Transcript: Greenhouse 2015 Conference, The role of the Australian Academy of Science in climate change policy advice, Professor Andrew Holmes

October 27, 2015

Delivered 9:30 AM, Tuesday 27 October, Greenhouse 2015 Conference, Hobart

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Australian Academy of Science President, Professor Andrew Holmes

Good morning.

It’s rather exciting to be here amongst so many talented and enthusiastic fellow scientists. I am grateful to the organising committee for inviting me to speak here today on behalf of the Australian Academy of Science, about our work in science policy and climate change.

I am particularly looking forward to listening to some of the talks on the program here, and hearing about the latest developments in the various fields.

I might start by talking a little bit about the Academy for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with it. The Australian Academy of Science is a non-profit organisation of about 500 Fellows, who are some of the most eminent scientists in the country. The Academy was founded in 1954 by a group of Australian Fellows of the Royal Society of London, who wished to establish a similarly respected body that was composed of highly qualified scientists. The number one objective of the Academy under its Royal Charter is:

“To promote, declare and disseminate scientific knowledge, to establish and maintain standards of scientific endeavour and achievement in the natural sciences in Australia; and to recognise outstanding contributions to the advancement of science.”

This objective was a considerable challenge for the founding Fellows of the Academy, 61 years ago. It remains a considerable challenge today, and one which we strive to meet in a number of ways.

A central part of this objective is the Academy’s work in advising Governments, to ensure that relevant scientific evidence underpins public policy.

Our work in policy matters has changed considerably over the last six decades. In the early days of the Academy, there was in fact no significant Commonwealth science bureaucracy. The Academy therefore had a strong role in providing scientific advice directly to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, who often asked for its opinion. Cabinet even held meetings in the Academy’s building, which today is known as the Shine Dome (or sometimes the Martian Embassy).

The first President of the Academy, Sir Mark Oliphant, in fact worked with the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, to establish the Academy (which was done through the Queen, by Royal Charter). In those early days, when Professor Oliphant wanted to draw the Government’s attention to some relevant research, or suggest a new approach to policy governing the way in which Australian science was supported and carried out, he would write a letter to the Prime Minister. It seems that Menzies read, and often acted upon these letters—including by establishing a commonwealth industrial scientific research organisation, and by supporting the fledgling Australian academic research sector.

Now, of course, the Academy, like the broader scientific sector, is one of many voices in the political melee. We continue to advise Government, but we have had to become more sophisticated in the way in which we deliver our message. These days, it is rarely done via letter from President to Prime Minister.

Our modern science policy activities can be grouped into two main areas. Firstly, we carry out policy work relating to the conduct and advancement of science itself, and secondly, we engage in issues of public importance where a scientific perspective is wanting.

Climate change falls into the both of these areas. The Academy has been involved with the promotion of climate science since the 1960s, when it co-ordinated Australia’s participation in the Global Atmospheric Research Program, which subsequently became the World Climate Research Program. In 1976, the Academy also prepared one of the first Australian reports for Government on what was then termed climactic change, although the fear at that time was of a new ice age. That report carefully examined the evidence surrounding the question, and foresaw that the changes in climate would create social and economic problems that would require multidisciplinary solutions.

Four decades on, and the world is at a critical juncture. The issues canvassed in that 1976 report are now becoming our realities—albeit by a different route. Decisions taken by the global community at the Paris climate conference will greatly affect the extent to which our world is changed by the enhanced greenhouse effect. As scientists, it is our duty to help the global community make the best decisions that can be made.

The Academy stands ready to help scientists discharge this duty. Our activities in science policy, and in public awareness and outreach, are designed to take the collective scientific opinion and put it in the hands of the public and the government. Perhaps our most visible activity in this area is our publication, The science of climate change—questions and answers. This publication is scientifically rigorous and provides the evidence in a way that a considerable number of people can come to terms with.

