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The science of fawning

By Julian Cribb - posted Thursday, 9 March 2006

It is just on 75 years since an agronomist, T.D. Lysenko, rose to power in Soviet science. His reign, and that of science minister Nikolai Bukharin, saw the ranks of science purged, many researchers shot and others - like the great geneticist Vavilov - jailed and starved to death.

Besides rejecting genetics and Darwinism, Lysenko’s chief achievement was to make evolutionary biology conform to Soviet Marxist political theory. It proved a sorry confusion which ultimately set the USSR’s crop improvement program back half a century, causing no little hardship and hunger to its people.

Lysenko is a modern illustration - he died in 1976 - of what happens when politics decides it knows better than science; when scientific leaders seeking to impress their political masters go too far; when politicians press scientists for results that are ideologically conformist rather than honest.


Lysenko’s dictum: "In order to obtain a certain result, you must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result, you will obtain it … I need only such people as will obtain the results I need,” has uncomfortable echoes in a 21st century Australia where scientists are under rising pressure to turn out rapid, cash results.

Australia has over 100 years experience in turning good science into commercial success - the $110 billion earned by mining and agriculture this year is a case in point. But this harvest was not won by force-fed one-off commercialism and short-term focus: it was reaped by doing real inquiry-driven science which solved big problems and then by sharing the findings with as many enterprises as possible, to the great national benefit.

It is worth pondering where today’s pressure for short-term commercial science with a handful of companies and neglect of wider public good and industry research, comes from.

The Federal Government, it is true, favours a commercially-focused science and wishes, with justice, to see a fair return on the taxpayer’s dollar. However it is less clear whether the enthusiasm for short-term commercial research is a result of a direct government injunction - or is due to fawning on the part of institutional managements who are also desperate for quick money in straitened circumstances.

Science of high quality, especially the sort that answers big questions and results in major advances in knowledge and gains to society, can rarely be performed when there is a beancounter schedule of milestones, KPIs and commercial targets to be met. William Farrer didn’t have KPIs (key performance indicators), Howard Florey never suffered from bureaucratic milestones and it is highly improbable that Warren and Marshall would have earned their Nobel on the kind of hectic one-year, get-the-cash-in schedule that infects so much of today’s research.

It is entirely possible that much of the pressure to do less inquiry or public-good science and more short-term contract research is coming from Australia’s miniature “Lysenkos”, in the bureaucracy and in science itself.


It is equally possible that science is, once more, the plaything of political ideology with, in this case, the imperfect doctrine of the market (as opposed to Marxist theory) overwhelming the search for objective truth.

Some years ago the bureaucracy fell into a trap from which it is, thankfully, now attempting to extricate itself. Faced with the necessity of accounting for how science funds were spent, it sought indicators such as numbers of patents, spinoffs, commercial licences, external income and so on. These are indicators of commercialisation performance in a limited sense - but they tell you nothing about the value of the science, in either the short or long term, or its impact on society, the wider economy and the environment.

Institutions, however, complied enthusiastically by collecting this data, by highlighting it in their annual reports and, in many cases by planning their research according to the best ways to deliver such indicators, instead of seeking the optimal impact for society: lives saved, lives improved, jobs and industries created, environment, health and wellbeing enhanced and so on.

This is not to argue that good science has no patents, spinoffs or licences: of course it has many and they have a very valuable role to play in the knowledge business. But it is to question whether Australia achieves the best outcomes by driving science chiefly according to such indicators - or whether it is better off solving larger problems, especially those particular to this continent, and then applying the knowledge as widely, rapidly and cheaply as possible.

T.D. Lysenko provides a chilling reminder of the price paid when science policy is driven by ideological assumptions.

While this will hopefully never happen to such a degree here, it can be fairly contended that large realms of Australian science are already starving, either fiscally or intellectually, and that this will cost the nation in terms of its future social progress, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability.

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First published in The Australian on February 8, 2006.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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