Why A Science Policy

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.

Why I Left the Labor Party

The other day, Queensland Public Sector Union secretary Alex Scott resigned from the Australian Labor Party — and his rather articulate letter of resignation struck more of a chord with me than I would have thought possible.

You see, I wasn't always swirling at the centre of this powerhouse of Australian politics, here in the Democrats. I was once, in fact, proud to call myself a member of the ALP. Now, normally I'd just leave that behind me — after all, I haven't been in the party for more than six years and I have no first hand knowledge of what's going in there now. But recently it's come up a few times while talking to current ALP members (Democrats National Executive: if you're reading this, don't worry, I didn't tell them about the secret installation or Plan Zeta). They ask me why I left (or suggest I come back), I tell them this story, and they all make exactly the same expression and go hmmm.

It's old news, and I was a nobody in the party, but here's the story anyway — meant as a biographical side note for people who know me, not as some deep or meaningful analysis of the ALP and its current woes, and not as party bashing. You're all adults, you can make up your own damn minds.

Asylum Seeker Chaos Is Anything But

The other day, the Australian reported on the chaos plaguing the Department of Immigration and Citizenship caused by independent reviewing of asylum seeker applications. Chaos is clearly Liberal MP Scott Morrison's favourite word to use, and like the Australian, the ABC were happy to quote it as part of their headline when they reported on a High Court decision establishing the legal processes available to asylum seekers a few months ago.

In the words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Case Against Bolt is Not Against Free Speech

As far as I'm concerned, Andrew Bolt being sued for deliberately humiliating a bunch of not-black-enough-to-complain people is far from an attack on free speech.

It all started with Bolt, an inflammatory columnist, penning a column about how certain "career Aborigines" were not dark enough for his liking. He published images of individuals and complained about their taking advantage of a system that is in place to reduce institutional discrimination. His words were ignorant, hurtful and racist. He targeted specific people, got their details wrong anyway, and is now being sued under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

This case is now being depicted as a threat to free speech, the basic argument being that "well, we might not like what Andrew Bolt is saying, but he should have a right to say it."


The Case Against Disease and Ignorance

Another angry letter! This time it's actually about science, too.

It is almost time for the Australian Government to deliver the 2011-12 federal budget. This time around, however, it's not just funding for Sun destruction that will be overlooked (again) — we are likely to see a funding cut of $400 million to medical research and the end of a program to train science teachers. This has been met with outrage from the scientific community, patients and families who have benefited from such research, and people such as myself who just plain gave up on academic science years ago. The outrage has manifested itself as the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign, which has taken (or is about to take) corporeal form in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

The following is my contribution, a letter submitted to The Australian today.