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Why A Science Policy

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This is a modified cross post from the WA Democrats' site. I posted it here because it’s a nearly-perfect snapshot of my own state of mind at various points over the last ten years. It encapsulates all of the frustration I felt when I decided to re-engage with politics. So it might be a little out of context here, but if you know me at all, you should read it.

A version of this article was originally published in the June 2011 edition of the Australian Democrats' National Journal as a call for us to create a new science and technology policy. I am now the National Policy Coordinator for Science and Technology, and will be running public forums on science and politics to get input from the people closest to these issues.

In early March this year a rumour emerged regarding possible budget cuts of up to $400 million to medical research. It was one rumour out of several floating around; it was not part of a call to arms or outraged opinion piece, just another party leak that made it into the news cycle.

But the response from the community was phenomenal.

Within days, the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign was launched. Soon it was all over Facebook and Twitter, there were pieces written about it on Crikey and ABC’s The Drum, and eventually there appeared editorials and human interest articles in the Australian and most state papers. More than 12000 people turned up to rallies in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth, Darwin and Brisbane — not just scientists, but administrators, scientific support staff, survivors of diseases made treatable by Australian research, and relatives of those whose lives were lost to disease but still improved by medical science. Central business districts became a sea of white coats, orange signs, business attire, petitions, clipboards and cameras.

All over science.

If this proves anything, it’s that although science is not a high profile issue, and it’s certainly not as well funded as most scientists would like, Australia does not take it for granted. Not always, anyway.

Science is something of a personal issue for me. I myself am a scientist… well, sort of. I have degrees in physics and in engineering, and I currently work as an research and development engineer for a small company in Western Australia. I’ve worked under a scholarship at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), taught undergraduates at university, and been a theatre demonstrator and puppeteer at a science centre.

During my career (short as it is so far), I’ve had senior Australian scientists advise me to “get out of Australia before it’s too late for me.” I’ve read complaints from private schools stating that they should have been warned that a planetarium show about cosmology would contain elements contradicting their teachings of the origin of the universe. I have watched academics work for free at universities until they literally ran out of money and took jobs with companies to which they were morally opposed. I have seen tech companies limp along close to bankruptcy when, with a little investment or assistance, they could have been growing and generating wealth for Australia — while overseas companies receive land grants, incentives and no-strings-attached cash to open shop here.

Scientists all over the country are feeling deeply cynical about the point of their work, and find it hard to give potential students a reason to enter the field. Entrepreneurs who attempt to turn a profit from scientific breakthroughs find themselves stared at by baffled bankers and ignored by state and federal governments until their endeavours are rendered futile. Technology is regulated by people who repeatedly demonstrate that they do not understand it. Teachers with no background in science struggle to teach it to their students who will, in turn, find it hard to see the point of it in the future.

Clearly, there are some problems with science in Australia.

It was while working at ANSTO in 2003 — the research organisation built around the Lucas Heights research reactor — that I really started to see the disconnect between science and politics in Australia. I realised it was not just The Big Two or the more extreme conservative minor parties that engaged in scaremongering and dishonesty. The Greens are certainly partial to using technophobia in much the same way as Labor or Liberal use xenophobia or class warfare to score points based on peoples' fears, but it doesn’t stop with them. Time and time again I saw politicians, journalists and activists make completely untrue claims about the organisation, the research, the scientists and the site. And not simply “matter of opinion” untrue, or “ambiguous data” untrue — I continually read statements that actually contradicted all known laws of physics, chemistry and medical science.

This applies across the board on science. Environmental activists vs. ANSTO. Christian lobby groups vs. stem cell research. Oil company funded thinktanks vs. climate scientists. Each of these groups have their associated politicians who tap into this fear and get media time for it. Popular political parties will make declarations of support for science while completely contradicting themselves in order to continue to play on whatever happens to be their most profitable fear. Scientists in Australia still feel completely disconnected from the political process and are highly sceptical that this will ever change.

Yet more Venn diagram humour
I love Venn diagrams.

Over the subsequent years I realised more and more than there was no political party that was truly comfortable with science. In 2009 I decided that nonetheless, I was going to re-join a political party, even if I had to compromise.

So I chose the Australian Democrats.

It may seem an odd choice, given their — our — standing. And I have to say, the Democrats still don’t check every box on science. But here was a party that had worked over and over again to produce policies and action plans formed by experts and ratified by their members. We used to have an action plan on science and technology, but now it is relegated to history. (Incidentally, it was pretty good.) I saw the Democrats as (a) a decent party overall, and (b) the only party that was remotely equipped to even try to fix the problems I’ve described.

