Monday, 13 April 2015

So what really happens at Science meets Parliament?

This year, thanks to the AIP executive, the Women in Physics group were able to send a representative to 'Science meets parliament'.  Taking on this challenge was WIP vice-chiar Jo Turner who's written this about her experience:

On the 23rd of March, I found myself on a plane winging it down to Canberra. I had no idea what to expect. Sure, I had been told that it would an amazing experience, and that I would be provided with a lot of information in the coming days, but to be honest, I was still nervous.

So what exactly is Science meets Parliament (SmP) and why was I nervous?
Science meets Parliament is an event run by Science and Technology Australia. Its goal is to provide professional development and networking opportunities to scientists from around Australia in order for them to better understand and communicate with media, policy makers and parliamentarians. The program looked amazing, with an amazing list of notables in the speaker line up, including Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb and Minister for Science and Industry Ian McFarlane. The list goes on and on.

So how does one go about attending this event? If you are part of scientific society that is a member of Science and Technology Australia, each Society is able to register a certain number of participants. I had recently become a part of the newly rejuvenated Women in Physics, of which our parent association the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) is a member. The committee agreed we should submit a candidate from the Women in Physics group to the AIP. 

Unfortunately we found our anticipated delegates unavailable, so I thought, I really need to step up and put myself forward. I submitted my nomination to our Chair, who accepted my nomination and submitted our nomination to the President of AIP. You can see there is a bit of a process here, usually involving a lot of emails. I myself had just recently finished organising our State branch’s nomination so I knew process. When the news came back, there I was – on the list of AIP representatives to the SmP! Now what to do?

First I read through all the information in the delegates handbook and booked all the necessary flights and accommodation. Unfortunately I didn’t realise we were at different locations each day, and thinking I was being clever I booked a hotel near Parliament house. I could walk it right? I then went through all the instructions. Prepare an information sheet. I then prepared another one on Women in Physics. Why would I do this? Because on the second day of the event, each delegate who elected to, was paired up with a Senator or Member of Parliament! This was why I was nervous! We were given lots of advice already in the handbook. Don’t ask for funding, be prepared, that sort of thing… but I just felt that until the meeting happened, I would never really know what was expected of me.

On the 24th March, the day’s events were held at the National Convention Centre. My plan was to catch a bus (it was a fifty minute walk otherwise) to save using taxi’s, but the weather blockaded my plan and provided sheeting rain instead (the first in ages I was informed). A taxi arrived quickly and got me there in little time, which lulled me into a false sense of security regarding taxi’s in Canberra (which I was soon to be informed of otherwise and provided evidence of later). 

The day was spent listening and speaking to members of the media, lobbyists, policy makers, eminent scientists, and science communicators who all gave a range of advice, albeit occasionally conflicting. This wasn’t a bad thing, because after further questioning about this, we found out it really depended on what we were doing, how we were doing it and who we were speaking to! It’s all in the details! The last session of the day was a mini-workshop, where the science communicators had each person present, and speak for one minute on their research to their fellows on their table. We had five minutes to prepare, and then we were on. Each table selected their winner through votes, and a second round of speaking was done with four to five tables of winners. Finally, each of those rounds winners spoke to the entire group of scientists, and we voted for the winner with applause. I would love to say I was one of those speakers through to the next round, but sadly I didn’t compare to some of the others on our table. I did myself a disservice, knowing I had started well, but completely lost the focus of my talk. The others on my table were kind but I knew I had to work on it! I feel like this session more than anything, was the key thing to prepare me for the next day. I had to ask myself, what did I want to say to the Senator I was meeting, what were my goals, and what did I want to get out of this?

We finished the day with reminders to be at the gala dinner on time. Only to be met with the dreaded lack of taxi issue. Thankfully it didn’t last as long as it might have, and we made it back to the hotel to quickly prettify ourselves before hiking it up to Parliament house. By taxi because it’s still a fifteen minute walk up the hill! The dinner was preceded by drinks in the front hall of parliament house, then progressed into the ball room. The food was lovely and speakers included Minister for Science and Industry Ian McFarlane, and Opposition leader Bill Shorten, President of the Business Council Catherine Livingstone, with Adam Spencer MC for the night.  

