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Election 2013 Essays: Australia for the long term

With a change of government now seeming likely, what is our long-term scope for research and innovation? AAP/David Crosling

Election 2013 Essays: As the federal election campaign draws to a close, The Conversation asked eminent thinkers to reflect on the state of the nation and the challenges Australia – and whichever party wins government – faces in the future. Today, Peter Doherty takes a scientific big picture view of the election to call for informed and effective debate to become the norm in all facets of Australian politics.

What do we want from the next Australian government?

I expect we are all agreed on a few major requirements: prosperity, accessible and high-quality medical services, responsive democratic governance, a good education for our children and jobs when they graduate from an apprenticeship or college/university, the preservation of basic freedoms and mutual respect, the sense that our nation holds its head high in the international community.

Who would disagree with any of that?

As a political observer, I’m convinced that governing Australia is not easy. All sides of politics make mistakes and can be blindsided by global events such as the global financial crisis.

I also think that politicians are, in the main, decent and committed people. However, like the rest of us, they can sometimes get caught up in their own rhetoric. As everywhere, the realities of power are such that those with the big dollars can have far too much influence, sometimes in ways that are bad in the long term.

Science policy

Science is my thing, of course, and I believe that it is vastly important for our future. Science is central to our national story.

Modern Australia was founded as the result of a scientific expedition: the voyage of the HMS Endeavour to observe the transit of Venus. There were serious scientists on board, including Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. Banks, the longest-serving president of Britain’s science academy, The Royal Society, pushed the idea that convicts should be sent to Port Jackson (Sydney).

The identity of the science minister matters a lot. Too often, this is regarded as a minor portfolio. We have been extraordinarily fortunate in having Kim Carr. My total disillusionment with the Gillard government began when he was stripped of his portfolio, owing to the toxic internal politics of the ALP. This country deserves better.

If, as seems pretty certain, the ALP finds itself in opposition, we should all hope that they go through a process of soul-searching and major reform.

Is there a potential science minister in the ranks of a putative Coalition government? Senator Brett Mason made the effort to put together a book, Future Proofing Australia, expressing a number of views (including some of mine) that do not support LNP policy. That, and the title itself, is encouraging.

Australia has been ‘extraordinarily fortunate to have a science minister of the calibre of Kim Carr’. AAP/Lukas Coch

As a medical researcher, I’ve been impressed by the performance of the current health minister Tanya Plibersek. The shadow minister, Peter Dutton, has always seemed to be a reasonable guy. Opposition leader Tony Abbott, a former health minister who was well regarded by those researchers who worked with him, has also said that medical science will be protected.

I don’t know how long incumbent chief scientist Ian Chubb is continuing, but he has done a great job and my sense is that he would find it no harder to work with an LNP government. My Nobel colleague Brian Schmidt is also in Canberra, and I believe that he will continue to be a very effective lobbyist for big, physical science/engineering projects, no matter which party is in power.

Former prime minister John Howard also seemed genuinely interested in the activities of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC), and we might hope that Abbott will follow suit. Both in Australia and the US, research and innovation generally appeals to conservative politicians, and they are less likely to sacrifice excellence and genuine effort to pay for ever-expanding entitlement programs.

However, one thing Australia’s conservatives sometimes miss (perhaps because they recall their experience over 20 years ago in a law, economics or arts faculty) is that much of our research capacity is underpinned by the resources, both physical and human, in research universities. Cutting universities to the bone, while neglecting necessary infrastructure, compromises research and innovation capacity.

From time to time, we do find the money to build major science facilities. Before embarking on such initiatives, it would make great sense to develop and underwrite a realistic 10-20 year plan. The Australian Synchrotron, for example, is operating just nine of 38 possible beam lines that could be exploited for a spectrum of research and industry-based applications. This is much the same for Australia’s only neutron source, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s lightwater nuclear reactor.

Apart from the need for additional hardware, which can be designed and fabricated here, both resources are massively underutilised because of the lack of personnel. The economic potential of such major instrumentation will only be realised if we train and employ more first-class young people.

National Broadband Network

Our universities are strong, rank highly on the international scene and are sophisticated when it comes to global and distance education. They remain substantial dollar earners and, beyond that, every international student who has a good experience here and returns home is a potential ambassador. The higher education game is also changing rapidly and, with fast internet connectivity, a great deal of sophisticated course content can be delivered online.

Given an effective National Broadband Network (NBN), we could network all our universities, allow some to specialise and give course credit between institutions, at little added cost. Australia is still, as pointed out recently by Glyn Davis, working with a 19th century model. We need to think big and move forward.

