Time for an independent voice for science

This article was first published in the Canberra Times.

The evidence is mounting that Australian science is once more lost in the Dark Ages of political neglect and disfavour.

To the average Australian that might not seem to matter very much, but the more thoughtful may no doubt reflect on the likely cost to the nation of not understanding our own environment, falling behind other advanced countries and not making national decisions on a sound evidential base.

To list a number of disturbing developments:

  • the sudden, unexplained departure of the Chief Scientist
  • said Chief Scientist allegedly had but one meeting with the last two Prime Ministers, despite the mass of science-related issues on the national agenda
  • only four CRCs were funded in the last round, when it is usually a dozen or so
  • the abolition of Land & Water Australia, a key national scientific knowledge base underpinning our ability to inhabit this continent for the next few thousand years
  • disturbing rumours of cuts to the National Health and Medical Research Council
  • job cuts and industrial unrest at CSIRO stemming from lack of funds
  • a call by the Productivity Commission for a 25 per cent cut in agricultural research funding at a time of rising global food insecurity
  • diluting of science-based decisions to rescue the Murray-Darling Basin while failing to deliver sufficient new water science to farmers and users
  • calamitous underfunding of the scientific collections, which form a knowledge base for our entire future, and
  • the growing tendency of the coalition parties to appease non-scientific and non-evidence based opinion in the community, which bodes ill for rational decision making and science generally in the event of a change of government.

One of the contributing reasons to the long, slow slide into marginality of Australian science is its perpetual inability to speak out, clearly, frankly, forcefully and often about the importance of science to the future of Australia - and the dangers of ignoring it.

Other sectors and professions readily accomplish this. Business, small business, miners, farmers, trade unionists, lawyers, doctors, architects, nurses, teachers, welfare organisations, religions and sex workers all have paramount national bodies that put their case for better national policy or more resources before the public without fear of the political consequences.

But when you look at who speaks for Australian science you find, almost always, they are on the government payroll in one way or another. The academies, the universities, the funding bodies, the science agencies, the CRCs are all beholden to government funding – and fearful of its loss should they earn political displeasure by saying the things which science often has to say, but which are not always pleasing to the political ear. Only the Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) has a relatively independent voice, and it is neither very loud nor forceful.

These scientific representatives will, of course, deny this, saying things like “I told the PM only last week....” – an approach to influencing national policy that pretty much went out with the Menzies era, and which only shows how unsophisticated science advocacy is compared to other sectors. And politicians, too, will deny that they bully scientists, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The result is a sort of ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that the scientists will say nothing too radical or forthright provided the politicians leave their research funds alone. Unfortunately, like most such agreements it doesn’t work, and both the funding and influence of Australian science have continued to attenuate, while the politicians have won the compliance they sought. While science may not be actively gagged by this process, it does not need to be, as self-censorship is as good as a gag.

It would take too long to detail the history of how this situation evolved: it has been growing ever since the Hawke Government. Essentially it arose from a (largely groundless) fear among senior politicians of both sides that Australian science was too outspoken and independent (read “politically dangerous”) and a consequent tendency to appoint managements more attuned to the political nuances than to the robust “tell it like it is” culture which had characterised Australian science since the days of Clunies-Ross.  There was also a tendency to favour research with the right political flavour over the national interest – the Howard Government’s axing of the Energy R&D Corporation being a case in point. While the current government has an enthusiastic advocate for science in Kim Carr, he appears to be getting about as much traction as Barry Jones did under Hawke. ANU scholar Rod Lamberts says only seven of Julia Gillard’s speeches have mentioned “science” since she took office.

Let us be clear: it is not in the interests of Australians, nor of politicians, nor of scientists for science to be manipulated and disregarded in this way. It is not in anybody’s interests for Australia to become more technologically backward, belief-driven, irrational, or based-on-bullshit rather than on hard-won, meticulously-gathered evidence and its skilled analysis.

It is time all our scientific organisations and individual scientists, technologists and engineers came together to form an independent National Research Council – a body that can speak clearly, forthrightly and from a deep knowledge base about the issues most critical to our future. America has one. Britain has one. We do not.

Such a body could not only advise government and industry in a disinterested way, it could also push for renewed scientific effort in the areas of Australia’s natural advantage in science. It could push for research which achieves genuine results for Australians, rather than the vapid metrics of the bureaucracy, like number of patents or scientific papers published.

Above all it could better inform the national debate about the pathways to a stronger, brighter and more sustainable future founded on knowledge, in an increasingly dangerous world. We pay our scientists to try to establish the truth insofar as science can: we owe them the courtesy of heeding what they say. It is time they had the freedom to say it.

Julian Cribb is a Canberra-based science writer and commentator.

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