The most interesting thing was something I didn’t even realise until half way through the evening. One of the people seated at our table didn’t show up straight away. She later arrived, and introduced herself as Senator Lisa Singh, from Tasmania. The table were curious about what she had been doing and she explained she had been in the Senate chambers due to the bill they were currently debating (the legislation covering the level of data retention by Australian phone companies). Whilst she was chatting with the table, a bell sounded and small red lights flashed and she excused herself. Senators (and Members of Parliament) can be called to vote for a decision in the chamber (they keep an eye on the questions by watching TV monitors around Parliament house if they are not in the chambers) at almost any time, and they have only four minutes in which to get to the chamber to vote. She did eventually manage to get some dinner but was called away again later on. 

I also had a very interesting conversation with one of my table colleagues about progress in her career and about challenges for women with families in the scientific workforce. The biggest thing I learned from this conversation that an employer who is flexible and understands the needs of all people with families (and not just women) provides better opportunities for career improvement for women in scientific careers. She cited an incident where her husband was reprimanded for taking a day off to care for their children (he worked in a different field) and was questioned with “where was his wife?” – well: “she was attending an important meeting at work and they’re my children too!”.

The next day started with an exciting announcement (not scheduled) at Parliament House, by Chief Scientist Ian Chubb. The Importance of Advanced Physical and Mathematical Sciences to the Australian Economy report was being released and we had first look at the report (almost!). We learnt that a conservative contribution of approximately 22% of the GDP could be attributed to the work that is done by research in Australia. We learnt that a report like this is an excellent way that policy makers can now consider policy design and implementation regarding science in Australia. This announcement was followed by a lively Q & A session with Senator Kim Carr followed a break in the sessions.

A number of participants then headed off to the National Press Club for the filming of the nationally televised address by Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, but for some participants (like myself), remained behind to attend our scheduled meetings with Senators or parliamentarians. I was with three other scientists scheduled to meet with Senator Claire Moore. We were escorted through Parliament House to her office by a member of her staff. Unfortunately she did have to leave early on in our meeting to attend a division in the Senate, however she asked us to stay. 

Senator Moore’s staff taught us more about Parliament, and explained how the voting system worked, and showed us the chambers being televised. Despite having to leave initially, Senator Moore was able to spend quite a lot of time with us afterwards. She was very interested to hear about us and what we did and asked each one of us about our research areas. At one point she asked us as a group “what did you want to speak to me about specifically” and due to earlier conversations with my colleagues, I managed to spend a small amount of time speaking to Senator Moore about Women in Physics, and Women in Sciences in general. Senator Moore is currently the Shadow Minister for Women, communities and carers, so I felt that Senator Moore was an appropriate connection for our committee! We managed to spend nearly an hour and a half with Senator Moore, and she discussed many different topics and issues with us before our time was up.

The rest of the day was devoted to finding some time for lunch, before quickly running to line up to sit in the gallery of the Members for Parliament to watch Question time. Finally the day ended with a Parliamentary forum about where Science and Politics meet. The wrap for the day was cocktails, which I unfortunately had to miss as I needed to see if I could get an earlier flight to get back to my own house the same night (sadly the lack of taxis again proved my downfall and I spent the night in Brisbane before heading home the next day.

All in all it was an amazing experience, one in which I made many connections, and hopefully managed to disseminate information about our newly reformed committee! I certainly didn’t need to be nervous, but I admit I was exhausted by the time I got home – we fitted quite a lot into two days! Science and Technology Australia organised an excellent two days of experience for scientists and I would recommend to any scientist that they pursue chances to attend if they become available. 

My thanks to the Australian Institute of Physics for supporting my attendance, and I hope I made a good impression on Senator Moore as a representative of our society!