It’s almost time for the 2016 Australian Federal Election, which also means it’s time for an extra special double-dissolution edition of my science policy word tantrum!
Labor and Liberal
Ah who cares.
Look, I don’t want to do the too-cool-for-school crap of saying the major parties are exactly the same, because they aren’t. Spoiler alert: Labor is probably a better science vote than Liberal. But not so much that I can be bothered reviewing them separately.
The Liberals are obsessed with all things agile and innovation. But they have no idea what that means, or how science fits into it. They seem to think startups take a mere couple of years to reach success. They struggle to articulate what a startup is, and why eg. hairdressers aren’t one. They don’t seem to understand what it’s like to have an extremely viable business model that fails before it starts because it doesn’t fall neatly into mining or property development. For a party that’s meant to be all about business, they really seem to be at a loss as to how to help businesses. Except obviously rentseeking, that being the entire basis of their governance.
So they can’t conceive of science beyond making money off technology, and they have no idea how people make money off technology. Meanwhile, funding is cut, investment stops, and the smell of sovereign risk is in the air. Another term or two of the Liberal Party might actually see the end of Australian science altogether.
Labor like to give the knife a more gentle twist, giving passionate researchers just enough hope and praise so that they’ll continue to work for free and pay for their own supplies, just like the union movement fought for.
The cable tie that draws these two together is their complete, total, absolute, abject lack of vision when it comes to the potential of Australians. I have personally seen politicians from both sides be utterly shocked that Australian companies still employ people who eg. solder things, or design solid objects, or ship consumer electronics overseas.
This is obvious in their voices on the National Broadband Network, which is almost never discussed as anything but a consumer product. It is apparent in their involvement in the committee and debate on forcing ISPs to retain users' internet activity. It permeates every aspect of their politics, it informs every policy, it infects every budget.
Under the continued neglect of both parties, agencies have been reduced to empty husks. The CSIRO now hires managers at a six-to-one ratio over scientific support or researchers, because all they can do is churn money through meaningless commercialisation initiatives instead of inventing technology to commercialise. NICTA were eviscerated, haemorrhaging staff who simply could not live with the uncertainty, our successive governments so reluctant to commit to funding that they would rather leave tens of millions of dollars of valuable equipment in the sea to rust.
The fact is, science is not going to swing votes in marginal seats for either party, and this makes it invisible to both. It is the easiest part of the budget to cut, and the laziest piece of policy work for either.
(I would like to make a special point of the fact that a policy of “science funding at 3% of GDP” is pretty much what a six year old could come up with by Googling “what is good science policy” for a class report. It has no currency.)
So yeah, who cares.
Last time around, my qualified praise for the Greens focused on their science policy (good), and their anti-science dogwhistling (bad).
These things still exist. The policy is there, it’s just as good as last time, although not updating it suggests a little complacency on their part. The anti-science sentiment still comes through in places, and I doubt it’s going away any time soon.
But I feel like there has been a permanent, albeit subtle, shift in the attitude shared by the Greens' parliamentarians. More and more I see technological proficiency and scientific literacy informing their participation, and a great example of this was Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s work on the mandatory data* retention policy committee. (*There is no such thing as metadata you weasels.)