The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Disgruntled Science Policy Roundup 2016

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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.

The Greens

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.)

This committee, and subsequent parliamentary debate, saw the two major parties doubling down on a ridiculous regulatory scheme to retain the internet and phone activity of every customer of every service provider in the country. Ludlam was a lone voice who challenged the puerile analogies, the awful agendas, and the blatant illiteracy of proponents of the scheme. He was the only parliamentarian (and one of very, very few journalists) who went to any serious effort to (a) understand the technological principles and (b) communicate them to voters and the media without dumbing it down.

And when the legislation passed, rather than move on from a now-defunct media opportunity, he turned his party’s organisational machine towards helping folk in the community protect themselves.

This may seem like cloying praise compared to the rest of this article, but it was damn good work and deserves a lot of credit. If the Greens do little else but bring scientific literacy to senate committees, they’ll get my recommendation every time.

Another interesting twist of politics was the Greens leader Richard Di Natale partially breaking with his party’s opposition to genetically modified crops and technology. (“Partially” because while he does not believe they cause health risks, he is still opposed to the business practices around them.) Despite some amount of frantic backpedalling that followed this, it is another sign that the party leadership are willing to take some risks in order to dismantle some of the anti-science attitudes they would have previously fostered.

Perhaps I’m slow to trust, but The Greens are still a bit of a wildcard for me when it comes to science in parliament. However, it is absolutely clear to me that their influence over the last three years has been positive for science and technology overall, and they’re still the only elected party who are willing to ensure that scientific knowledge informs Australia’s laws and policies.

The Men’s Science Party

A new party has emerged this cycle, a new party entirely dedicated to science! And almost entirely dedicated to men!

The Men’s Science Party have an amazing set of detailed policies. I mean, there’s a bit of a policy fractal thing going on, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s good policy. The Men’s Science Party campaign material, outside a circle drawn arbitrarily around social media, seems pretty professional. I haven’t seen any Comic Sans or 90s era clipart yet. That’s promising.

Now… the Men’s Science Party don’t actually say anywhere, explicitly, that they’re a men’s science party. I just inferred that from the fact that 90% of their candidates are men, most of their internal leadership is men, and they appear to have absolutely no strategy for addressing this ludicrously disproportionate representation. Let’s do the maths on what’s more likely: a party who want to represent everyone fails this badly, OR a party who want to represent only men accidentally let three women through.

Alas we have to do the maths on this ourselves, because when people asked them directly about it, they did not respond particularly… well. In fact, what they did do was evade the question and then cry “troll” at a number of women who have been working tirelessly on promoting the importance of science policy, regardless of party allegiance or discipline, for at least the entire eight years I’ve known them.

This is seriously disappointing. Because they have the policy corner of the triangle done. Their campaign machine is ready to go. But this party really need to sit down and decide who they aim to represent, and actually work out how they’re going to achieve that.

Or hey, they could just wing it with no particular measures to address inequality in their own ranks, and hope that the biases that contaminate every other aspect of politics, culture and the scientific world magically don’t apply to their endeavour. Go ahead, try doing the same thing over again while expecting a different result.

The Liberal Democratic Party

This is a party whose constitution literally requires candidates to voluntarily void their bowels on the spot should they ever glance upon a three-bladed wind turbine. Yes, photos count! Zero science stars.

I apologise to anyone expecting anything so cultured as a moon analogy. Although, in a wa—

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