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Science is golden

There is a political narrative that has been developing for several years, both in Australia and the wider world. It goes like this: the right live in a fantasy land of their own making while the left reside in the realm of cold hard facts. Reason, science, experts and logic lie slightly left of centre; as the saying goes, truth has a liberal bias. The right has pure ideology, then, while the left occupies the less exciting turf of reality.

This story centres on a global right that is so mired in its own internal contradictions – most notably, the clash between conservative and free-market perspectives – as to be furiously incoherent. More specifically, the charge that right-wing movements are hostile to science itself stems largely from the failure of much of the right to confront the urgent reality of climate change. As this issue demonstrates, scientific research can provide politicians with information they’d prefer not to have. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative government is even considering banning researchers who receive government funds from using the evidence revealed by their work to lobby for changes in laws or regulations; there has been some suggestion that scientists may be exempted from the ban, but this has not yet eventuated at the time of writing.

The story of the right’s hostility to science is convenient for some political actors. In the United States, Jill Lepore notes in the New Yorker that the ‘era of the fact’ is ending, and observes:

Hillary Clinton has a campaign ad called ‘Stand for Reality’. ‘I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain,’ she says, which is an awfully strange thing for a former First Lady, US Senator, and Secretary of State to say. But what she means, I guess, is that even some random old lady can see what Republican aspirants for the Oval Office can’t: ‘It’s hard to believe there are people running for President who still refuse to accept the settled science of climate change.’

Just as the Democratic Party can paint itself as the party of logic in opposition to the Republicans, the Australian Labor Party has also sought to align itself with ‘experts’. In opposing the repeal of the Gillard government’s carbon tax, Bill Shorten charged that Coalition MPs were ‘turning their back on the free market and the settled science in favour of Tea Party economics and crackpot pseudo-science’. The story of a right devoid of reason was buttressed by Tony Abbott’s content-free approach to campaigning and governing. His administration seemed like something dreamed up in a bizarre chain email, with a Senate inquiry into halal food, the announcement of a wind-farm commissioner, a series of unhinged culture wars and a professed faith that the economy would improve simply because the Coalition were back in charge.

Any Australian wanting to make the case that the right prefers fairytales to science, reason and logic will not lack raw material. This story merits some unpicking, but what is rather extraordinary is that the Abbott and Turnbull governments have seemed intent on proving it to be true. The casual observer could be excused for concluding that the Coalition harboured some deep-seated grudge against the sciences, as though somehow, at a formative age, someone in a lab coat wielding a Bunsen burner had hurt the government’s collective feelings and it had never truly recovered.


War on science and technology

The saga of the National Broadband Network looms large in accounts of the government’s failings. It’s a complex tale in which partisan bloody-mindedness, some characteristically poor planning from the Rudd government and the Coalition’s insistence on a ‘fast, affordable, sooner’ fibre-to-the-node model saw the loss of an opportunity for a transformative, nation-building piece of infrastructure.

Scientific research is also suffering. The Abbott government made deep cuts in this area, including pulling $111.4 million from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), $74.9 million from the Australian Research Council (ARC), $7.8 million from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and $300 million from Sustainable Research Excellence at universities. In late 2014, Adam Bandt observed that the government’s expenditure on science, research and innovation represented only 0.56 per cent of GDP, ‘an equal record low since Treasury started publishing data in the late 1970s’.

The narrative about the Coalition’s ineptitude in science and technology has been disrupted, one might say, by Malcolm Turnbull’s installation as prime minister. There have been some changes of emphasis. For instance, the government agreed to retain two renewable energy agencies (the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation), which had been earmarked for a quiet death. Most notably, Turnbull has with some fanfare launched a National Innovation and Science Agenda replete with eminently mockable buzzwords. On assuming the prime ministership last year, Turnbull advised that ‘the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it’.

However, the differences between the Abbott and Turnbull governments are somewhat illusory. In the Monthly in March 2016, Nick Feik patiently dismantled the Agenda, noting that money grandly asserted to be being spent on exciting, innovative and disruptive things had in fact been quietly shuffled around from existing sources. For instance, Feik noted that the new innovation package

included an ‘additional’ $127 million in funding for university block grants, which sounds great except that $262.5 million was pulled out of the equivalent Sustainable Research Excellence program in the last budget – not to mention cuts to the Cooperative Research Centres Association worth $107 million over the past two years, and $75 million to the Australian Research Council.

In the end, Feik concluded, the Agenda is more rhetoric than reality, and tends to illustrate the shallowness of our policy debates in the technology sector.


The landscape

Science does not exist without people to study it, and the pool of funding available to researchers is shrinking. For instance, there has been a $35.6 million reduction in the ARC Discovery program, which funds, among other things, Future Fellowships. These are of great importance to mid-career researchers; they generally last three to five years, and have been characterised as a ‘stepping stone’ that, according to Michael Lawrence Crichton and Maggie Hardy from the Australian Early/Mid Career Researcher Forum, allows researchers ‘to develop the skills and experience necessary to earn significantly larger … grants later in their career’.