However, I might come back to our Q&A a bit later, because there are a number of other ways in which the Academy is seeking to inject facts into what’s become an extremely controversial public discourse—a public discourse peppered by deliberate and accidental misinformation.

As I’m sure you are aware, there is a decreasing number of people in the community with what I like to call ‘a feeling for science’.  A national popular poll commissioned by the Academy in 2013 found that only 59 per cent of Australian adults could correctly identify how long it takes for the Earth to travel around the Sun. Thirty per cent thought that humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs. This, while year 11 and 12 science enrolments are falling, and while Australian students’ performance in science and mathematics continues to drop behind those of our OECD peers.

This declining interest in science, and understanding of science and scientific thinking, makes the job of successfully prosecuting science policy even harder. People without a feeling for the subject matter will not readily come to grips with the difficult choices that scientists say must be made. This is why the Academy has a very strong set of programs in school science education—Primary Connections and Science by Doing. These both include units with relation to climate change.

Science by Doing is a comprehensive online program which delivers the Australian science curriculum for Years 7 to 10. It’s available free to all Australian students and teachers and it’s supported by award winning professional learning modules and a research based professional learning approach. The Australian science curriculum requires all high school students to have an understanding of the earth’s global systems and the interactions involving the biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere. This also includes understanding the carbon cycle.

To help students understand the earth’s global systems and the factors that affect them, Science by Doing is developing a Year 9 unit called Big Systems. The unit is being finalised at the moment. It will contain five parts; one of which is climate science. Within each part there is rich information and instructions about a variety of inquiry activities.

Big Systems and all the other Science by Doing units can be accessed by simply registering on the website, sciencebydoing.edu.au. Any Australian can register, and I encourage you to have a look.

Primary Connections is the Academy’s program for primary school science. Like Science by Doing, it is award-winning, and uses an inquiry-based approach which pairs high quality curriculum resources with targeted professional development for teachers.

The Australian science curriculum aims for year six students to understand that: ‘Energy from a variety of sources can be used to generate electricity’.

Primary Connections has addressed this with a unit called Essential energy. This unit gives students the opportunity to explore different energy sources—both non-renewable and renewable—and to begin to understand the environmental impact of using each one to generate electricity. Students explore using energy from the Sun, water and wind through investigations including heating water using solar energy and improving the efficiency of a waterwheel. Students also read and discuss information about how most power stations in Australia burn fossil fuels to generate electrical energy and how burning these fossil fuels produces waste products that can damage the environment.

One of the keys to the success of Primary Connections in the classroom is the background information we provide to teachers for each unit, which helps them feel competent and confident in teaching science. All of this information is based on the best available science, and is reviewed by Academy Fellows. So for the energy unit, teachers receive supporting information about the many different sources of power, whether or not they are renewable, and some considerations of the relative environmental impacts of each source.

I recently saw Primary Connections in action at an ACT primary school. There a teacher was introducing the concept of Venn diagrams to six year olds. There were two overlapping large hoops. In one hoop there were toys that could be pushed while in another hoop there were toys that could be pulled and in the overlapping sector there were toys that could both be pushed and pulled.  I have to confess that for the first time I really understood a Venn diagram from that experience. I was very impressed at the time, and can’t help but wonder if we could use similar teaching methods to get our science policy message through to those in positions of influence.

I am also pleased to note that the Academy, in collaboration with the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, was just last week awarded a major tender from the Australian Government to develop a new mathematics-by-inquiry education program for Australian students, from the first year of primary school, through to year 10. We are very hopeful that this program will help students understand the relevance of mathematics to their daily lives, and arrest the decline in mathematically capable school-leavers.

But all of us here today know that classrooms are not the only forum in which learning takes place. And so the Academy provides science education for adults too. Nova: science for curious minds is winning over audiences and critics with its multi-layered, engaging presentation. Nova, which lives at nova.org.au, provides information on a very broad range of topical science, explained in a clear and engaging way. The Nova topics range from everyday things like cosmetics, plastics and speeding cars, to more complex concepts like quantum computing and the Higgs’ boson.

