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President's Report

ASBS Newsletter 101, December 1999

[Delivered to the 21st Annual General Meeting in Perth.]

Science meets Parliament

In November, 174 scientists met 140 federal politicians. FASTS organised this two-day event to raise the profile of science among parliamentarians. There are only 170 or so politicians in federal parliament, so the response from that side was excellent (and apparently unparalleled). The number of scientists milling around Parliament House was also impressive. Each society represented by FASTS was asked to nominate a few representatives for the event. After consultation with the council and chapter conveners, ASBS was represented by Mike Crisp, Judy West and myself. Our non-eastern-seaboard representative pulled out at the last minute and our next President was unavailable.

Day one consisted of advice on lobbying and background to the workings of federal parliament. It also included a (for me) fascinating talk by the Chief Scientist of Australia, Robin Batterham, and some peals of wisdom on journalism from Julian Cribb. Three politicians (Natasha Stott Despoja, Jeannie Ferris and Martin Evans) provided three different perspectives on science, and on parliamentarians! Primed with a list of FASTS' key issues, and advice on how to meet and greet the pollies, we were ready for our interviews the next day.

Two scientists were assigned to each politician, with most scientists having two meetings. I met with Marise Payne (a liberal senator from NSW) and Tony Lawler (the National Party member for Parkes, a large seat in the NW corner of NSW). I explained the role of herbarium collections and associated research as underpinning many of the projects funded through the Natural Heritage Trust, and the new Virtual Australian Herbarium (linking together herbarium databases through a common portal). The provision of electronic information to people in the bush was an issue raised by FASTS and one in which politicians showed great interest. One of the politicians was concerned about the lower profile of some tertiary institutions, and we were encouraged to show greater support for the 'second tier' universities. Other issues raised by the politicians I met included too much jargon in technical reports, perceived bias (or at least barrows being pushed), and the lack of women in science. We also discusssed general FASTS issues such as the HECS load for science graduates and the brain drain to overseas.

The event was a success on a number of levels. Awareness of science, and to a lesser extent systematic botany, was raised. Scientists (and politicians) were seen to be real, and decent, people. Contacts and relationships were established. Scientists met with other scientists in distant fields and some collaborations were initiated. If a science issue reaches either house there may a flicker of understanding that we can trace back to one of these interviews. FASTS will consider making this a regular event.

There were lots of catch cries, pithy quotes and good advice. A few I noted were:

  • Science is not a cost, but a major investment in the country's future (the underlying message from FASTS).
  • Politicians prefer to read about what someone does second-hand. That is, a media report is better than a letter.
  • Politicians don't like being asked too much, having problems raised without solutions, people misstating facts, and listening to poorly prepared cases.
  • Get the facts, simplify, then exaggerate (attributed to Clyde Cameron I think).
  • Look out for the 'knowledge based century'.
  • We shouldn't complain that sport is more popular than science. It is! Just like chocolate is more popular than poetry. We need to show how science is important to sport (based on a comment attributed to Robyn Williams).
  • Innovation depends upon science, and innovation generates wealth as well as better social and environmental conditions.
  • We need science to adopt, adapt, invent and implement, even if we bring in products invented outside Australia.
  • Respond to calls for submissions by parliamentary committees. These appear regularly in newspapers. You can make a difference. All committees are listed on the parliamentary website (see
  • Messages needs to get to a politician's key staff members as much as to the politician.

Finally, at the launch of the 'Beetles of the World' identification CD at CSIRO Entomology, Professor Sir Robert May (Chief Science Adviser in the United Kingdom and inspirational speaker) noted that no matter what other arguments can be put forward for understanding and documenting the biodiversity around us, the most powerful will always be that we are stewards of the natural world. Good stewardship is justification enough.


On a related note (i.e. raising our profile), an important news item appeared in a recent issue of Nature (vol. 402, 11 November 1999, p. 110-111, 'US universities find that demand for botanists exceeds supply'). Rex Dalton leads off with the statement that 'plant systematists, once desperate for academic jobs, have become hot property, aggressively pursued by US universities seeking to be at the forefront of biodiversity research in the new millenium'. The item goes on to discuss cuts to 'organismal biology in the 1970s and 1980s', and the resulting shortage of qualified and experienced plant systematists today.

According to Dalton, plant systematists (particularly those with molecular biology skills) will be in great demand in coming years to work on topics from biodiversity conservation to genetically engineered crops. Australia has an urgent need for environmental research, and a similar shortage is to be expected here. Perhaps this provides a glimmer of hope for recent graduates, but just as importantly a reality check for future academic and other research appointments.

Three years ago

In December 1996 (ASBS Newsletter no. 89) I introduced myself as a phycologist, and went on to discuss the 'taxonomic scope' of ASBS. I concluded that we shouldn't fuss too much about circumscriptions and that vascular plants were likely to remain the core of our activities. Other related biota (e.g. algae and fungi) should not be excluded from ASBS, and we should 'meet on occasions with other societies, whether they be ecological, mycological or entomological'.

Here in Perth we are doing just that. Once again we are meeting with the Society of Australian Systematic Biologists, strengthening a relationship that has served us both well. The conference also extends us further into conservation, history and geology, all areas of interest to systematists. And as if to meet my performance measure as President, the conference includes 'Invertebrate Biodiversity and Conservation'. In relation to my first caveat, we do have members in our society who confess to an interest in cryptograms. Our new treasurer, e.g., has a double life as a bryologist.

ASBS three years later still has a strong identity and a major role to play in the scientific and general community. As a voice for plant systematics in Australia we are doing reasonably well, although we have only partly stemmed the flow of reduced funding for research. At a regional level I think the society is still weak but perhaps it should concentrate on its national focus and leave regional activities to the discretion of the chapters (in some cases organisations or other societies play a bigger regional role). That decision I will leave to the capable hands of the incoming executive.

Tim Entwisle