To save myself 1000 words, this was my Twitter stream yesterday.
This was because I follow many researchers and scientists and the absence of anyone with the word “Science” in their title amongst the many merry cabinet ministers was enough to unleash much despair, incredulity and generalized wailing and gnashing of teeth. I think I even saw a bit of alternate career planning and proposals to set up new reality programs for the times (“I’m a Scientist! Get Me Out of Here!”).
Now, Twitter gets good traffic spreading outrage. Those who’d been suspicious that a new government would take things back to a 1950s era desperate for the arrival of Marty McFly to liven things up were ready to pounce with the evidence at hand. (They were mistaken of course. The 1950s may have had patchy sewerage connections and smallpox, but it had a science minister.)
All this stuff about the support for science is of pretty vital interest to someone like me who is just trying to get into research and would like to think there’s a bright future. Perhaps with the benefit of a little time, it’s worth asking a couple of simple questions:
1. What does it really mean?
2. What’s to be done?
What’s In A Name?
Any onlooker could well have wondered why the angry blare of vuvuzelas erupted from some in the science community. The issue was surely that it tapped into deeper fears of the attitude of this government to science and research. Maybe those expressing fears are worried by a political party with more than a few climate deniers. Maybe the prospect of them interfering with grants and “redirection” made people skittish. Perhaps health researchers were skeptical of the level of engagement of a health minister with responsibility for the NHMRC who didn’t feel the need to develop much policy or ask a question on his portfolio for 3 years. It could have even been the realization that the teams working on stupendous bionic vision might lose the brilliance of the team at NICTA who are part of restoring vision, but have had their funding reduced. It all certainly squeezed a nerve right against the collective bony bit.
The concern is evidently that banishing the word “science” from polite ministerial conversation is an attempt to downplay its significance. It’s certainly a little hard to claim that retaining the name is just the handwringing claptrap of symbolism when you’re happy to latch yourself to the ANZAC legacy by including a minister to put on a truly excellent ANZAC march or promote the “border protection” label into the cabinet.
On the emotion, it’s possible that the other variegated disappointments of the cabinet, most particularly the gathering of the Bratwurst Brethren (+ Significant Other) just in time for an Oktoberfest party, spilled onto this turf. They are separate though.
There is scope for the new government to clarify its relationship with science, research and higher education over the coming weeks and months. In opposition you don’t get to put much of that into practice. There is nothing stopping an opposition from actively grooming and mentoring the next generation. To make no effort to meaningfully engage with the challenge to strengthen the role of committed and able women within their ranks is rather pathetic. The cabinet announcement should have shown the fruits of that labour, not a demonstration of an entrenched old boys attitude they couldn’t be bothered with.
The scorn heaped on the cabinet selections for including just one woman is entirely appropriate. The science issue is separate. The sensible response is probably to take on board all of this and retain a skeptical eye to further developments.
After a day, some more nuanced discussion has emerged from people far cleverer than me. Will J Grant and Rod Lamberts cast about some excellent pearls here, most particularly that there may be some trolling going on and mounting outrage may be counterproductive. Certainly groups such as the Australian Association of Medical Research Institutes can see that setting up a wailing circle is probably not a constructive way forward.
Prof Brian Schmidt (super Nobel laureate) had already pointed out that the label matters far less than the actions of the government. There’s more in this video, including some useful critique of the previous government. He even provides a little leeway – 8 weeks for the government to nail its colours to the mast in a manner more effective than nailing jelly to a wall.
Chief Scientist Ian Chubb has again advocated a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach. This will be a space worth watching because responsibility for science and research will fall across multiple areas, a not entirely new arrangement. To make that a strength, a lot of coordinated effort will be required. The risk is of a fragmented approach to innovation, with researchers interacting with different groups with different rules. Seems like a recipe for an ongoing administrative nightmare for researchers rather than the efficient streamlining hoped for.
So maybe the next bit is to keep talking, but not howling. Continuing interested discourse and active engagement should be standard behaviour. It may well turn out to be business as usual, and the research community has always been pretty effective at producing great stuff in interesting circumstances. If the business changes of course, I hope there’s more to the response than a Twitter storm and some consolatory animal gifs and “Keep Calm” memes.