Unlike many websites that purport to provide reliable scientific information, our Nova articles are reviewed by leading scientists to provide an important level of quality control and rigour. After reading an article, Nova visitors are given an opportunity to submit any questions they might have about the subject matter, which will be answered by an expert in the field. Our collection of articles is constantly expanding and I invite you to visit Nova and share it with your friends and family.

I was pleased recently to review one of our most recent topics myself: From Sunlight to Electricity explores how solar photovoltaic cells works. It introduces readers to concepts like silicon junctions and the photoelectric effect, and outlines some Australian achievements in the field. As well as a range of energy-related topics, Nova’s ‘Earth and environment’ category includes topics on ocean acidification, coral bleaching, the greenhouse effect, air pollution, biodiversity, and the effects of climate change on human health.

Nova, Science by Doing, Mathematics by Inquiry, and Primary Connections are, of course, just small components of the Academy’s education programs: we’ve been creating educational materials since we first published high school science textbooks the 1960s. The Academy is so dedicated to this endeavour because we strongly believe that a quality science education is vital in helping to ensure that everybody can think critically; that everybody can have a feeling for science; that scientific thinking and scientific knowledge should not be the sole preserve of scientists. Enhancing the nation’s understanding of science and ability to think critically is important not just to shore up support for research, research infrastructure and scientific endeavour. It’s also vitally important for the wellbeing of our society as a whole. An informed society made up of critical thinkers can engage meaningfully with the great challenging issues of the day. Issues such as public health. Issues such as food and water security. Issues such as climate change.

As well as our work for the public, we also devote a considerable amount of time and effort into putting the best scientific opinion before a more technically-minded audience. Specifically, the Academy provides advice to government in a variety of ways. Like a number of other organisations who are represented here today, we actively seek out opportunities to put our opinion before government. This often occurs in the form of submissions to inquiries and consultations, which can range from parliamentary inquiries to consultations with government departments, on a range of issues. Our policy team consults with Fellows and other experts to provide reasoned and evidence-based argument and analysis to help inform the conduct of public policy and programs.

Earlier this year, the Academy made a strong representation to the Government on the issue of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. We have argued that Australia must aim to be carbon neutral by the middle of this century, and an important step along that process would be to reduce our emissions by 30 to 40 per cent by 2030, compared to 2000 levels. Although there are probably some in this room who would have wished for stronger action, I am heartened that the Government is listening to the scientific community and has progressed the work of emissions reductions in Australia. I look forward to hearing of more progress in that respect, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister.

Perhaps even more importantly, we also provide advice to government by participation on advisory boards and working groups. Many of our Fellows are invited to sit on advisory panels to directly provide advice to government. Five of our Fellows sit on the Commonwealth Science Council, which met with Malcom Turnbull for the first time last week. In addition, our 22 National Committees for Science combine expertise from both within and outside of the Academy. Each of these committees represents a scientific discipline.  Our National Committee for Earth System Science, for example, has a top level aim to foster the development of a coherent community of Earth System Science research in Australia.

This includes representation and facilitation of core disciplinary components such as atmospheric and ocean sciences, as well as the cross-disciplinary aspects of Earth System Science.  It is good to see the Chair of this National Committee, Dr Tas van Ommen, here today, as well as other members of the National Committees for Earth System Science and Antarctic Research.

Through the National Committees we have the ability to nominate suitable experts in any scientific field, to assist the government when needed. These committees also form vital linkages with international scientific organisations and unions, on behalf of Australia’s science community. Organisations such as the ICSU committee on space and research, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, the Scientific Committees on Antarctic and Oceanic Research, the World Climate Research Program, the Future Earth project.

