Science policy for pollies

Some 26 MPs and senators have their own expert STEM advisers, thanks to peak lobby Science and Technology of Australia which has matched scientists to Commonwealth parliamentarians for two years terms since 2019.

The program enables scientists to directly as access policy influencers, if not makers – the programme is for backbenchers.

The benefit for politicians is expert advice which is relevant; really relevant – STA looks to place people who live or work in their host’s electorate and who know they aren’t there to campaign.

“The STA STEM Ambassador programme is not designed to provide a platform for your personal political views. Its aim is to encourage deeper uptake of science and evidence in policy making across the breadth of the political spectrum, in a non-partisan and positive manner,” STA sternly states.

This year’s participating pollies are even across party lines. There are Labor 11 members and senators, 12 from the coalition, plus independents, ACT senator David Pocock, Dai Le (member for the Sydney seat of Fowler)  and SA MP Rebekha Sharkie. There are no Greens or Teals.

All States and the ACT are represented, with six from Victoria, five from NSW and WA and four from Queensland and SA.

It’s a big change from the original intake announced in 2018- when only ten residents of Capital Hill welcomed advisers – eight Labor, plus Luke Hartsuyker and Karen Andrews from the coalition.

Good for STA – it’s a big job, but somebody’s got to do it – given the executive isn’t apparently interested.

Not that an independent parliamentary science office hasn’t come up. Former higher education, research and science minister Kim Carr has long made the case for an office of science serving the parliament, along the lines of the one at Westminster (Campus Morning Mail August 18 2021). So has the Senate’s Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs (CMM February 18 2021).  

But the coalition was not interested when in office, and while Labor was in Opposition, it does not appear to be keen now,

The ALP’s 2021 national platform promises, “Labor will establish a Parliamentary Office of Science, modelled on the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, to provide independent, impartial scientific advice, evidence and data to the Parliament, and all Members and Senators.”

The draft ’23 platform is now under wraps but there Is nothing to indicate STA’s programme will be redundant. 

But what about the Parliamentary Library.  While it might need new people this most excellent of organisations could do the job. The Parliamentary Services Act defines its role as, “to provide high quality information, analysis and advice to Senators and Members of the House of Representatives in support of their parliamentary and representational roles.”

Although it might be more impartial than science lobbies would like, and its focus on what is before the parliament could restrict what it covers.

Or using the Parliamentary Budget Office model. It exists to, “ inform parliament by providing costings of policy proposals and analysis of the budget, and to enrich Australia’s democracy through independent budget and fiscal analysis.”

But if not, why not? One reason might be cost. Another might be ministers not liking the idea of briefed back benchers in all parts of the parliament asking well-informed questions. And mandarins might hate information flows they don’t control. As the Academy of Science suggests, “The executive branch … has multiple sources of scientific advice available to it. Such expertise is rarely accessible to all parliamentarians. Better conclusions (laws) will be drawn when debates centre on how facts are used, rather than who has them and who can’t access them as effectively.”



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