Adam Bandt and Doug Hilton In Conversation - full transcript

Adam Bandt is the first Australian Greens MP to win a seat in the House of Representatives at a federal election. Alan Porritt/AAP

Doug Hilton: I’m the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and I have with me today Adam Bandt, the Greens’ member for Melbourne. Why don’t you start by outlining your background and how you’ve come to be the member for Melbourne, and also the Greens’ spokesperson for science.

Adam Bandt: My academic background is that I studied as a lawyer and did an arts degree, finished that in 1995, got out of Perth and came to Melbourne and have been here ever since. I went back a bit later in life to do a PhD, as I had a number of thoughts that were nagging at me that I had to work through.

Doug Hilton: What was your PhD on?

Adam Bandt: It was looking at the suspension of the rule of law and trying to understand why it’s happening now and its connection with globalization. This was obviously in the midst of John Howard and the “war on terror”.

Doug Hilton: The response to 9/11?

Adam Bandt: That’s right, trying to understand what all the connections between that and globalization. I went back and did my PhD a bit later, after working as a lawyer for about 10 years, doing some public interest cases but mainly representing low-paid workers.

I’m probably a walking advertisement for some of the problems with science and maths education in this country. I always thought while I was in high school that I’d go on to study maths or science when I was at uni. I reached a decision point in first year uni when I asked: “what am I going to do next?” and people close to me said “go and study law, it’s a good foundation degree” so I chose that path rather than going down the maths and science path. But I still have that maths and science nerd lingering inside of me.

Doug Hilton: So we probably could have swapped places. Having grown up in Warrandyte in a bit of a hippy household I could have ended up as the member for Melbourne with a Greens hat on and with different career advice you could be sitting here as director of the WEHI. Tell us a little bit about the electorate and why science is important?

Adam Bandt: There’s probably more health and medical research going on here in Melbourne per square metre than anywhere else in the country. There’s a large number of educational institutes as well as research institutes, and of course a growing, flourishing bio-tech sector.

I, soon after getting elected, began the process of visiting as many as I could, but realised I probably wasn’t going to get to all of them by the end of my term. In the midst of that along came the threatened budget cuts and the Discoveries need Dollars campaign and that probably accelerated my role as advocate for the people that work and live here, in research but especially health and medical research.

Doug Hilton: That whole campaign, in some ways polarized scientists. There were some scientists that said: “best thing you can do is get out on the streets and communicate passionately about what we’re advocating for” and others who were very nervous about that.

How do you see researchers, scientists and academics engaging with politics? Is it something where we have to tread carefully for fear of offending people or should we be out there?

Adam Bandt: You have to engage without fear or favour. That campaign was one of the most effective campaigns I’ve ever seen. This is speaking as someone who’s been to many rallies and protests in their time and circulated a number of petitions. To have thousands of researchers in lab coats out in front of the state library, at the same time you had a very well thought out public strategy to get not only people doing the research but people benefiting from it together, made a huge difference. I think it not only stopped the foreshadowed funding cuts but it opened a door for a public debate about the future of science and research in Australia.

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

That for me, as not only the local member but as the Greens’ spokesperson is critical. We need a national discussion about what the economy will look like once the mining bubble bursts and to my mind that is an economy and a society where science and research play a key role. They’re already competitive strengths in places like Melbourne, and we need a plan to enshrine that and grow that and I think that campaign opened the door for a national discussion.

Doug Hilton: And that lead to the government announcing the McKeon review. Simon McKeon has just delivered his final report to the minister which we presume paints a long-term vision for the sector. What would be your vision for medical research? What sort of challenges are we facing?

Adam Bandt: I think we need a cross-partisan agreement about the security and levels of funding and a commitment that there will not be political interference in the grants process. They seem like fairly basic things, but the last few years have suggested any one of those things can be up for grabs at any particular time.

I would like to set a target of 3% of GDP on R&D, for example, and to start moving NHMRC funding to longer funding cycles. And having more of the funding available in larger and longer-term blocks, to allow for proven researchers to continue to excel and allow for career paths for people so they’re not permanently on two-year contracts.