Harm is also occurring through passive underfunding. Take health and medical research, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). This is an area with clear future benefits, particularly given our ageing population (a report commissioned by Alzheimer’s Australia in 2011 estimated, for instance, that almost 900,000 Australians will have dementia by 2050). In late 2015, however, NHMRC CEO Anne Kelso indicated in an ABC radio interview that ‘after a long period of very strong growth in funding for medical research in this country, we’re now on a plateau’. This stasis represents a real-term loss in funding, and the consequences are being felt: there has been a 16 per cent loss in researchers from the NHMRC Funding Scheme (Project Grants) within the last three years – a figure that equates to around 700 full-time research positions. In 2015, funded rates for project grants (which are usually awarded to fund a specific project lasting three to five years) were the lowest in the history of the NHMRC at 13.7 per cent. The government’s new Medical Research Future Fund promises to ‘provide a sustainable source of funding for vital medical research over the medium to longer term’ but within the medical research community there is grave concern that this will be too late – researchers are already heading for the door.

The National Innovation and Science Agenda website enthusiastically advises that ‘in the next decade an estimated 75 per cent of jobs in the fastest-growing industries will need skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)’. It laments that ‘enrolment in STEM subjects has been in steady decline’ before chirpily promising that the Agenda is ‘providing more opportunities for Young Australians to get the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow’. Careers in the sciences, though, are notably precarious, with researchers often dependent on individual grants and unable to plan more than a few years ahead. This state of affairs is not new and cannot be laid at the current government’s feet: in a 2013 survey of 1200 researchers conducted by the Australian Council of Learned Academies, over 80 per cent of recipients criticised the ubiquity of short-term contracts. One respondent was quoted as saying: ‘Job uncertainty is appalling … we can barely provide for our family and have at most three to four years’ job stability. This is extremely stressful.’

Dr Sarah Meachem, the president of the Australian Society for Medical Research, observes that among researchers there is ‘considerable and widespread anxiety … that career opportunities are lacking and job security is unstable’ and that overall ‘the ecosystem is not sustainable because of unpredictable investment policy into health and medical research’. Meachem also notes that the highest rate of attrition takes place around mid-career, seven to fifteen years post-PhD. At this point, around ten or even twenty years have been spent investing in the lives and careers of these researchers; the expertise gained in the process is then lost as they leave the field.

It sticks in my throat somewhat to refer to individuals as ‘human resources’ or ‘human capital’; even the term ‘brain drain’ feels dehumanising. However, it is clear that Australia is squandering reserves of talent, knowledge and experience by failing to provide researchers with a long-term career path.

Times are also tough for scholars in the humanities; the new priority areas for ARC funding are seemingly designed to exclude what my high school physics teacher derisively referred to as ‘Mickey Mouse subjects’. These priorities consist of food, soil, water, transport, cybersecurity, energy, resources, advanced manufacturing, environmental change and health. In a scathing piece for the Conversation, Clive Hamilton asked rhetorically how scholars in the humanities and the social sciences could ‘craft their ARC applications to fit into this utilitarian frame’. Turnbull’s $20 million cut in funding to cultural institutions, including the National Library of Australia, will also threaten resources such as Pandora and Trove, which have proven invaluable to scholars across many disciplines. For researchers, this is emphatically not the most exciting time to be an Australian.


Begs the question

An easy conclusion is that the Australian right has become so illogical that science is inimical to it. Certainly, the federal Liberal Party in its current iteration is a paranoid, obsessive creature. As Guy Rundle wrote in the Saturday Paper earlier this year, the Abbott government tried to ‘project its right-wing fantasies onto a country that no longer felt defined by them’. In Rundle’s analysis, Turnbull seeks to ‘draw a line under the Abbott era, and reconstruct the Liberal Party as a centre-right socially progressive party’. He’s had an uphill struggle; even as an election looms, Turnbull’s government remains ‘hostage’ to Abbott’s ‘completely and utterly irrational’ campaign run in opposition, as Josh Bornstein puts it in the Guardian. As if to helpfully underline the continuities between the Abbott and Turnbull administrations, Attorney-General George Brandis announced this April that as regards climate change, ‘it doesn’t seem to me that the science is settled at all’.

