Scientist Meets Parliament

01 March 2018
2018 Science meets Parliament in Canberra is the chance for researchers to showcase the importance of STEM
Dr Jennifer Hollands, a postdoctoral researcher at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health attended the 2018 Science meets Parliament. This event is designed to bring together decision makers and Australia's leading STEM professionals, to promote the role of science, technology, engineering and mathematics - and the valuable part these sectors can play in politics. Read about Jennifer’s experience.

In February, I had the opportunity to attend 2018 Science meets Parliament (SmP) in Canberra, a fantastic two-day event run by Science and Technology Australia (STA). Over 200 scientists from all over Australia came to Canberra to advocate for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to parliamentarians across all party divides. Expertise  were represented from a wide range of areas: from researchers identifying new drugs to treat stroke and marine biologists tracking the changes in biodiversity of our oceans to nutrition scientists myth busting the latest superfoods. We were there with a single purpose: to demonstrate to parliamentarians the importance of STEM to Australia’s future health, wealth and happiness. 

Day one was all about honing our ‘pitch’ for our meetings with parliamentarians, and learning about the inner workings of politics and policymaking. Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel gave the opening speech and introduced us to four key points for building a relationship with members of parliament: “Have rigour and integrity, be in it for the long haul, know communication is key, and keep up the maintenance and renovations”. Inspiring presentations of ‘On the Hill’ success stories followed, and we heard from Dr Krystal Evans who (very successfully) championed the 2011 ‘Discoveries need Dollars’ campaign to protect funding for medical research.

Next up, we commenced our training on how to pitch our science succinctly and effectively. While a 2-minute elevator pitch can be crafted without too much hassle, having a great 15 second pitch down pat takes time and careful consideration to prepare the message we want to get across. This opportunity helped me hone my pitch to perfection. 

That evening the Gala dinner at Parliament House was a great chance to meet parliamentarians and key decision makers in a relaxed atmosphere, and of course put our pitching skills into practice, ready for day two.
On a clear, crisp Canberra morning we lined up for entry into Parliament House, ready for our meetings with members of parliament. We were assigned 30 minute small group meetings of 2-3 SmP delegates with a Senator or Minister. The purpose of these meetings: to inspire parliamentarians with our research and ensure STEM funding is kept on the agenda. 

I met with South Australian Senator Sterling Griff and his advisor. They were keenly interested in our labs’ work using human pluripotent stem cells to develop a cell replacement therapy for Parkinson’s disease. I highlighted some roadblocks in the early phase translation of stem cell derivatives to the clinic, and their response was an extremely positive ‘How can we help?’. I’m currently in talks with Senator Griff’s team to address the issues underlying such roadblocks, with a lab visit on the cards for the near future. 

The importance of the 2018 SmP event was best phrased by Professor Emma Thompson, director of STA, in her National Press Club address on the second day. ‘Scientists and technologists are solution makers’. We need to be advocates for STEM, and SmP is a great way to start meaningful conversations with parliamentary decision makers.

Dr Jennifer Hollands is an Early Career Researcher with Stem Cells Australia. 

Jennifer Hollands and two great science communicators: Tanya Ha and Alan Duffy. Credit: Science meets Parliament 2018: Photo by Mark Graham.