Growing up, I never wanted to be a politician. I always wanted to be a scientist.
I was raised in Mildura among the grapevines and Mallee scrub, 600km from where political decisions were made in Melbourne. As a country kid, ‘politician’ is not an option that the careers advisor ever offered. Instead, I was inspired by the natural world. ‘Watch out for snags!’ mum would yell as I dived into the Murray, the murky water both refreshing and mysterious. I was fascinated by the way big old red gums grew right up next to the bank and how the hostile ecosystem of the desert abutted the oasis of the river. But amongst this wonder, it was impossible not to notice the problems facing the environment: drought, weeds, overgrazing, salinity, and climate change. I wanted to know why these occurred, and how to fix them.
Not being able to study science in Mildura, at 18 I moved to Melbourne for University. But the more I learned, the more clearly I realised something profound that would shape my career: protecting the environment is a political question, not just a scientific one.
I wanted to be a scientist, but we already had scientists telling us about the problem and how to fix it. What we lacked was politicians who understood the science enough to invest in real solutions.
When I graduated, after a short stint at the CSIRO, I landed a job working on climate change policy for Premier John Brumby.
I imagined politics was where evidence was weighed and decisions made in the best interests of our society and environment. Yet while working as a policy advisor, I saw repeated instances where reports were changed and scientific evidence ignored because it didn’t fit with the Government’s agenda.
The lack of scientific understanding, or the wilful blindness to the science, was disheartening. But instead of becoming disillusioned I left the bureaucracy to become CEO of a national climate change non-profit organisation, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and eventually ran for Parliament myself.
Upon entering Victorian Parliament, I was disappointed to learn there were only nine other Member of Parliament (MPs) with science degrees. That’s less than 8% of MPs with any form of university science education, and I was one of only five women scientists in Parliament.
No matter which party is in power, having a Parliament with such a lack of scientific knowledge (and the lack of female representation) is a real problem.
For this reason, when I was elected as the Member for Melbourne I resolved to work to promote science in decision-making. I work especially hard promote women in science and decision-making, because if we want our Parliaments to be representative of the wider community that means 50% representation by women.
I’m pleased each year to offer an award for female students who have excelled in science, and I hope these women go on to participate in decision-making.
Contrary to what some people might think, science is not just an area of specialist knowledge. It isn’t just about knowing what to do with a test tube, being able to rattle off the scientific names of birds, or being in love with David Attenborough (although, aren’t we all?).
Science is a way of thinking, and it can be applied to policy-making as well as many other areas of life.
Science teaches you to form a hypothesis then actually test it to see whether it’s correct.
Science teaches you to keep an open mind about what the real cause of a problem might be, and be rigorous in your pursuit of answers that are backed up by data.
As I said in my maiden speech, my science background has taught me to value evidence over blind ideology. I made a promise that I will keep an open mind, and change my mind according to the facts. That’s what being a scientist is all about.
If we’re going to address the problems facing us and capitalise on the fruits of progress from research, in areas like health, productivity and liveability, then we need a scientific approach.
If we truly want new ideas, broad perspectives and a less ego- and ideology-driven approach to politics, then we need not just more scientists in Parliament, but more women as well.
With only ten scientists in Victorian Parliament, we have a long way to go. But I’m hopeful that if we continue to promote science in schools, and especially encourage women into this discipline through scholarships, mentoring, and more family-friendly workplace arrangements, that after the next election we’ll see more politicians from all parties with scientific backgrounds, and that more of them will be women.
About the author:
Ellen Sandell MP is the first Greens MP elected to the lower house of Victorian Parliament. She holds a dual Bachelors of Arts/Science Degree from the University of Melbourne, majoring in genetics, linguistics and Spanish. Ellen began her career as a researcher with the CSIRO. She then worked on climate change policy for former Labor premier John Brumby’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, and later became the chief executive of a national climate change non-profit organisation, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Ellen is the Victorian Greens spokesperson for housing, climate change and energy. As a parliamentarian, Ellen priorities have been to continue to push for action on climate change, better public transport, a caring society and a liveable Melbourne. Ellen is committed to increasing the number of women studying science, and uses her leadership role to encourage young women to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).