One of the reasons I think it’s important we get a national consensus about the amount and security of funding that comes through the research bodies, is that obviously the cuts themselves hurt when they happen, but speculation hurts as well.

If in every budget cycle there’s fear that science and research will be seen as a honey pot that you can go to take a bit out of because it’s a big chunk of money sitting there by itself and it’ll help balance the budget, then I think that does damage. It does damage to people who want to come and invest here, it does damage to people who are deciding if they are going to continue or begin their careers here.

Doug Hilton: It sends signals, absolutely it does.

Adam Bandt: That’s the feedback I’ve been getting. The other thing that struck me since I’ve been in this position is that workforce questions are big questions as well. The casualization and insecurity that has crept into academic and research life also affects the broader research community.

So if you’re starting out, especially if you’re a young woman and you can see you’re going to potentially take some breaks to have children and look after them, to be working on a series of short term contacts without having long term job security sends signals. This is not what we should be doing if we think this is an important sector that should be here and stronger in 10,15 or 20 years time.

Doug Hilton: I think that’s a major issue. The sector is near the end of writing all of our grants to National Medical Health Research Council. We find out whether those grants are successful around October or November this year, just eight weeks before many people’s contracts end. For a lot of our staff they will only know if they have a job next year just before Christmas. That’s no way to encourage a dynamic, innovative, passionate workforce.

Adam Bandt: That’s exactly right. How do you start putting down roots and how do you consider getting a mortgage, or decide when to start a family? Casualization impacts all of these things. It’s not just unique to this area but again it’s something the government can do a lot about. Obviously some jobs will be permanent and some will be for a set period of time, but I don’t see what benefit it will be to anyone having people going from year to year and waiting at the end of the year to know whether they’ve got a job.

Doug Hilton: Going back to investment in R&D - 3% is a really interesting number, it’s the number everybody talks about for a healthy R&D sector for the economy. McKeon treated health care almost as if it was an industry or a company. McKeon’s argument was that if we want the health care sector, where nationally we spend about $120 billion a year, to be innovative and to become self improving and efficient, then we need an R&D investment of around 3% of that $120 billion.

I think what I found most exciting was the idea that perhaps by doing that we could get to the situation where the benefits of health and medical research, the sort of things we are doing at this institute, are widely available in a way that doesn’t bankrupt the country.

Adam Bandt: I think that’s right. The Greens have always pushed for more public funding and greater public access to publicly funded research. There’s the risk that the science sector and research sector falls into the trap that the old parties continually set, which is that money’s tight, there’s not enough to go around, be thankful for what you’ve got and don’t stick your head up and ask for more.

We give $2 billion a year to mining and fossil fuel companies so that they can buy cheaper diesel fuel. If you go to the petrol station and fill up, we pay 38c a litre in excise. But a mining resource company they pay nothing, they get a diesel rebate. That’s $2 billion a year that’s going to companies that send 83% of their profits overseas, who can afford to buy petrol. Now isn’t $2 billion a year better spent in helping us get R&D investment to 3% of GDP or boosting health and medical research or on the Australian research council or CRC research budget?

Now that debate is a political debate, but it is a public debate we should participate in. I think the more that scientists and researchers, and the people who are benefiting from it, can come out and say actually, I’d rather the money went to research rather than a diesel rebate, the closer we can get to the kind of society you’re talking about.

Adam Bandt speaks at a demonstration against the Federal government’s plan to cut expenditure on medical research at the state library in Melbourne, 2011. Julian Smith/AAP

Doug Hilton: So your message is scientists should come out and be passionate and ardent about the policy outcomes they want in a non-partisan way, that we should get out and paint the picture of the Australia we want.

Adam Bandt: Ultimately the politicians make the decisions about the size of the science and research budget and politicians will be influenced by what they perceive wins or loses them votes. And I think if you asked most people in the country if you’d prefer to be giving big miners cheap petrol or would you rather it goes to breast cancer research, then you’ll get a pretty clear answer. As the Greens and others continue to advocate for that publicly, there needs to be allies and that includes sometimes scientists themselves.

