The Classification of Ministers

To save myself 1000 words, this was my Twitter stream yesterday.

[via parents.wfu.edu and a HT to @JulieLeask]

[via parents.wfu.edu and a HT to @JulieLeask]

This was because I follow many researchers and scientists and the absence of anyone with the word “Science” in their title amongst the many merry cabinet ministers was enough to unleash much despair, incredulity and generalized wailing and gnashing of teeth. I think I even saw a bit of alternate career planning and proposals to set up new reality programs for the times (“I’m a Scientist! Get Me Out of Here!”).

Now, Twitter gets good traffic spreading outrage. Those who’d been suspicious that a new government would take things back to a 1950s era desperate for the arrival of Marty McFly to liven things up were ready to pounce with the evidence at hand. (They were mistaken of course. The 1950s may have had patchy sewerage connections and smallpox, but it had a science minister.)

All this stuff about the support for science is of pretty vital interest to someone like me who is just trying to get into research and would like to think there’s a bright future. Perhaps with the benefit of a little time, it’s worth asking a couple of simple questions:

1. What does it really mean?

2. What’s to be done?

What’s In A Name?

Any onlooker could well have wondered why the angry blare of vuvuzelas erupted from some in the science community. The issue was surely that it tapped into deeper fears of the attitude of this government to science and research. Maybe those expressing fears are worried by a political party with more than a few climate deniers. Maybe the prospect of them interfering with grants and “redirection” made people skittish.  Perhaps health researchers were skeptical of the level of engagement of a health minister with responsibility for the NHMRC who didn’t feel the need to develop much policy or ask a question on his portfolio for 3 years. It could have even been the realization that the teams working on stupendous bionic vision might lose the brilliance of the team at NICTA who are part of restoring vision, but have had their funding reduced. It all certainly squeezed a nerve right against the collective bony bit.

The concern is evidently that banishing the word “science” from polite ministerial conversation is an attempt to downplay its significance. It’s certainly a little hard to claim that retaining the name is just the handwringing claptrap of symbolism when you’re happy to latch yourself to the ANZAC legacy by including a minister to put on a truly excellent ANZAC march or promote the “border protection” label into the cabinet.

On the emotion, it’s possible that the other variegated disappointments of the cabinet, most particularly the gathering of the Bratwurst Brethren (+ Significant Other) just in time for an Oktoberfest party, spilled onto this turf. They are separate though.

There is scope for the new government to clarify its relationship with science, research and higher education over the coming weeks and months. In opposition you don’t get to put much of that into practice. There is nothing stopping an opposition from actively grooming and mentoring the next generation. To make no effort to meaningfully engage with the challenge to strengthen the role of committed and able women within their ranks is rather pathetic. The cabinet announcement should have shown the fruits of that labour, not a demonstration of an entrenched old boys attitude they couldn’t be bothered with.

The scorn heaped on the cabinet selections for including just one woman is entirely appropriate. The science issue is separate. The sensible response is probably to take on board all of this and retain a skeptical eye to further developments.

And next?

After a day, some more nuanced discussion has emerged from people far cleverer than me.  Will J Grant and Rod Lamberts cast about some excellent pearls here, most particularly that there may be some trolling going on and mounting outrage may be counterproductive. Certainly groups such as the Australian Association of Medical Research Institutes can see that setting up a wailing circle is probably not a constructive way forward.

Prof Brian Schmidt (super Nobel laureate) had already pointed out that the label matters far less than the actions of the government. There’s more in this video, including some useful critique of the previous government. He even provides a little leeway – 8 weeks for the government to nail its colours to the mast in a manner more effective than nailing jelly to a wall.

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb has again advocated a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach. This will be a space worth watching because responsibility for science and research will fall across multiple areas, a not entirely new arrangement. To make that a strength, a lot of coordinated effort will be required. The risk is of a fragmented approach to innovation, with researchers interacting with different groups with different rules. Seems like a recipe for an ongoing administrative nightmare for researchers rather than the efficient streamlining hoped for.

