustworthiness and expertise that is second to none.

The call for initial submissions went out from Will Grant to the ASC list on March 27, and already a solid handful of responses has come back. We have received interesting and useful thoughts, and also some offers of help to move us ahead. There is a very enthusiastic vibe surrounding this process so far, and I hope any and all of you who are interested will get on the band wagon.

Of course, this is not a trivial exercise, and the ramifications are not trivial either. If you have any ideas or comments, concerns or reservations, please contact Will or me.

We are also now in the build-up to the Big Science Communication Summit in June, an event that will have a strong ASC presence woven throughout (stay tuned for more via the list). For me, this really marks the beginning of the countdown to the ASC conference in February 2014, and I expect that issues, ideas and relationships from the Summit will inspire us in building our own conference.

And speaking of the 2014 ASC national conference … would you like to be part of the conference team? We need a few dedicated and idea-rich folks to play with us starting ASAP. Please contact me if you want to explore the wonder that is the ASC conference committee!

Cheers for now,


Dr Rod Lamberts

National President

Australian Science Communicators



President’s busperson’s holiday in London, Oxford and Paris

During a holiday to the UK and Paris, I couldn’t resist including some science communication experiences among the many leisure activities.

I visited Phil Dooley, former president of the ASC NSW branch and Executive member at his workplace near Oxford. Phil is the News and Education Officer at JET (Joint European Torus), which is the shared fusion experiment run by the European Fusion Development Agreement. Phil is part of the team which communicates to various audiences the research involved in creating fusion events in a plasma.

Among his many duties Phil selects the picture and story of the week for the EFDA website. Phil showed me through the facility and we were able to walk around the world’s largest tokamak as it was shut down for maintenance. My accompanying photo shows Phil dwarfed by the power array which heats the plasma. I contributed to the day by giving a talk to staff about two exhibitions I developed about nuclear science. This provoked a discussion about how to communicate this complex subject to a general public and the relative value of interactive displays.
In London I talked with the Roland Jackson, CEO of the British Science Association, about the science communication initiatives of the BSA. We spent much of our time talking about Sciencewise, the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues.

I also had a general chat with Karen Bultitude, an Australian who is lecturer in Science Communication and Director of Research in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the University College London. Karen is a mine of information about the active UK science communication area.

A couple of museum visits were noteworthy. The Wellcome Collection in Euston Road, London, stages artful and intriguing displays and is well worth a visit. Across the Channel in Paris, the Musee des Arts et Metiers features a great collection but displayed with a lack of context and engagement. The main exception is the automatons’ theatre. The charm of these venerable mechanised robotic objects transcends the simplicity of the interpretation. I didn’t stay for the demonstration but I’d expect it would be worth watching even though it’s only in French.

Jesse Shore
ASC President

What will SKA do for science communication?

The news this week that the Square Kilometre Array will be shared between sites in Australia and South Africa seems to have been received well in Australian science circles. What opportunities and challenges will this mammoth science project bring to engaging the community with science? Much of the science is complex but the project attracts media attention partly because of its scale and expense, and partly because of the competition between nations to win the bid.

Astronomy holds the fascination of a wide range of people even though few are aware of how the technology developed to study the stars has impacted on their everyday lives. Wireless LAN was a recent spin-off of radio astronomy. The very scale of the SKA should bring new developments as technology evolves to process the vast amounts of data and other extreme needs of the project.

But what of the science? The antennae in the different continents will scan the sky for signals of different radio wavelengths. One set of antennae record the longer wavelengths, the other the shorter. It’s like listening to different messengers who each bring separate parts of the overall message.

Perhaps by splitting the project between the two main nations the SKA decision has both divided the wavelengths and multiplied the world’s attention. ‘Watch this space’ becomes ‘watch these spaces’ or more properly ‘watch these outer spaces’.

In the spirit of sharing perhaps my opening question becomes, “What will SKA do for science communication and what should science communicators do for SKA?” My antennae are listening for your replies.

Jesse Shore
National President

Rally for Research – Adelaide

This article was originally published here with pictures and video.

In Australia at the moment there is a real fear that our Government (who are supposed to be on the left side of that political line) is going to cut $400 million from medical research budgets. To protest this rallies are being run in most Australian capital cities to advertise the role of scientists in the community and to show all scientists that collectively we have a voice that can be heard, you just have to start shouting.

A couple of days ago the rally in my city was held and whilst I couldn’t make it (due to teaching obligations) my good friend Thomas Tu, with whom I started Disease of the Week (on which he has also written a post about this) a few years ago, has been heavily involved. You can find a radio interview he did on one of Australia’s largest radio stations, Triple J, here (about a third of the way in) and there is a video of him giving a speech at the rally. He is standing on the steps of our city’s Parliament House.

