Scientists Precious? Indeed they are

At first I thought it might be some breakthrough. Possibly the phrase “precious petals” had been deployed by a minister with some of the responsibility for science as he described his excitement at some new bit of amazing research.

No. Of course not. He was taking another swipe at the very group he is alleged to be “passionate” about. It’s a passion we should trust because he is the “grandson and son of a scientist”. Maybe claiming scientific ancestors is the new equivalent to “some of my best friends are women”.

With these latest comments the minister who had insisted not having a Science Minister was not an issue, that everyone should judge the government by their actions and was now claiming that the criticism leveled at the government was “crap” made it abundantly clear that there is no genuine engagement in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Lots of examples are easily proffered to support this. Cuts to the CSIRO, ANSTO, and peak funding bodies such as the ARC and NHMRC are not the end of the story though. There are far deeper issues.

Science is not just a label to attach to an end product that looks like it involved some thinking. It’s an approach to reasoning out the miraculous things we observe around us. Sometimes it’s even about reasoning out the things we are still to confirm.

There is an alternative to this rational approach to life. It relies on the denial of observation of real phenomena to support blind faith and ideology. The issue with this government is not the simple totem of an absent Science Minister. It is the pervasive dismissal of evidence in all areas of policy.

This photo of sunflowers is a reminder that petals are actually pretty great. [via Vince Wingate, CC]

This photo of sunflowers is a reminder that petals are actually pretty great. [via Vince Wingate, CC]

 Recognising this casual relationship with evidence, no matter what level of evidence that is, seems to be the only way to make sense of so many decisions. Lip service is given to a belief in the science of climate change. Yet the removal of a carbon pricing regime working in the sector it was designed for was accompanied by a total absence of a ready alternative.

Despite evidence that rising health costs aren’t as catastrophic as initially claimed, the Health Minister seeks to justify a co-payment which will disproportionately affect the vulnerable, discourage engagement with primary and preventive health and not actually return significant money to the healthcare sector. It is coupled with steps to nobble useful public health bodies whose job is to prevent high cost diseases from driving up our spending.

Evidence is offered by an extensive review of education that significant benefits would accrue from addressing inequality in education. The government seeks an early opportunity to run away from pre-election commitments to support the recommendations.

You might assume such an approach would at least allow the recognition of eyewitness accounts as worth some kind of weight. Except that when faced with reports from eyewitnesses and experts of major health and child safety issues in offshore detention, the Minister simply insists all of those reports are inaccurate.

Inconvenient facts cause barely a pause. They are flicked away as irrelevant in the face of the lessons of careworn ideology. What a pity scientists haven’t made more effort bending their reasoning to suit those seeking to deny evidence.

So where to for those wanting to stand up for science? Engagement is still a requirement. Running away from the government isn’t going to improve things at all and there is a real and pressing need to deal with Australia’s poor performance commercialising promising research.

Well, the same minister gave us an insight not that long ago. He suggested that science had “allowed itself to get pushed out of the community awareness space. If you are feeling a little irrelevant in the community, make yourself relevant.” A charge of irrelevance from the government of knights and dames was bound to sting. Well, bionic vision can’t come soon enough because the Minister is blind to what’s around.

Otherwise he would surely have attended the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes the same day he was commenting on scientific flora. There he could have celebrated researchers delivering improved safety for helicopters in crashes, world first treatment for the Hendra virus, massive boosts in grain yields or two dollar microscopes for smartphones.

Maybe he could look at those undertaking crowdfunding to engage very directly with people both here and overseas. How does setting up such campaigns or even being part of organisations promoting science in this way sit with the accusation of irrelevance? He could have read the publicity regarding Australian teams from the CSIRO and universities in Melbourne stepping closer to delivering better solar cells. That can be printed onto plastic.

Maybe he could even pay attention to the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, as he delivers a comprehensive national science strategy to deliver broad benefits across the community for decades to come. There will always be room for scientists to communicate even more but researchers at all levels are taking up that challenge and making those steps. Right now it’s the government choosing to sink further into the ideological groove they’ve carved in their favourite stuffy armchair.

This is a government with a Prime Minister who thinks the media should be giving more credit, a treasurer complaining that business doesn’t show enough support and an environment minister taking public swings at renewable energy leaders. It’s not scientists that are being precious. They’re just speaking up as the whole sector weathers constant attacks, while still delivering amazing results.

Maybe he got the word precious right. Just with the wrong meaning.

 

This post was actually written for Croakey, and appears on that site right here

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