Climate debate diminished standing of science in some quarters: Nobel Prize winner

Public policy should be informed by science, Professor Schmidt said. AAP
The climate change debate has diminished the standing of science in some people’s minds, Australia’s Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist said today, calling for lawmakers to ensure public policy was informed by evidence-based science.

Australian National University astronomer Professor Brian Schmidt, who was last night named the 2011 joint-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his part in the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating, described the relationship between science and policy as “a little messy.”

“I think that [the carbon debate] has, maybe in the short term, diminished in some people’s minds the standing of science but to my mind it is part of the scientific debate,” he said at a press conference in Canberra this morning.

“I think that science should inform public policy. Public policy needs to take it as an input. It doesn’t mean it’s the only input.”

Professor Schmidt’s comments follow fierce public debate around the science of global warming and an emboldened climate change skeptics movement. Australian climate scientists said earlier this year they have been the target of hate mail and death threats.

“Science is never absolute, that’s the problem. You have different levels of assurity. I have won the Nobel Prize with my team today for discovering the accelerating universe. We are pretty certain that’s correct but you are never absolutely certain. The carbon debate is centred around the science, is the science right? Well there are uncertainties in the science,” said Professor Schmidt.

“I think the evidence is quite strong that change is happening,” he said. “The science behind climate change predicts there should be a little change right now but in future, the prediction is it will be much more. I think we are going to do that experiment, so in 20 years from now we will see how good those models are.”

Funding

Professor Schmidt also called for more and better targeted research funding.

“For the Australian Research Council right now, people like myself who apply to this have less than a 20% chance of getting the money. So that is very low by international standards,” he said.

“You can always fund science more but you can always fund science better,” he said.

“I really want to emphasise that stability of programs is really important, so five years from now I have some idea of what I can do. That’s more important than having a new brilliant idea every three years.”

Scientific inquiry may have unexpected benefits for broader society, said Professor Schmidt, pointing to the Australian researchers who accidentally invented wi-fi while studying black holes.

“I do not know whether or not the accelerating universe will give us a better toaster but I do know it will help us understand the universe and what that eventually evolves into is to be determined. That’s the way science works.”

Professor Schmidt, who learned he was a Nobel Prize winner at 8.30pm last night when he got a call from a woman with a Swedish accent, plans to use his prize money to fund “some sort of public good” after discussing it with his research team.

He said he hopes winning the Nobel Prize does not change his life too much.

“I like my life as it is so I am hoping it doesn’t change too much. But I do hope it allows us to advance science in Australia and serve as an inspiration for young scientists in Australia.”