The story of the crisis of the right certainly has legs. There is a risk, though, in arguments that assert the primacy of science and technology over politics – as though the left had no ideology of its own, or as though these sectors were apolitical. The idea of a ‘scientific’ approach to government – an administration of experts rather than politicians – has some champions. Thus in Meanjin last year, author and academic Doug Hendrie wrote that Australia’s ‘fickle, populist democracy will not cope with this century’s challenges’ and proposed ‘technocracy, Singapore-style, where we hand over much of our decision-making power to experts and step back’. Similarly, in the Conversation earlier this year, Mark Chou, an associate professor in politics at Australian Catholic University, wrote that Australia should learn from China’s ‘meritocracy’, arguing that ‘in China, no Palin or Trump would ever get close to an office of power’. Chou contended that ‘not every person who manages to win a vote should lead’, concluding that there was ‘too much at stake to always reduce a nation’s fate to “one person, one vote”’. What is so disquieting about these arguments is not only the lack of trust in one’s fellow human beings, but also the seeming assumption that a decision made by experts will undoubtedly be beneficial. It’s perhaps worth restating that a policy might be efficient, logical and evidence-based, but still fundamentally unjust: ideology matters.

And it matters here. The state of play in the sciences should be seen in the context of what Ian McAuley and Miriam Lyons term a ‘multi-decade war on the public sector’ in their book Governomics. The role the state has played in funding and driving research – and, indeed, in shaping the national economy – is consistently downplayed, with government often viewed as merely a source of waste. In particular, technology is often seen as a sector built by individual genius, owing little to the collective. As Turnbull emphasises, ‘entrepreneurs create jobs’. In a recent Q&A appearance, Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy expressed the view that ‘real success … is when we generate greater private-sector involvement in this space’.

This answer is what one would tend to expect from the Liberals, but the importance of public funding in this area should not be understated. The highest recorded proportion of GDP spent on R&D by an Australian government was 0.74 per cent in 1993–1994. This still falls substantially below countries such as Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Portugal and Germany. ‘The economies that have been truly, transformationally innovative – the likes of the United States, South Korea and Estonia,’ writes Nick Feik, ‘boast government spending on R&D around twice that of Australia.’ In the United States, it was recently reported that a government agency (a branch of the Department of Energy) had succeeded in building a ‘next generation’ battery with superior energy-storage capacity – a product that had eluded private-sector players such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

In Australia, by contrast, science writer Julian Cribb notes in the Sydney Morning Herald, there has been a ‘steady, prolonged erosion of national and state investment in science, technology and engineering’ from governments of both political stripes, beginning with the Hawke government’s cutting of 30 per cent of CSIRO funding during the 1980s. One researcher I spoke to observed that all governments like to pay lip service to science and research funding, but that in practice this may not amount to much, as ‘science is assumed to be something vague and elite that happens in labs with little relevance to real life’ and it cannot be fully controlled. Ultimately, they concluded, most party policies tend to revolve around ad-hoc funding without an overarching theme. The Innovation Boom policy and the Medical Research Future Fund do provide a broader theme, but a number of questions remain about how these will work in practice. For instance: will basic research be funded, or will the emphasis be firmly on commercialisation? Will science be effectively industrialised by being pushed into focusing mostly on profitable research?

There will of course be occasions when scientific research is supported by the private sector, but in some areas this is inherently unlikely. McAuley and Lyons observe that although research for knowledge’s sake usually has ‘no immediate marketable application … most applied research ultimately rests on the findings of “blue skies” work’; they cite the fields of pure mathematics, upper-atmosphere physics and climate change. They also note that some research simply lacks a commercial market; public-health research, for instance, will rarely produce a saleable ‘product’. If scientific research is to flourish, then, governments will need to fund it. This simple truth is under challenge. It is cause for concern that internal emails between managers at the CSIRO, provided to a Senate inquiry, reveal plans to ‘stop doing science for science sake’ and end ‘public good’ research that was not connected to employment and economic growth. One major problem with this line of thinking is that it may simply not be possible to predict ahead of time which research will ultimately bear marketable fruit. How many promising avenues might be cut off prematurely?

In researching this piece, I asked Dr Meachem what a truly innovative science policy would look like. She replied that it would ‘be visionary and long term’, a ‘sustainable and predictable funding policy’. In the area of health and medical research, Dr Meachem concluded that an injection of $300 million into the NHMRC Medical Research Endowment Account would be ‘an important first step into a long-term strategy to generate a sustainable health and medical research ecosystem’. Among other things, there would be ‘integration not only of the sector, between researchers, clinicians, administrators across industry, academia and hospitals but integration of policymakers between health, education, science and innovation, employment and workforce training would occur’. Ultimately, ‘policy and science would go hand in glove’.

What sticks out for me in this vision is the role of the state in providing a holistic policy, as well as a steady source of funds. Opposition to the government’s cuts must be full-throated, but championing research as a discrete area seems too limited. The goal is surely not to preserve the science and technology sectors as a cordoned-off, well-funded island while other areas of civil society wither. Currently, union movement campaigns are calling on Australians to ‘use your vote to save CSIRO’, as well as to protect Medicare and so forth. Taking a lead from this approach, what if we anchored the case for funding for science and technology within a broader narrative? Instead of retelling the horror story of a right that is allergic to science and reason, we could write a new tale: one that demands decent working conditions for researchers as for all Australians, emphasises the validity of the state’s role as an economic actor and – above all – asserts the primacy of the public good.


Read the rest of Overland 223


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Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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