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April 11, 2017 / Damien Irving

Attention scientists: Frustrated with politics? Pick a party and get involved.

The March for Science is coming up on 22 April, so I’m taking a quick detour from my regular focus on research best practice. I’ve been invited to speak at the march in Hobart, Australia, so I thought I’d share what I’m going to say…

In today’s world of alternative facts and hyper-partisan public debate, there are growing calls for scientists to get involved in politics. This might take the form of speaking out on your area of expertise, participating in a non-partisan advocacy group and/or getting involved with a political party. If you think the latter sounds like the least attractive option of the three, you’re not alone. Membership of political parties has been in decline for years, to the point where many sporting clubs have more members. While this might sound like a good reason not to join a political party, I’ve found that it means your involvement can have a bigger impact than ever before.

A little over twelve-months ago, I moved to Hobart to take up a postdoctoral fellowship. As part of a new start in a new town, I decided to get actively involved with the Tasmanian Greens. Fast forward a year and I’m now the Convenor of the Denison Branch of the Party. Bob Brown (the father of the environment movement in Australia) started his political career as a Member for Denison in the Tasmanian Parliament and our current representative (Cassy O’Connor MP) is the leader of the Tasmanian Greens, so it’s been a fascinating and humbling experience so far.

Upon taking the plunge into politics, the first thing that struck me was the overwhelming reliance on volunteers. The Tasmanian Greens have very few staff, which means there is an infinite number of ways for volunteers to get involved. If your motivation lies in changing party policy in your area of expertise, you can take a lead role in re-writing that policy and campaigning for the support of the membership. If you’re happy with party policy and want to help achieve outcomes, your professional skills can definitely be put to good use. My data science skills have been in particularly high demand, and I’m now busily involved in managing our database of members and supporters. Besides this practical contribution, the experience has also been great for my mental wellbeing. Rather than simply despair at the current state of politics (which most often means ranting to like-minded friends and followers on social media), I now have an outlet for actively improving the situation.

If you’re a scientist (or simply someone who cares about the importance of knowledge, evidence and objectivity in the political process) and aren’t currently involved with a political party, I’d highly recommend giving it a go. Any party would benefit from the unique knowledge and skills you bring to the table. As with most volunteer experiences, you’ll also get out a whole lot more than you put in.

There are going to be over 400 marches around the world, so check the map and get along to the one nearest you (or better still, contact the organiser and offer to speak).

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