But now the Democrats need a new science policy so that we can show scientists that we are a different brand of political party. Instead of working backwards from some out-of-the-box stance, we need to ask ourselves: do we support scientific research that will improve the lives of people around Australia and the rest of the world? Do we support scientific endeavours that will increase our knowledge of how the world works, even if it can’t be turned into a packaged product straight away? Do we want to see innovation commercialised by Australians to the benefit of our economy and society? Do we believe that science should inform politics, rather than exist at its whims?

If the answers to these questions are “yes” then we need to follow this principle through. We need to stand up for political independence of scientific institutions and the ARC. We need to work to improve the pay and conditions of academics, scientists and scientific support staff, and to demonstrate that their work is important and has a place in politics. And we need to declare our support not just for CSIRO, but the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and, yes, even ANSTO.

As always, ANSTO and the Lucas Heights research reactor (previously HIFAR, now replaced by OPAL) is a controversial subject. What follows might seem like a digression, but it is an excellent example of how a poorly thought out science policy just won’t cut it.

It might seem at odds with our stance on nuclear waste (ie. “don’t make any”) to support an scientific organisation built around a nuclear research reactor. But pursuing opposition to anything with the word “nuclear” in its name will only lead us to the same, rather bizarre, conclusions as the Greens: unshakable opposition to the manufacture of nuclear medicine in Australia! It is worth pointing out that if such a policy were actually enacted, the net amount of nuclear waste generated globally would actually increase — it is just “not in my backyard” politics.

There is a major ethical difference between supporting a nuclear power plant and supporting a research reactor, and that is that while electrical power can be generated by a number of other means, there is simply no way to replace a research reactor. There are many radiopharmaceutical and industrial products that can only be made by bombarding certain elements with neutrons. The same goes for the tools used in medical research, nuclear health and safety research, environmental and geological science, materials science and engineering… and that’s just the high profile work. This is not an economic constraint, or some modest engineering challenge — the laws of nature are pretty clear on how to turn one element into another. Until someone comes up with a better kind of neutron factory, only a research reactor can manufacture the samarium-152 or iodine-131 used for radiotherapy, or emit the particles required for intricate scattering experiments.

Support for ANSTO would show that we actually understand (a) high school physics, and (b) that for a nation to get the most out of its scientists, it needs to have different organisations with different facilities and research priorities working in parallel. Otherwise it is obvious to any scientist that we are just paying lip service to some vague idealised version of science, with exceptions made where we think we can get more votes.

If the Greens really think that medical research and science should be a priority, why isn’t ANSTO right up there with CSIRO or NHMRC in their policy? If Labor really believe the climate science that motivates their carbon tax, why aren’t they preparing for the now-inevitable consequences of climate change, such as massive population displacement? If the Liberal party really care about science at all, why did they work so hard to cripple the ARC when they were in government… and WHY have they selected Tony Abbott as their leader — a man who doesn’t think that “evolution is a complete and entirely satisfactory scientific explanation of the origin of man”?

The answer to all of these questions is simple: they don’t understand science. They don’t understand its significance, how it works, what it can do and why people do it.

Our current lack of a science policy could, at this moment, actually be an opportunity for us. The process of forming a new science policy could become not just a campaign but a way to offer Australian scientists input into politics. I will be personally contacting all the people who have ever complained to me about the state of things: scientists, academics, business owners, engineers… and anyone who I know wants to see a greater intersection of science and politics, to ask for their input into the new science policy of the Australian Democrats. It’s certainly not a magical solution to the problems I’ve described here, but it would be a step towards bridging the chasm between scientists and politics.

But having a policy that is supportive of research institutions and the practice of science is, as a mathematician would say, necessary but not sufficient to convince scientists and supporters of science that we take them seriously. Scientists don’t want to see science relegated to an area of policy where it can be quarantined and ignored when it’s not newsworthy. We want to see science brought to the foreground every time a politician makes a quantitative claim, or every time they say that they want to achieve a certain outcome. And even on top of that, we want to see politicians being informed by science as to their very direction and ideas, instead of just coming up with some new moral crusade or harebrained problem-of-the-week to solve.

I firmly believe that the Democrats can and should work to develop a comprehensive and consistent policy on science, research and technology. I also believe that we can use this as an opportunity to differentiate ourselves to the Australian scientific community, to make them aware that we share their concerns, and ultimately to help them to have more influence in the political sphere.