The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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A Slightly Less Disgruntled Science Vote

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The Australian 2013 federal election is almost upon us, and once again science policy won’t really factor into my vote. I’d like it to, I really would, but most of what there is of it is just as weak, vague or impossible to parody as it has been in every other election. But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

The two parties competing to form government certainly differ in their policies and credibility on science. But it’s still only a contest between the Coalition’s active — and oddly specific — malice, and Labor’s sulking apathy.

It’s okay Labor. I’d be sulking too if I knew I’d have to spend the weekend moving all my stuff.

The Liberal/National Coalition

There’s not a lot to say about the Coalition’s policy. Haha, just kidding, yes there is! It’s awful! Their responses to Science and Technology Australia’s survey was something you’d fail a year seven student for, and went so far as to feature the phrase further details […] will be announced closer to the election. This is Politics Speak for no-one interested in this is going to vote for us anyway, egghead. Oh, but they did release policy details closer to the election. They include such gems as enforcing political control of Australian research. When Brendan Nelson pulled this crap back in 2005, it was pretty obvious it was about allowing the government to directly influence cultural and social criticism — not just through the handful of grants rejected, but more importantly through the wider effect of discouragement and self-censorship. Given that the party is led by someone who courts the creationist vote and thinks that carbon dioxide doesn’t weigh anything, it’s not really wild speculation to say there’s a fair chance that the physical sciences will be targeted this time around.

So, the score for the Liberal/National Coalition is policy: F, track record: NO STARS EVER.

Labor

Labor have thrown down the gauntlet with a science policy that I find insipid, inoffensive and barely adequate. I think that’s what they were aiming for though, and it’s worked for them in the past I guess. It includes industry partnership initiatives and public funds for medical research, and those are the kind of policy breakthroughs that should, hopefully, see us still retain one or two scientists by 2016 (if they can’t get working holiday visas somewhere in Europe). I don’t know how much I trust them on this though. They have the unfortunate tendency to suddenly try to cut funding to research when they’re spooked by the word deficitOH CRAP I SAID IT NO NO

Score for Labor is policy: 6/10, track record: 40%.

Misc and Other

Having dealt with the Big Two, I turn now to the party who are unarguably the next greatest force in Australian politics; the party whose popularity and engagement are inexorably bringing it them up to the same level of political clout as Labor and the Coalition. As much as I’ve derided them in the past, it would be remiss of me to ignore the Coke in the Bubblers party, who have clearly invested a lot of eff—

Fine, Fine, the Greens

The Greens have read and built upon the policy work of others to come up with a good, sound science policy that addresses many of the concerns raised by scientific researchers, support staff, administrators and educators. Their answers to the STA’s survey were comprehensive and detailed. They have tailored policy elements to Australia’s needs, they have candidates like Adam Bandt and Richard Di Natale who have personally made science a focus of their campaign, and they are making a concerted effort to put the future of Australia’s research back on the political radar.

This is an extraordinary effort from a party that I, and many other scientists, had previously written off.

On the other hand I still find it very, very hard to dismiss their anti-scientific dogwhistling and derailing. I find their their tacit approval of Greenpeace physically destroying research to be a frightening thing, and in the same ideological realm as the Liberals trying to shut down research they find politically unpalatable. They still have a policy about supplying Australia’s entire radiopharmaceutical and industrial isotope needs with a particle accelerator — as long as we don’t need more than a few atoms a day, sure. And if I criticise Coalition leader Tony Abbott for his unscientific claims and voting records, should I let Christine Milne off the hook for voting against stem cell research too?

I recently tried to see whether they were coming around on these issues and asked Richard Di Natale about some of this. He stated that he and most of his colleagues support stem cell research. Great! But on ANSTO and OPAL, he gave me the usual shrug off of not knowing enough to comment. On GMO crops, he gave the usual legal issues derail and dodge (gee, if only we had some group of people responsible for taking the initiative in reforming legislative frameworks and oh wait).

But… Am I making perfect the enemy of good? Politicians must feel like taking on science policy is futile, as minor imperfections in the policy itself or the broader party platform will alienate many scientists very, very quickly. I don’t want to contribute to that culture, I want to combat it.

Of course, the Greens will not need to form government and they know it. Any minor party has the (qualified) luxury of promising the moon but delivering the actual moon which is actually really big and you didn’t actually think about that when you voted and now your house is crushed you idiot. However… this is shifting the goalposts, and it’s a bit unfair. Labor and the Coalition promise the moon all the time too, and deliver nothing, and then blame the moon when houses get crushed anyway, and then spend all your money on a prison for the moon.

Like any minor party, or even a major party in opposition, the Greens’ policies really only mean that you know roughly what they’ll negotiate for, and why, when they are presented with a bill in the Senate. That’s pretty much it. The important thing about the Greens’ science policy is that it demonstrates (to me, anyway) that they have gone to the trouble of consulting the scientific community in Australia, they’ve asked what the issues are, and they’ve asked what can be done to help.

This is, for me, a very positive move in Australian politics. It’s encouraging. I’ll even go so far as to say that the Greens make me substantially (but not completely) less disgruntled about science policy in Australia.

Score for the Greens is policy: silver, track record: five of clubs.

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