Doug Hilton: I want to touch on another area where science impacts the Greens and that’s around environmental impact statements for developments. These impact statements require a science base. Tell me how that’s done at the moment, how the science is commissioned and where you see some of the issues are.

Adam Bandt: Taking bio-diversity for example, there is still an incredible amount we just don’t know about species in Australia. The number of threatened species has tripled in the last 12 years.

Doug Hilton: And they’re mainly sort of banner species- cuddly and large?

Adam Bandt: Some are better know than others, that’s right. But not withstanding all of that, by and large the way that environmental impact statements and decisions about environmental impact and big projects are done in this country is largely driven by government reviewing what the proponent has put forward in support of their argument. So the person who has the most to gain from environmental destruction puts forward a case and then there’s a review of it.

Very rarely does the government agency go out and do its own independent analysis or commission its own independent analysis. We want to see a system where we embed independent scientific analysis as a direct input into government decision-making. We proposed the establishment of a sustainability commission precisely for that reason.

Doug Hilton: So independent of stakeholders, scientists capable of going in, doing an analysis of biodiversity and then preparing a statement that is scientifically independent?

Adam Bandt: That’s right and then feeding it directly to government.

Doug Hilton: And to do that properly requires a country that has enough taxonomists, ecologists, water scientists etc. to provide the scientific underpinnings of those sort of environmental impact statements. That sort of science, especially taxonomy, is an area that is perennially seen as an “easy cut”.

Adam Bandt: And some people have told me it’s not seen as sexy as some forms of research and it might not attract the same kind of outrage if it’s cut, but it’s still fundamental.

Again, this comes back to my point, I think that generally there’s a debate we need to have about securing the revenue base in this country to fund the services that people expect. And if the current government got revenue from tax at the same rate as under John Howard, there’d be an extra $20 to 25 billion a year! That pays for a lot of scientists and a lot of hospitals.

Doug Hilton: That pays for a lot of environmental impact statements.

Adam Bandt: The more that we shirk from this bigger debate, the more we’re going to be left to having debates about where to cut rather than where to grow.

Doug Hilton: You’ve got your pulse on the electorate, do you think that the Australian electorate is sophisticated enough to have the discussion about high tax rates? And where we pay and how we should pay taxes.

Adam Bandt: Yes, and you don’t need to raise anyone’s personal income tax by a dollar. You just need to have a discussion about the significance of subsidies that we’re giving some industries at the moment. That is a de facto industry policy, it’s a policy that says we’ll prop up an area.

Doug Hilton: A specific field, or industry.

Adam Bandt: Right, right. A job in research should count the same as a job in manufacturing. I’ve been out to Clayton and CSIRO and seen the adaptive manufacturing work that’s going on there and it’s fantastic and I’m thrilled they’re going to get some money from the government. I think that kind of work and the solar cells work they’re doing out there, is exactly the kind of work that we should be promoting but I think people are up for a debate about which of the big players should be subsidised.

Doug Hilton: That’s really interesting. I want to turn the discussion a little bit to something I’ve always seen as a bit of a dichotomy with the Greens. On the one hand I have a picture in my mind of a “typical” Green voter - an anti-science kaftan wearing hippy who thinks that aromatherapy is going to cure everything. And yet on the other hand the Greens are embracing science around climate change, and I think took a really sophisticated line around gene patents - making sure there’s incentives for innovation but also ensuring the fruits of innovation aren’t monopolized. Tell me how you walk that difficult path?

Adam Bandt: Australia needs to become a smart, clean economy and science and technology and innovation will be central to that. Climate change is I think the greatest threat facing us as a species (and many other species as well) and it’s scientists who have lead us to the point of understanding where we’re at and where we might go to in the future.

I would say the majority of Greens party members, probably all of them, would see that science is central to a better understanding of the universe, but that it doesn’t answer everything. Climate change in particular is now less of a scientific issue and more a political issue.