The roll-out and cost of the National Broadband Network has been a highly topical issue in the campaign. AAP/Lukas Coch

Provided there is the option of a fibre-optic connection to commercial premises, both the ALP’s and the Coalition’s NBN approaches should promote the development of web-based businesses, for example, in the outer suburbs and regional towns. The same is true for telemedicine to doctors’ offices, though the lack of a high-speed connection to the home could limit possibilities for monitoring the elderly and delivering sophisticated educational content.

My personal view is that the “fibre to the node” model will, at best, prove to be a transitional strategy, but at least it starts the process and there’s no reason why those who can afford to do so should not pay for fibre to the home.

Climate change

Australia is especially conflicted with regards to anthropogenic climate change. In the end, however, what happens in international energy markets will not be up to us. Looking to a possible future of extreme climate unpredictability and disrupted food production, it would seem sensible to emphasise agricultural innovation and the development of, for example, drought-resistant grains using the best available technology, including GM.

The goal should be sustainable agriculture, and we must protect our limited resources of good arable land, together with the precious water in aquifers from inappropriate use and degradation. Toxic actions that serve only short-term needs are potentially lethal for this country.

Both sides of politics are committed to a 5% reduction (below year 2000 levels) in CO2 emissions by 2020, with a provision that we will go to 15% - or even 25% - if that challenge is taken up globally. The 15-25% option would, of course, only come into play if there was a major natural catastrophe, such as widely disseminated deaths from heat stress or, as occurred last year in New York, the flooding of major coastal cities, subway systems and the like.

If we don’t work to address climate change properly, will events like Hurricane Sandy become the ‘new normal’? EPA/Michael Reynolds

Business as usual would be impossible, and nations could decide to move to rapid adaptation programs. These programs would, in a sense, be equivalent to a war footing. The consequences for an economy that relies heavily on selling fossil fuels are obvious. The more we diversify the better. And, while carbon sequestration and storage seems to be falling off the map, the development of clean coal burning technology by CSIRO and others should surely be a major, national priority.

Energy alternatives

Australia has immense resources of solar, wind and perhaps even geothermal energy. Sugar cane, like in Brazil, provides a ready source of ethanol, and technology for using this biomass is evolving. From what has been happening internationally, it’s clear that promoting “clean and green” innovation both drives economic activity and provides jobs.

While we may not have to go in that direction for our own needs, many passionate environmentalists are now convinced that modern, safe nuclear fission reactors have to be a major part of the energy solution for the colder northern countries until we can get nuclear fusion to work. As we’ve all seen, more moisture in the air due to ocean warming can result in much greater snowfalls and severe winter weather. Europeans and North Americans will not be prepared to freeze.

Should Australia open more nuclear power stations, like the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor in Sydney? AAP/Tracey Nearmy

As argued most recently by former prime minister Bob Hawke, we need to re-open discussion on our possible role in the international nuclear power industry.

Given Australia’s robust democracy and vast, geologically stable landmass, any such debate should include the option that we take responsibility for securing and sequestering the nuclear waste from the uranium that we sell. Technologies like Synroc, which can be used for this purpose, have been available for decades. Hopefully, this will be one area where a more conservative government can advance the agenda.

Also, apart from the various uranium-based reactors, India in particular is looking at thorium as a fuel source. Thorium is widely available and is much less adaptable for any malevolent purpose.

Mining will, as now, inevitably drive a major component of Australia’s economy in the long term. Apart from any other consideration, metals, the rare earths and so forth are essential for the development of new technologies for energy generation.

Looking to the future

When we are talking about physical (as distinct from political or emotional) reality, actions should be grounded in real data. There is no left or right of the equation when it comes to science-based reality.

Part of the job of our publicly funded scientific community is to talk truth to those in power and to the Australian community. The country loses out if we do not engage in an atmosphere of mutual respect. One of the many functions of The Conversation is to promote such broad-based discussion.

No federal government could be unaware that the science of Australia’s unique flora and fauna is our responsibility. As the principal scientific player in this hemisphere, it is therefore essential that government provides the necessary resources for monitoring the southern oceans and weather, accessing the satellite data that tells us what’s happening with anthropogenic climate change, researching the health of our fisheries and coral reefs, supporting our science in Antarctica and so forth.

Those functions are central to our role as substantial global citizens, no matter which party takes government after tomorrow.

This is the sixth and final article in our Election 2013 Essays series. Stay tuned to The Conversation for the best post-election analysis and comment.

Part one: Australia and the world

Part two: The state of Australian democracy

Part three: It’s the economy, stupid

Part four: What is government for?

Part five: The philosophy of voting

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