Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Meets Parliament (But No Minister)

By Guy Nolch

It’s not enough to win the hearts of politicians when the government itself lacks a head for science.

Last month saw the 19th staging of Science Meets Parliament, with a reported 200 scientists converging on Canberra to rattle the political cage and network with both politicians and other advocates for science.

The event arose from frustrations with the declining priority of science among the politicians of the 1990s. At that time, government expenditure on R&D was declining compared with other OECD nations, the “innovation” buzzword was first echoing in government circles, and CSIRO’s role (and funding model) was being refashioned away from basic research in favour of an increasingly corporate model.

Occasional meetings of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council would bring together the Prime Minister, Chief Scientist and other government ministers and agency chiefs to advise the government on matters relating to science and technology. However, during the Howard government the PM became increasingly absent from the meetings, and details of the ground covered and recommendations made were harder to pin down. It didn’t help that specialist science journalists like Dr Peter Pockley were becoming thin on the ground.

But just because the PM had other priorities didn’t mean that Parliament as a whole had lost interest in science. What if enthusiastic ambassadors for science left their “ivory towers” and met face-to-face to excite politicians with both the curiosity-driven and commercial possibilities of their research fields?

From this sentiment, Science Meets Parliament was born. Participants since then have lauded the value of putting the case for science directly to politicians.

So we come, now, to the 19th iteration of the event. While the old media has largely forsaken science journalism for wire services and “click bait”, the new media age has taken up the slack, with online broadcasts of speeches by the event’s keynote speakers spreading virally among scientists and the public through commentaries posted as tweets, blogs and podcasts.

But one important thing is missing from this rosy picture: a Minister for Science. Despite the Turnbull government’s “ideas boom” – the National Innovation and Science Agenda – we haven’t had a Science Minister since December. (Senator Zed Seselja was sworn in as Assistant Minister for Science, Jobs and Innovation on 20 December 2017, reporting to Senator Michaelia Cash, who is simply Minister for Jobs and Innovation.)

The position of Minister for Science has always been somewhat of an ugly political ducking. It has been kicked to and fro between government departments for education and industry, and handed out to junior ministers (who we hope have the time and energy to make it a priority) and even members of Cabinet (who have the clout but many distractions from the portfolio). In the 25 years I’ve been covering science we’ve had 16 science ministers, with Peter McGuaran and Senator Kim Carr both having second terms during that time.

Science Meets Parliament is an admirable effort to engage with the nation’s political machinery, but it can’t be enough to win the hearts of politicians when the government itself lacks a head for science.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.