Science Meets Parliament report Benjamin Schwessinger 2022

Benjamin Schwessinger, Research School of Biology, ANU College of Science, ANU

Politics needs Science and Science needs politicians.

As scientists is it worth our time to engage with politicians and politics? Like many other high performances high pressure professions, we scientists are time poor and too often too busy with too much busy work. So, it begs the question if adding another item to the to-do list is worth the effort.

One day early summer 2021 our ASPS president, Dr. Peter Ryan, invited members to join Science Meets Parliament 2022 (SMP22). I said “yes” of course, it being held in a far distant future without an overloaded schedule, just yet. I always had a great interest in politics and politicians as my father was actively involved in regional politics for over four decades including being major of my hometown for three.  SMP is a Science and Technology of Australia flagship event that brings together scientists, public servants, policymakers, and politicians for about a week to learn from each other and to network. It all started in 1999 as a small friendly face-to-face event, yet this year’s SMP22 was unfortunately another online event due to COVID19. The event itself was a series of classic lectures, panel discussion style workshops and virtual networking events one could attend live or catch up on during the week. Besides skill building this year’s focus was on indigenous knowledge and panel members where often the who-is-who of Australian Science and Technology including multiple Nobel Laureates, CEOs, and prominent media figures. Some of the sessions worked well while others suffered from the online format, at least for me. I would have preferred to randomly bump into people, to start spontaneous conversations in hallways, and get to know people who might or might not be of benefit to know some years down the track. Path can be very short if you know the right people I learned early on in my life.

My personal highlights were the National Press Club address with Professor Mark Hutchinson and meeting parliamentarian Maria Vamvakinou.

The Press Club dinner was delicious while the address was a bit disappointing. For my taste Prof. Hutchinson’s address was too much self-involved, ego driven stardom with “bench to boardroom” talk that praised recent government investment into translational science. Of course, additional investment into science is very welcome. We in Australia clearly need to get better in converting yesterday’s wonderful basic science investment into commercial outcomes today. No question. Yet Prof. Hutchinson could have warned the audience more explicitly that we need to invest more into the whole knowledge generation to translation pipeline because without out groundbreaking basic science today there will be nothing to commercialize tomorrow.

Our group conversation with MP Vamvakinou was impressive as she came very well prepared to the discussion with clear objectives wanting to learn more and to listen. Maria was very engaged, fully on top of it, and very smart. One topic that really hit home with me is that Australia has a wide-ranging skill shortage in many STEM related sectors which holds back the economy. This was reiterated several weeks later at another National Press Club event hosting Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia David Littleproud, which was sponsored by Crop Life.

Us scientists have a clear role to play here, at universities and other research organizations. We train the future workforce who will step into leadership roles, be it in politics, the public service or industry. Delivering world class education in STEM is a very significant contribution to Australia’s economy. Of course, our basic science has the potential to be transformational if it is supported in with the right frameworks. So, all our science needs funding and science funding needs advocacy at all levels. We as scientists need to listen to policy makers and public servants to identify joined problems and to engage in meaningful conversations. We all have our role to play, one-on-one during spontaneous hallway conversations or via our scientific societies. It is well worth our time to patiently and levelheaded illustrate the worth of our combined research pipeline to society. If not some of us who else?