So what can you do if you can’t make a rally or are in another country but want to show your support? Jump on the Discoveries need Dollars website or the Facebook page and ‘Like’ or follow the Twitter page and at all these places there is more info.

We are trying to make it a big issue to protect medical research, our livelihoods and encourage more students into science careers and it makes it very difficult when not only is money taken away but when its predicted to affect early career researchers hardest.

If you can help and you care about medical research I implore you to do as much as you can.

I’ll get off my high-horse now.

James Byrne

Associate Lecturer at University of Adelaide
Bacteriology PhD student and writer at Disease Prone

Researchers rally over $400m cuts

Yesterday in Melbourne and Sydney, rallies were held to protest against the possible $400m (20%) reduction in the National Health and Medical Research budget. Thousands gathered outside Parliament house in Melbourne, scientists, students and professors stood alongside those who were the recipients of the medical research scientists had conducted.

From a student at the rally:

I am a student at La Trobe University studying double science. The budget cuts in medical research threaten my future job posibilities and those of my friends and colleagues…Australian medical research provides treatments and cures for millions of people around the world and govement funded research often funds research that big pharma companies would not fund as it does not have a high return, such as treatments and cures for third world diseases like malaria.

And from a neuroscience researcher at the rally:

I am an early career researcher whose salary is funded by the NHMRC. I will be conducting brain imaging research to investigate the neurobiological basis of psychosis and schizophrenia.

The changes will have a direct impact on the funding available to conduct medical research. This will have a direct effect on the ability for me to obtain competitive research grants (which are already very competitive with a success rate of about 15-20%) and ultimately to conduct research.

>What was the atmosphere like?
It was a static rally involving some speakers talking about the importance of medical research, a lot of chanting (no cuts to research! etc etc), a lot of cheering and clapping. Many people came down in their white lab coats which was great to see. There were a lot of people holding banners with various slogans (I didn’t have one unfortunately). There were students to Professors there, so it wasn’t just a ‘young’ rally. The atmosphere was alive, you could tell people there felt very passionate about the proposed cuts, not only because of their jobs being at stake but because people are passionate about their area of research and ultimately want to understand and provide better treatments for patients.

A rally is going to be held in Perth. So get out their and communicate about these expected budget changes!

George also blogs as PopSciGuy

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.

Send in the Scientists

A story that highlights: the apparent lack of scientific input into government policy. The effectiveness of anonymous dissident websites…

A proposal to amend the Federal Criminal Code Act could see a number of plants species become outlawed.

The proposed schedule reads as follows:

  • Any plant containing mescaline including any plant of the genus Lophophora.
  • Any plant containing DMT including any plant of the species Piptadenia peregrine
  • Salvia divinorum EPL. & Jativa (Diviners Sage)
  • Mitragyna speciosa Korth (Krantom)
  • Catha edulis Forsk (Khat)
  • Any species of the genus Ephedra which contains ephedrine
  • Any species of the genus Brugmansia Pers.
  • Any species of the genus Datura L.

The government (Attorney General’s department) sought consultation on the proposed schedule via its website. Industry was not offered input into the consultation paper.

Somehow the consultation paper was found and a concerned grower notified the peak industry body Nursery Garden Industry Australia (NGIA)

An anonymous dissident website was set up here www.gardenfreedom.com. This group consisted of concerned academics, gardeners and the nursery industry.

Through social media [and some press] this website captured 2,510 submissions.

The concern regarding the proposed drug schedule were ‘the blanket ban’ approach and the seemingly lack of scientific data, including plant taxa, to classify the precursors or drugs.

Also there was community and industry consensus that Brugmansia and Datura should be excluded.

Dr Anthony Kachenko (NGIA) was also concerned about the lack of scientific data and input from industry.

No comment was received from the Attorney General’s department regarding any of these concerns and no success in determining who was involved in the committee that put together the schedule, apart from the fact that it has been disbanded.

This committee put together a document called ‘Code of Practice for supply diversion into illicit drug manufacture.” The parties involved appear on the back page of that document and include Science Industry Australia. However, they have denied any input into the proposed drug schedule.

This schedule also has a potential impact on the Native Food Industry who use wattleseed from Acacia sp. Some Acacia sp contain DMT. Australian Native Food Industry Limited (ANFIL) has invested lots of $s in projects with RIRDC on the toxicological data of some Acacia sp. Was this data taken into consideration? ANFIL also raises its concern at a ‘blanket ban.’

Repeated requests [ongoing] to the Minister’s department via email and phone have failed to answer any of the concerns raised in submissions or who was involved in the committee that put together the proposed schedule. Maybe its time to initiate a FOI request?