The government’s war on science: deliberate attack, or abuse by neglect?

Could scientists have it any worse in Australia?

Science has long had an uncomfortable relationship with Australian politicians. Indeed, throughout the decade of the Howard government, Australia’s scientists, researchers and higher education folks became used to fairly slim pickings and low political and public regard.

But in late 2007, those who cared about science, research and education emerged blinking into the daylight of what seemed to be a new order.

Under the nascent Rudd stewardship, science, research and education were touted as critical not just to our way of life, but our very survival.

A grand example of this was the expansion of the Office of the Chief Scientist to a full-time position with a greatly increased budget and staff (16 people) in September 2008. For many this was not so much a laudable act as one that was logical and necessary.

Then, just last month, our full-time, well-staffed Chief Scientist Professor Penny Sackett resigned, half-way through her term. Why?

Because, it seems, she was not allowed to act as the nation’s Chief Scientist.

At the time of her resignation, it was reported that she met with Kevin Rudd just once, and was never asked to meet with Julia Gillard at all. She was not part of the Australian contingent at the climate meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 (though apparently at least 50 others “officials” were critical).

Upon her resignation, statements by Sackett, Minister Carr and the PM were anodyne, utterly bereft of passion, concern, or regret.

Perhaps more damning still, there was no evidence or praise or criticism directed at the Office, or its soon-to-be leaving incumbent: “ho hum, the Chief Scientist is gone – what’s for lunch?”

This fits in with a string of other recent developments.

There’s always been a House of Representatives’ committee tasked to deal with science, most recently as the House of Representatives Industry, Science and Innovation Committee. However, one of the first acts of the Gillard government was to abolish this, with no replacement committee proposed.

In February this year it was announced that the Australian Learning and Teaching Council was to be abolished to free up money for flood reconstruction.

The ALTC subsequently had a reprieve with some 60% of its budget restored, but only after the application of fundamental political pressure by one of the independents holding the balance of power.

Earlier this month, CSIRO scientists voted to take industrial action about pay and conditions. A key element of the “conditions” problem was the confusion they saw about the role science should play in policy decisions and the increasing bureaucratisation of science.

CSIRO has quite a history of having to deal with those “pesky” scientists wanting to do silly things like have their valuable expertise influence relevant policy decisions, but it takes something significant to make scientists threaten to act in such a way.

Finally, there is also talk of savage cuts in the coming budget to the Australian Academy of Science’s lauded Primary Connections and Science By Doing education programs, and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research’s International Science Linkages work.

Though funding runs through these stories, this isn’t about money. This is a problem of political leadership, and of courage.

Quite frankly, it seems that science is a dirty word for this government.

A quick search of Julia Gillard’s speeches since becoming Prime Minister reveals a grand total of seven in which she’s used the word “science” – and only once more than once.

The single occasion on which she chose to utter that dirty “science” word more than once was her speech at the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.

(We can assume that her lily-livered minders reckoned on few of their precious swinging voters from key marginals paying attention to this awards night).

Paul Keating once said that prime ministers get to define the nation. If this is the case, it seems Prime Minister Gillard is intent on defining science as marginal to the Australian story.

But as our own ANU Poll showed last year, Australia is – despite what politicians and talking heads might think and try and tell us – a nation that cares about science.

But the blame should not be set on governmental shoulders alone. It seems that Barry Jones’ 25 year old critique remains true: scientists, on the whole, are political wimps, and it’s easy for our leaders to ignore science and sell us snake-oil policies.

Scientists have information that can, will and must upset the status quo. What they don’t have is the political or rhetorical chutzpah to force it to centre stage and then keep it there.

Where is the campaign – like the mining industry campaign – asserting the role of science in our policy formation?

We are in danger, if we continue to marginalise science from the policy formation process, of policy that only succeeds in the short-term world of the shock jocks and media blowhards.

We hope the next Chief Scientist is a serious media player, and someone who doesn’t care about upsetting political lords and ladies. To have any influence at all, the battle must be taken beyond the halls of parliament and placed squarely in the public arena.

If you care about the long term in Australia, it’s time to reassert the critical importance of science. C’mon scientists, start making some bloody noise.