Doug Hilton: So the science of climate change is done?

Adam Bandt: That’s right. When I say science is done, obviously there still needs to be more research but the verdict is in about the significance and cause of global warming. But science isn’t the only way one can relate to the rest of the universe and I think that there are lots of decisions that, with the greatest respect, shouldn’t be made by scientists.

Doug Hilton: I certainly agree. There are lots of decisions that should never be made by scientists!

Adam Bandt: Taking a step back, one of the things about climate change that has always struck me as incredibly ironic goes to what you’re saying. If you think about the caricature 1940s and 1950s American scientist telling us about these amazing ways humans are able to dominate the natural environment and by acting on it we can achieve great things and create these amazing products.

Well turns out that’s all true, that humans can impact on the environment at an incredible scale and it’s called global warming and it’s outstanding that very scientific and political hypothesis has been proven right.

And all the people advocating it are saying: “oh no maybe global warming isn’t right, maybe we need to challenge the science after all”, so there has been a bit of an inversion. I don’t think it’s inconsistent to be the kind of person you describe but also to believe in scientific truths playing out now.

Doug Hilton: There’s been a lot of debate about how science and scientific evidence is portrayed in the media. The dilemma is that journalists want to provide a balanced view and think that they must give the same weight or same airtime to competing ideas, irrespective of the relative merit of the two sides. Climate change is man-made and the evidence is overwhelming vs the climate change sceptics relying on fringe science.

How do you get to the point where journalists are sophisticated enough to be able to say “we don’t have to give equal air-time”. There was a really good Conversation piece which went viral, No, you’re not entitled to your opinion, which should be mandatory for all politicians, scientists, school students and the general public. How do you get away from this notion of balanced journalism?

Adam Bandt: I read a piece in the Geek Manifesto or something like that saying that: imagine if it was a news story that said, “all scientific and mathematicians say 2+2=4, the Numerical Liberation Front says 2+2=5, the answer’s somewhere probably between 4 and 5 and the debate continues.” It would just be seen as ludicrous.

I think there’s been an incredible organized assault on climate science. I think Robert Manne put his finger on it, it’s the same techniques that have been used by the tobacco lobby which is to manufacture doubt, so to confuse doubt with genuine scepticism. And I think they’ve successfully manufactured doubt. There’s something, not unique, but certainly peculiar to Australia, maybe it’s our distance from the rest of the world, but to other parts of the world this is no longer a political-partisan question, people accept that climate science exists.

Doug Hilton: Probably except for the US.

Adam Bandt: Yes, but there are the same techniques, same powerful interests there. But if you look at Europe, conservative Prime Ministers and Chancellors, are looking at the need to urgently tackle climate change and closing down nuclear reactors and building wind farms and so on. So I think it’s a combination of powerful interests plus something different about the debate that’s going on in Australia.

So I don’t know the answer to it, I wish I did but I don’t know the answer other than it’s a question of power ultimately.

Doug Hilton: So with seven and a half months to go until the next election, where’s science policy at the moment with the Greens?

Adam Bandt: Well front and centre and we’re in the process of working up a series of costed initiatives to take to the electorate, including around science and research. We’ve been consulting widely, we’re very keen to hear from the science community.

Doug Hilton: So the policy is not a done deal?

Adam Bandt: No, it’s not and in fact for us it embodies all of those questions earlier, how do we transition Australia’s economy and society.

To take one example, I’ve often heard people bemoan the difficulties of commercialisation of technologies and discoveries in Australia. I’ve asked several people “What would you do if you were King?” and I’m yet to be presented with a good road map. And there are other areas where I think those with an interest in science and research could really contribute a lot to the nation by saying here are some good concrete suggestions for things that would make a difference. And maybe some of those things will come up in the McKeon review.

Doug Hilton: They’ll certainly come up in the McKeon review of medical research, but there are lots of people with other ideas out there. Should these people contact your office?

Adam Bandt: Please do.

Doug Hilton: Really? It’s an invitation to contribute to the Greens’ science policy?

Adam Bandt: Absolutely.