So maybe the next bit is to keep talking, but not howling. Continuing interested discourse and active engagement should be standard behaviour. It may well turn out to be business as usual, and the research community has always been pretty effective at producing great stuff in interesting circumstances. If the business changes of course, I hope there’s more to the response than a Twitter storm and some consolatory animal gifs and “Keep Calm” memes.

The Ashes and Lessons for Science Advocacy

About the time I was watching Draco Malfoy stand his ground on a cricket pitch I was also looking at very different coverage. That reading was all about the failure of moves to introduce plain packaging in the UK, and the associated interest in Conservative advisers (yay, he’s an Aussie! Oops, sorry, misplaced patriotism).

Cricket often pretends to be played in some noble spirit not evident in other such pursuits. The place where the level playing field was first created. I call balderdash. From the moment WG Grace stood his ground, cricket has been the perfect example of rationalising anything you can as being “playing to the rules”.

If elite cricket teaches anything, it is that you do what you can get away with to get the result. It is only the naïve who seem to think that it is played in the spirit of “gentlemen”.

Villains everywhere can buy a "WWSBD?" bracelet for inspiration. That stands for "What Would Stuart Broad Do?" [Image from the Both Are Same blog]

Villains everywhere can buy a “WWSBD?” bracelet for inspiration. That stands for “What Would Stuart Broad Do?”
[Image from the Both Are Same blog]

The Naïve Science Advocate

There are times when it is painfully apparent that science advocacy operates under such illusions, or is forced to do so. Key to this is a couple of key features of the way scientists go about discussing ideas:

• Scientists tend to feel beholden by the need to express uncertainty.
• Scientists have open disclosure built into the way they go about things.

The result of these features is that those relying on communicating the scientific method are playing the game on a field not at all levelled by other interested public policy advocates.

The scientific exploration of an idea involves discussion of both the evidence for and against a position. So scientists discussing any topic are likely to at least mention alternate viewpoints. They also give credit to any points those of an alternate opinion make that are based in fact. Partisan commentators feel no such compulsion.

The second of these also demonstrates a stark contrast. When stumping up and publishing or quietly announcing things from the cloistered conference mountain top, scientists disclose all possible associations that could be seen to influence what they write or say. The requirements are well described by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.

It’s not quite to the point where you have to disclose that your thoughts on sugary food might have been influenced by the overly sweet cream buns forced down your throat by a particularly reviled grandmother, but it’s a fairly high bar.

 

Playing by Different Rules

If you work for any of the public think tanks out there throwing their opinions into the mix, there is no such requirement. Let’s take the example of the Institute of Public Affairs (and I’m not suggesting they are the only such group worldwide who you could examine in this fashion).

Within Australia, this group is certainly vocal. That’s on a range of issues, including the idea of abolishing plain packaging legislation for cigarettes (as outlined in their 75 suggestions for Tony Abbott). This piece is not about arguing the case for plain packaging (I see patients in hospitals, pretty fair guess you know what I’ll say). The advocacy around this policy is interesting though.

The IPA makes it a rule not to disclose the identities of supporters, which they argue is a response to threats made to those supporters in the past. So they feel no need to disclose the backing of British America Tobacco (amongst other cigarette manufacturers). They will happily argue loudly and vociferously with no qualification of those comments on the basis of their associations.

Such groups will argue the point without any shame whatsoever that their words might be tainted because they don’t tell us about any conflicts. They’ll stand their ground and won’t care what the video replay shows.

 

Getting Things On The Level

So what’s to be done? It’s untenable to abandon basic tenets of scientific integrity. Nor can you expect public advocacy groups to change how they’re doing things. They are the drinker at the pub who tips up the table while playing pool. Tried arguing with a drunk recently?

All it really means is that anyone wishing to apply their interest in science to advocate for evidence-based policy needs to speak up and speak well. Other advocates are going to keep popping up to make their case. Anyone else needs to be prepared to talk as often, as loudly and as effectively.

So do some training and get on the field. Everyone’s an expert watching from the couch. But how will you actually change the game?