The idea of sitting on an advisory board might not sound like the most exciting work to those of you who are more accustomed to polar expeditions or developing ground-breaking new models of the climate system, but I can assure you that it is absolutely vital. The work of these hundreds of boards and committees informs Government policy right now, for today and the future. This is one important way in which we try to make sure that politicians have the right information before them when they make decisions. It’s easy to dismiss this type of work, because Government doesn’t always take our advice—but I would invite you to just imagine what might happen if these avenues to provide advice didn’t exist. The phrase ‘Policy-by-Google’ comes to mind, and it’s not a comforting thought.

A final string to our policy and education bow is the work that we do which tries to bridge the gap between technical and general audiences. One of the best examples of this is our Questions and Answers series of publications, in which we present scientific information on important and contentious issues in a rigorous and factual way. The Academy has produced two of these publications so far—one on the science of immunisation, and another on the science of climate change.

These came about in response to public confusion about the science of climate change, and the great deal of misinformation that’s masquerading in the public domain as fact. The Academy believed the Australian public deserved to have factual, unbiased and authoritative information on the science of climate change. We had access to the best available expertise—through our National Committees and our fellowship—and in 2009 Council asked a high-level group to develop a brief for a topical, timely, relevant and publicly-focused question and answer document on climate change.

The committees developed a widely respected and representative expert working group. This last point is of critical importance—our work has to have respect and authority both inside of the scientific community, and amongst the general public. This group drafted the publication, using the best and most up-to-date available scientific knowledge.

We then used a professional science writer to turn this into a more accessible document, written in a way that would have a wide audience. The involvement of communication specialists in the process is incredibly important. If we are to have the widest possible impact, we need to make sure that the fruits of our intellectual labours are within picking reach of all. It is of no use whatsoever to write a document which represents sound and factual knowledge, if the only people who can understand it are in this room.

The process of producing our Q&A is subject to an iterative peer-review process—each piece of work produced by our science writer was reviewed by both our working party, and a dedicated and independent expert review group to ensure that we put forward the best science in the best possible way. At this point I should acknowledge the tremendous amount of work put in by our working group—and I know that some of you are in the room today. Their efforts are often overlooked, but in reality this piece of work took a very considerable amount of their time and resources, and I express the sincere thanks of us all to them.

So at the end of this process, of producing a factual and reviewed report, we had an attractive and engaging document, available to all on the internet and in hard copy. The science and information it contains is clear, concise, authoritative, defensible, reliable and accessible. It has been read widely in the community. Perhaps more pleasingly, it has also been read widely within Government—so you can be assured that the results of your important work do indeed reach those in the corridors of power.

As you might expect, the publication of this report in 2010 generated a lot of interest from a wide section of the community. A very wide section, I should add. The Academy received correspondence from a lot of people with some very interesting and different views. As scientists, we sometimes can forget or dismiss the opinions of those who have not had the privilege of being exposed to science in as great a depth as some of us. Although it might be tempting to dismiss this correspondence when it arrives at our door, in this instance it presented an opportunity.

It was an opportunity for the people who know the most about the subject to engage with those who had differing opinions that were not well supported by the evidence. I am pleased to say that we responded to each piece of correspondence received with regards to the publication, and responded with facts, with evidence and with courtesy. We made sure that we provided a comprehensive response to anyone who contacted us with concerns about our publication. It is my hope that our correspondents at least gave our responses the same level of consideration that we gave to their questions. Of course, we don’t know whether this happened—but this was a unique part of our process. Information passed directly from leading scientists to individual people, without the helpful re-interpretations and ‘guiding hand’ approach which have become commonplace in some parts of the mainstream media.

We thought the time and effort, and the discussion it generated, were so worthwhile, that when it became clear a few years later that the science had moved on—we did it all again. Our updated ‘questions and answers of climate change science’ booklet was published at the start of this year. This time around, we went to even more experts for peer-review—the booklet was written and reviewed by more than 20 leading experts in all aspects of climate change. The working groups for both booklets were ably, professionally and generously co-chaired by Ian Allison and the late Mike Raupach. Their contributions to public understanding of this crucial area of science cannot be overstated. In a testament to the depth of Professor Raupach’s contribution to science in society, the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, described him as a “persuasive science communicator, an influential thought leader and a trusted advisor to the Government”.

