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The politics of science

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 24 September 2007

It has been clear for some years that Australia’s governments are no longer able to keep up with the pace of scientific progress.

Fast-emerging issues such as climate change, the water crisis, the Internet, nanotechnology, gene modification, stem cells, extinctions and future energy are leaving our politicians and bureaucrats flat-footed. And, for all the election hype about “Australia’s future” there is hardly a whisper about science - the main means by which that future will be delivered.

A pattern is emerging in which scientists make an important discovery that changes our understanding of the world in some respect - and our politicians do their best to ignore it. Only when society finally starts to demand action do they shake off their lethargy and attempt something - usually too little, far too late and often, merely cosmetic.


It is a pattern that is dooming Australia to the ranks of the “slow followers” when it comes to adopting, exploiting, commercialising or simply preparing for so-called “disruptive” technologies.

Knowledge is now said to double every five years. If so, four times more is known about the world we inhabit than when the Howard Government took office or when Labor last governed. Politicians, who cannot make up their minds about new technologies or scientific discoveries until they see what a majority of Australians think, are clearly not coping in a fast-moving, high-tech world.

Australian scientific organisations often wring their hands in frustration at their inability to persuade governments of the urgency of some of the things they are finding, and at the lack of effective means for bringing them to the attention of those with the power to make big decisions.

Partly this is due to the loss of independence in the public service, and its replacement by a “political service” of senior appointees who provide politically palatable counsel to their masters, rather than the traditional “frank and fearless” advice. This has choked off, or at least filtered, one of the main channels by which objective scientific information used to be conveyed to government.

But if the public service cannot champion advances in scientific understanding, then neither can politicians absorb them. The vast majority of Australian representatives have no more than a few years of high school science, a generation or more ago, when human knowledge was perhaps one tenth what it is today. Broadly speaking, they lack the scientific and technological literacy necessary for today’s challenges.

It is not in the national interest for both arms of government to be so ill-equipped to deal with the central reality of human history in the 21st century - how science and technology are changing our lives and our world at a pace never before seen.


That Australian federal governments are not really interested in hearing scientific advice is illustrated by two parsimonies - a part-time Chief Scientist, and the miserable $1 million it allocates to support the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), which together embody the nation’s top scientific and technological minds. The PM’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council offers an avenue, but over its life politicians have tended to regard it more as a pleasant diversion from the political hurly-burly than a forum for taking decisions about matter s of profound importance to the nation’s future. And the media has seen it as an irrelevance. In a sense, however, the issues discussed at PMSEIC influence the lives of more Australians through time than do the deliberations of the Cabinet on transient issues.

At state level, the retirements of Premiers Beattie and Bracks has eliminated the two politicians in Australia with greatest respect for and interest in scientific matters. This is a serious loss and it is unclear where such leadership will re-emerge at either federal or state level, if at all, on either side of politics.

Australia’s future is too important to be left to reliance on the long-shot that the political process will throw up scientifically-literate leaders. On average, it won’t. We need a system that injects the latest and best scientific advice into government decision-making, reliably.

There are two main possibilities. One, already floated in this column, is for the scientific community to establish an independent National Science Council and provide advice to government, whether it wants to listen or not, through the medium of public pressure. It would be a “brave” government that would expose itself to the political risks of defying the consensus of Australia’s top scientific minds.

A second is for the Government itself to create a far more powerful and well-resourced unit for scientific advice around the Chief Scientist, the PMSEIC and the Academies. This would be charged with providing independent scientific input on almost every major policy which crosses the government’s desk and, more importantly, on identifying critical emerging issues in science not yet on the myopic political radar. It would be potent, but may lack independence from the politics.

Either way we cannot continue as we do now. This is the century of human knowledge. Australia’s governments need a more reliable, timely and intelligent way to take advantage of it.

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First published in The Australian on September 19, 2007.

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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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