Science matters, that's the message our MPs need to understand

Scientists by and large aren't very political beasts. They mostly like stuff they can measure, observe, test and retest, and predict with some level of certainty. None of that is a very good description of politics.

Even so, this week 200 scientists of every kind from all over Australia will flood the corridors of the Federal Parliament at the Science meets Parliament (SmP2016).

They are not coming with placards or with their hands out, they come to remind parliamentary leaders about what they do and why it matters. They also come to learn more about politics and the policy-making sausage factory, and ways to inject more science into the mix.

Over 100 federal parliamentarians will take part in the event, taking one-to-one meetings, attending debates and dinners and informal chats.

It's a bit like mass speed dating – except with better results.

And there's plenty to talk about with work ranging across almost every area of human endeavour. SmP scientists are finding new radiopharmaceuticals to combat Alzheimer's, searching for defences against super bugs, taking part in the hundred-year global effort to find Einstein's gravitational waves and searching for ways coral reefs can survive climate change. And that's just the start.


Some of the work has obvious, immediate real world applications and some doesn't – and that is exactly as it should be.

When a gravitational wave was heard for the first time last month after a search involving 1000 scientists in 15 countries, including six Australian universities and CSIRO, an ABC journalist asked best-selling physicist Lawrence Krauss if he could image the possible applications.

Krauss said if we could image them we would already be doing them, but that was sort of beside the point. "The discovery of gravitational waves won't make faster cars or better toasters", he said. "What it will do is give us new insights into our place in the universe and our origins and to me that's the greatest beauty of science."

When Australian scientist John O'Sullivan discovered Wi-Fi, one of the most widespread and profitable Australian inventions of all time, he wasn't looking for it. The astronomer, electrical engineer and physicist tripped over it while searching for radio waves bouncing off exploding black holes.

So big science, basic or curiosity-based science sometimes leads to life saving drugs, or technology that changes the world, or products and improved processes that fuel the economy and create jobs – but sometimes it doesn't.

Sometimes science just feeds our endless curiosity about the world and how all the things in it work.

It is important to keep a balance between those two profoundly interconnected parts of the scientific ecosystem. Without the ideas the products cannot exist, but the path to profit is not always clear and sometimes it is not there at all.

But that doesn't mean science does not make a very significant and measurable economic contribution to the nation.

With the help of two first-of-their-kind reports for the Office of the Chief Scientist we know that more than a quarter of Australia's economy can be put down to advances in science over the past two to three decades.

We also know that without these scientific advances we would be up to a third sicker, the economy would be up to a third smaller, and 1.1 million of us would be unemployed. In total science contributes around $185 billion a year to the national economy.

Launching the report just before he ended his term as Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb said:

"Of course the benefits of science are difficult to measure. Of course those benefits can only be partially counted in dollars and cents. But of course we have to investigate them, in economic as well as human terms, because we cannot afford to ever take them for granted."

That's exactly why 200 of the nation's leading scientists and emerging stars come to Canberra for two days every year, to fill the place with ideas and possibilities – and to make sure science isn't taken for granted. The parliamentarians join in because they know, but sometimes need to be reminded, that science not only defines our lives but our economic past, present and future.

Catriona Jackson is CEO of the peak body Science and Technology Australia.

Twitter: @ScienceAu