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Scientists Told to Get Dirty

By Simon Grose

Science Minister Chris Evans is a no-nonsense, tough-talking coach who has given Team Science a reality check.

It’s almost a year since ministerial responsibility for science in Canberra passed from one gruff, burly Senator to another – from Kim Carr to Chris Evans.

While this had no effect on the lives of the nation’s scientists, for the 200 or so at this year’s Science Meets Parliament event hosted by Science & Technology Australia, that ministerial shuffle made for a markedly different experience.

Scientists are no different from any other constituency in their tendency to be a bit self-important. Telling voters what they want to hear is the key to political success, so politicians prefer to play to a constituency’s need for affirmation rather than challenge it.

Carr has been doing this for scientists for years. If he had been at the podium in the Great Hall of Parliament House, the audience would have been buoyed by a message about their importance to Australia and how much the government valued them.

Evans offered no such blandishments. He listed climate change, the supertrawler, our Olympic swimming performance, tobacco packaging and the health of gay men as examples of issues of the moment in which science had a role to play in devising policy. While Carr would have extolled a central role for science in these and other issues, Evans told science to fight for a place in the ruck.

“One of the things that has struck me since being in the portfolio is that sometimes there's a sense that science is separate, and if only we understood science the rest would all be all right,” he said.

“The reality is the world is far more complex. People have their own rationalities, and science has to compete in the mix. We need to understand that and not be precious about it.”

He said that although “we always have to advocate for evidence-based policy” we should also “be mature about how that all works. It doesn't mean that we discard the science, but we need to understand how that interacts with other perspectives.”

It did mean that “scientists and science have to be part of that rough and tumble,” and “looking bruised by engagement and withdrawing and complaining about how science isn't listened to is not the answer… people have to roll up their sleeves, get in there, get dirty and engage”.

To round it all off, he seemed mildly underwhelmed by the Parliamentary Friends of Science group that had been officially launched earlier that evening.

“I don't care how many science graduates are in Parliament quite frankly. You need a different skill set than pure science to succeed or otherwise in politics.”

Yes Minister. Thanks for the pep talk, er, reality check, er, half-time blast. Roll up the lab coat sleeves and let’s hit this rough and tumble thing.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (