Tag Archives: science advocacy

how to engage people in science

How to engage people in science

Featured image: Dr Alan Finkel AO at Science meets Parliament 2017 with Sally-Ann Williams, Engineering Community & Outreach Manager for Google Australia 

Dr Finkel spoke about how to engage people with science at the 18th Science meets Parliament event in Canberra today. One of his key messages was to develop your elevator pitch.

“Identify the key idea and write it up as a 100-word media release, then try it out on a politician.”

The need to develop simple, clear pitches to engage people with science was echoed by Buzzfeed political reporter and panellist Alice Workman, who gave the example of the viral ‘big chicken’ video on twitter as exemplifying the ‘simple, no BS’ idea that can rapidly get picked up in media. The video, released yesterday, was retweeted 35,000 times.

While science research often cannot be distilled into one thought bubble, like any news story, science stories need a simple pitch that everyone can understand, Workman told the group of 200 scientists gathered for the two-day event.

“I think the bigger problem is trying not to use complicated words, but also to whittle stories down to their basics. Journalists are under the pump, and journalism is a business.”

Four key tools to engage people in science

Engaging an audience beyond clickbait requires a deep understanding of your audience, access to influential people and being prepared, said Dr Finkel, who listed attitude, ambassadors, access and ammunition as four key tools for science advocacy.

He emphasised having an open attitude to engage people with science.

“You can’t assume your audience knows the facts. You can always assume they have the capacity to learn.”

He also said that it was important for science to have ambassadors, and that his office was in ‘early consideration’ of a program that mirrored internships such as the volunteer internship program which allows students and professionals to learn from US congress – and which funds them for up to one year to learn about the political process there.

“Could we create the same process for Australia? It takes a person of integrity and awareness to be an ambassador. We need to create the same qualities in ambassadors for science,” said Finkel.

Access to politicians is tempered by a difference in timescales at which science and politics operate, he said.

“Research timeframes are long; the window to operate in politics is short. How then can we hit the window where the evidence and the opportunities align? This event is one. Another is the Commonwealth Science council for which the PM is chair. This allows politicians and researchers to identify areas of shared opportunity in areas such as expanding the economy and navigating risks.”

Before approaching politicians, or others you need to engage, Finkel advocated preparing your pitch as ammunition for the encounter, as well as consulting widely, gaining supporters and identifying paths to funding.

Science meets Parliament is held over two days in Canberra and includes a televised National Press Club address, and a day at Parliament House, where delegates meet privately with parliamentarians.

Heather Catchpole

science advocacy

Have your call to action ready

Featured image: delegates make their way to meetings with members of Parliament at Science meets Parliament

Krystal, when you first attended Science meets Parliament (SmP), how did you prepare for your research pitch?

I first attended SmP in 2011, when I was a medical research scientist and a founding member of The Australian Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. I had just been involved in the 2011 “Discoveries Need Dollars” campaign to protect medical research funding in Australia, and was keen to advocate not only for my research, but for the wider research sector.

The best way to prepare for any pitch is to know your audience. I was meeting with the Hon Judi Moylan, an MP from Western Australia, and so I researched her interests and background. I found that she was strong supporter of women’s issues and the diabetes community, and so was able to talk with her about the latest research in this area as well as ways to support women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

It was also important for me to connect with the other SmP delegates who were going to be in the same meeting to understand their key messages and how we could align and support each other’s objectives. We wanted to make sure each of us got time to pitch our own individual areas, as well as giving a positive, cohesive message about the importance of funding, fellowships and support for the future of research in Australia more broadly.

Lastly, I took some prepared material with me to leave behind. Not a big long report, but a one-pager outlining some of the issues facing researchers in Australia and some policy recommendations and actions to address the issues. It is important to put forward solutions, not just focus on the problems; to provide ideas and a call to action on what needs to be done to build Australia’s science and research future.

Did it have the desired outcome? What would you do differently next time?

I have been so excited over the past six years to see the increased support for women in STEM and the rising awareness of the need to support early- and mid-career researchers, who are our future science leaders.

This has been achieved by the work of many, many people and organisations, and I have been proud to be one of those voices advocating for change.

It is so important that our leaders and decision makers hear from a diversity of people on issues, so never underestimate the power of your voice to be a part of positive change and science advocacy.

Describe your experience at Science meets Parliament. What did you think of the event?

Attending SmP was a key part of my professional development in terms of understanding the political process and how to engage with politicians. It was an insight into a whole new world of how decisions about science and research are made and when and how scientists can contribute to policy agendas.

It was also an amazing networking experience – make sure you bring plenty of business cards and if you don’t have some, get some! It was fantastic to meet politicians from all across the political spectrum, and also to connect with other SmP delegates.

The connections I made at SmP with delegates who were passionate about science communication and science advocacy have stayed with me throughout my career and have created many ongoing opportunities over the years.  

What advice do you have for other researchers who are trying to turn their knowledge into action?

When communicating your message, think about it like storytelling – have a beginning, a middle and an end. To begin, outline the problem, the middle is what could be achieved if you address the problem, and the end is the call to action on what you want to see happen next.

Always have a clear “ask” on what you want the person you’re meeting with to do next – and be specific. If a Minister says, “I understand the problem – what do you think I should do about it?” you need to have a clear pathway for action.

It’s also important to talk about who benefits from your research and to make it relevant not only to politicians, but to the wider community in terms of what you are trying to achieve.

Be positive. Don’t just talk about the problem, talk about the solutions. In fact, make sure you spend more time putting forward ideas for action than repeating the issues.

Be creative – don’t just ask for more money. Politicians are always meeting with people asking for more funding for their area of interest, so you also need to be able to provide ideas on what can be done without increasing the spend. Perhaps it is a policy change, a reallocation of existing resources or a need to raise the profile and awareness of an issue. Make it personal and customised, so that the person you are meeting with has a clear sense of exactly what you are asking them to do next and how they can work with you to bring about change.

Be useful. Politicians are busy people, with limited time and resources. If you can be an expert advisor to them, a “scientist on call” to provide them with information, background and insights, then you can build a trusted and respected relationship.

What have been the major challenges in getting your science heard by policymakers in Australia, and how have you overcome them?

Nothing is more powerful than engaging with the public and being able to show policymakers that the community cares about your science as much as you do. Having support from those who will benefit from your research – whether they’re farmers, patients, industry or community groups – will always add weight to your messages.

Science is mostly paid for by taxpayers, so leveraging support from the broader community can boost your voice and help to get your message heard by policymakers.

How do you think the relationship between science and politics in Australia compares with other countries, and what lessons could we take from overseas?

I would love to see more internships, where scientists are embedded in politicians’ offices so that they can experience government processes first-hand and contribute their knowledge and analytical skills to policymaking.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science in the US has some incredible internship opportunities and I think Australia would benefit from schemes such as these. It would break down the barriers between science and politics, build greater understanding on both sides and create ongoing relationships between researchers and our elected representatives.

Click here to find out more about Science meets Parliament.

science advocacy

Dare to talk about your ideas

Featured image: Science meets Parliament delegates meet with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2014

Anne-Sophie, what’s your area of research and how can it help to inform policy in Australia?

My area of expertise is in plant pathology and plant physiology. When I was a researcher, I worked on projects that aimed to improve crop production through biotechnologies. I left research in November 2015 and I am now working in science regulation.

I attended Science meets Parliament (SmP) in 2015 to talk about my advocacy efforts regarding diversity and gender balance in research. The projects I was running at that stage, such as an interview series known as The League of Remarkable Women in Science, offered a snapshot of Australian science, featuring women from all backgrounds and all areas of STEM.

These projects were a way to better understand what it means to be a woman in Australian science and what can be done to improve gender balance in research.

When you first attended Science meets Parliament, how did you prepare for your pitch?

Before the event, I made sure I spoke with people who had previously attended SmP. I also sought the advice of my mentors, who helped me define (and refine) my pitch.

The first day of SmP was incredibly useful, as it allowed me to fine-tune what I wanted to say and clarify my expectations from the conference.

Did it have the desired outcome? What would you do differently next time?

It did! I knew that attending SmP would be very productive, but I wasn’t expecting it would make such a difference. By attending SmP, I was able to initiate discussions with the Hon Karen Andrews, who went on to co-chair an event I ran for National Science Week later that year. I would have never dreamed of this happening!

Describe your experience at Science meets Parliament. What did you think of the event?

SmP was a very positive, even transforming event for me. It allowed me to interact with people I would have never met otherwise, and created opportunities that would not have arisen otherwise.

On a more personal level, attending SmP felt very special; I am originally from overseas, and I would never have imagined that I would converse with members of Parliament, let alone invite them to be part of events I was organising.

I have stayed in touch with some of the attendees I met during SmP. Many of them are now good friends of mine, or people I have run events and projects with. It has been a highly positive experience indeed!

What advice do you have for other researchers who are trying to turn their knowledge into action?

Dare to talk about your ideas! I used to think that the projects I was running were not important enough to attract interest from members of Parliament. I thought that I would waste their time. But it turned out to be the opposite. I believe researchers often underestimate the impact that our knowledge and projects can have.

What have been the major challenges in getting your science advocacy efforts heard by policymakers in Australia, and how have you overcome them?

The issues I was focusing on turned out to be of great interest to the members of Parliament I met. They all knew women working in science or had worked in science themselves, and they were convinced that changes had to be made. So I would say that it was actually quite easy to be heard by policymakers.

How do you think the relationship between science and politics in Australia compares with other countries, and what lessons could we take from overseas?

I have the feeling that building relationships between science and politics is somehow easier here in Australia than, for example, in France. I would never have had the opportunity of meeting members of Parliament in France the way I did during SmP. Such meetings are limited to high-ranked, senior scientists.

What do you hope to see more of at Science meets Parliament in the future?

I am hoping to see a greater focus on the crucial issues Australian science urgently needs to address. For example, what can be done to improve diversity in research? How do we stop losing so many talented early-career scientists? How do we address the harassment and bullying issues that are so prevalent?

Click here to find out more about Science meets Parliament.