Science meets Parliament 2014

‘No other nation does it quite like this.’

Catriona Jackson, CEO of Science & Technology Australia, opened the proceedings at Science meets Parliament 2014 by telling us that more than half of our elected representatives will be personally involved.

Last week, almost 200 scientists from around Australia gathered to meet ‘face to face with the decision makers in Canberra’. Now in its 14th year, this two-day event aims to teach scientists how to communicate more effectively with politicians, policymakers and the media, and also to give them the opportunity to actually meet parliamentarians themselves and put this into action.

We were addressed by many speakers over those two days. These included some of our country’s leaders, each with their own call to action. Ian Macfarlane, Minister for Industry, appealed for closer collaboration with industry and greater commercialisation. Bill Shorten, Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Science, urged us to make science a national political issue. Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist of Australia, advocated a long-term strategy for science, which should include areas such as education and community engagement, as well as research.

However, the majority of speakers were there to teach us about effective communication. I found this very informative and wish to share with you what I have learnt.

Below, I summarise the main ideas from most of the talks. Many speakers touched on similar topics and advice, I’ve tried to combine them together into a single cohesive guide. If you would prefer more of a ‘blow-by-blow’ account of each speaker, check out Nick Falkner’s comprehensive notes on his blog.

A note about terminology: I use the terms politician and policymaker throughout. Just to be clear, I use the former to refer to our elected parliamentary representatives and the latter to refer more generally to anyone involved in formulating and influencing public policy (this includes, for example, public servants).

Communication: general tips

  • Tell your story. People can engage with and readily understand stories. Craft a coherent story from your findings. This should highlight the key pieces of evidence, and should include some relevant anecdotes (consistent with your evidence).

  • From complicated to meaningful. When explaining complicated concepts, talk only about the parts that are meaningful to the audience. Know when to stop, we don’t usually want the full complexity! Test out your message on some non-expert friends who can give you frank advice.

  • Alternative outcomes, rather than bare uncertainty. Uncertainty is a key part of scientific research and is not part of most people’s everyday language or experience. A good way to frame uncertainty is to present alternative outcomes and the risks associated with each.

  • Build relationships. Communication requires trust. There is a (warranted) widespread perception, especially amongst policymakers, that ‘evidence’ can be created to support any desired viewpoint. Hence, they will only believe facts and advice given to them by people and organisations they trust. This is why building a relationship is cruicial and will usually need to be done over a period of time.

  • Get expert help. It’s okay not to be a communications expert. Not everyone will have the aptitude or interest in this activity. It’s fine to ask others to do it for you. (But we can’t all pass the buck, some of us will need to be communications experts!)

Communicating with politicians

  • Understand the politicians’s goals and drivers. Your advice needs to help the politician meet their committments. For example, if you are talking with someone from the government, what did they promise in the last election? Of course, you also have your own goals. Aim to create win-win solutions.

  • Solutions, not entitlements. Don’t simply make requests. Politicians are bombarded by such claims all the time and will most likely ignore you. Instead, talk about solutions, and specifically for the problems that matter to them.

  • Craft your message. A successful one will have:

    • a narrative,
    • evidence (must be consistent with and supporting the narrative),
    • some ‘breakthrough’ examples (everyone loves scientific ‘breakthroughs’),
    • cost/benefit estimates.

    The last of these is important. The cost of any policy will be heavily scrutinised before it even gets close to the implementation stage. There are at least two benefits to discussing the costs yourself. Firstly, it shows that you can ‘speak the language’ of policymaking, by engaging in this key step in the decision making process. Secondly, it gives you the opportunity to make a compelling case for the benefits, otherwise it will be left to someone with less knowledge and enthusiasm.

  • Unite. For large groups it is very helpful to talk with a single voice. Bill Shorten gave the example of the NDIS. Providing assistance to people with disabilities was always a moral imperative, but it wasn’t until the very many support and lobby groups came together as part of the Every Australian Counts campaign and presented a single message that it gained significant political traction. According to Mr Shorten, a challenge for us when advocating for science is to find our unifying message.

  • Plan ahead. At the conclusion of the meeting you will want to have some next steps. Perhaps it might be the opportunity to present some more detailed findings, or a referral to a more senior politician. Think about your desired next steps as you plan your meeting.

Communicating with policymakers

  • Learn the ‘logic’ of policymaking. Science and policymaking have different goals. Science is about finding the truth, policy is about making decisions. This gives each a different dynamic. Science has a special status within policymaking due to its role in interrogating and elucidating true facts of the world. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal is to make decisions. Anything you say as a scientist should be to assist with that process.

  • Answer the question. It is vital to answer the exact question of interest to policymakers, with reasonable caveats. Don’t answer a tangential or related question simply because you know more about it (hence the importance of the ‘reasonable caveats’).

  • Understand the policy cycle. The are multiple stages to the development of policy: understanding and formulating the questions, exploring potential solutions, costing and comparing the various options, implementing the selected solution, and finally evaluating the outcomes. The stages aren’t necessarily linear, a policy can go back and forth many times as more is learnt about the problem and the policy is refined.

    If you wish to get involved, find out what stage of the development cycle the current policy is at when giving advice. For example, if a policy has already been implemented and is at the evaluation stage, it’s not helpful to give suggestions on how it should have been formulated differently.

    Think about at what stage your knowledge would be useful. Target, and time, your advice appropriately.

Communicating with journalists

  • Tell your story. This was already mentioned above, but is particularly important here. Journalists write stories. They need to turn your news into a story. You can help them by doing this for them. Otherwise, they will have to do it for you and may unwittingly distort the facts in the process.

  • What makes your story newsworthy? There are many factors that make stories ‘newsworthy’, including its timing & location, whether it is inherently interesting, involves people, is controversial, etc. You don’t need conflict to generate media interest. Conflict generally only enters the picture once the issue makes the transition from being only about science to also being about political action.

  • Simplify, just enough. Journalists need to dumb things down to make their stories accessible. Help them out by dumbing it down for them, in way that doesn’t distort the facts. Avoid jargon and unnecessary detail. Focus on key findings and messages.

  • Reduce ambiguity and uncertainty. Scientific research and journalism often has opposing aims. Journalists generally don’t like shades of grey and long timelines, they add complication to stories. Formulate a story that doesn’t require too much of either. Otherwise, they might do this for you in a way that you don’t like.

  • Keep searching for media time. There is plenty of space and time available in the media, just not necessarily on ‘prime time’. You can get exposure by going to local radio stations or newspapers, or for more specialist or niche shows and publishers.

  • Practise. You can develop your media skills by writing regularly. Two ways to do this are to write a blog or for The Conversation. Some more resources are available from Inspiring Australia.

Press coverage

If you wish to read more about Science meets Parliament, I recommend Ara Sarafian’s great summary on The Conversation.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the Victorian Branch of the Statistical Society of Australia, the Victorian Centre for Biostatistics and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute for supporting my attendance at Science meets Parliament 2014.

I also wish to thank Science & Technology Australia for organising the event, all of the guest speakers and the very many Senators and Members of Parliament who made the time for private meetings with us.

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