Late last year, just a couple of months before his untimely death, Mike penned a quick hand-written note: his feelings about climate change.

“My feelings about climate change are a mixture of awe, hope, despair, frustration and anger,” he wrote.

Our task is to fix a generation of problems that are global and centennial—to learn to share a finite planet.

We have the capabilities to repair climate and to lighten our footprints to what the planet can sustain.”

We do have those capabilities. But in order to meet this grand challenge for our modern age, we as scientists must move beyond being truth-seekers. We must be truth-tellers.

We might not believe that truth conquers in the modern world, but I am determined that the Academy will act on one simple principle: scientific fallacy shall not stand. The Academy will use its voice, the voice of Australian science, to stand for facts, to stand for rigour and to stand for free-minded and evidence-based analysis. As scientists, we can stand for nothing less.

However, it isn’t as simple as that. As we all know, there are considerable challenges and costs involved with public debate in the modern world. The costs to individuals can be high. It is therefore critical that as scientists and experts we stand together. The vilification of individuals that we have observed in the course of the climate change debate is nothing less than reprehensible, and the Academy strongly condemns it.

As the International Council for Science proclaims, the free and responsible practice of science is fundamental to scientific advancement and human and environmental well-being. The ability of scientists to conduct their work, free of fear or hindrance, is vital to the future wellbeing of our community, and the Academy will continue to advocate for academic freedom.

As scientists, we enjoy some incredible privileges. We have the means to observe the wonder of the world at closer quarters than other members of our community. More than anyone else, I would contend, we have the ability to follow our interest and curiosity where it leads us. We also are equipped and trained to critically enquire and to see the events in our surroundings in a dispassionate and analytical light. When someone asks “Why is it so?”, we have the joy of trying to find an answer.

Of course, with any privilege comes responsibility. We have a duty to conduct our work in an ethical and conscientious way. We must be mindful of how our work might be relevant to the wider world, and how we might use the results of our endeavour to improve the community and environment in which we all live. Perhaps most importantly, we must show leadership in those areas which are within our expertise.

Of course, this is not something that always feels comfortable. As scientists, it’s often not in our nature to be happy in the spotlight. But current and future generations are relying on us not to shirk our responsibilities; we must not leave the duty of leadership to those who seek only power and glory. We must ensure that we have a hand in shaping the future so it is fit for our children, and their children.

Leadership in our own spheres of influence doesn’t have to be big and bold. We can lead through small actions and words, such as:

  • setting an example of best-practice in our research
  • engaging in conversation with someone who lacks a scientific understanding of serious issues, instead of dismissing them
  • reaching out to people of influence to provide them with a scientific perspective
  • educating our political leaders and telling truth to power
  • making connections with colleagues in other disciplines to work together on wicked problems.

In this vein, I am delighted to announce that the Academy has taken some small steps in this area. This year, the Academy resolved that it would no longer hold investments in environmentally sensitive activities. Accordingly, in the last month the Academy has divested itself of direct links to fossil fuels in its investment portfolio.

Of course, divestment is a difficult political issue—and the Academy is fiercely apolitical. Despite this, it’s a decision that we can make on rational grounds. Is the value that could be derived from fossil fuel activities sustainable in the long term? Certainly not from the view of the Earth system—and probably not financially either. It is possible to put our support behind activities that are most sustainable, both financially and environmentally—so we have therefore committed to do so.

This is a small step that the Academy can take—but it is a step towards discharging our responsibility as scientists, and as leaders in society. Our work in science education and science policy are small parts of being scientific leaders in the community. We will continue to expand our presence in the community, to be a bulwark of factual scientific advice when we can. We will continue to support and encourage scientists to involve themselves in public discourse, and to encourage as many scientists as possible—including all of you—to be involved in the design and implementation of policy initiatives at all levels of government.

For those of you who think that you don’t have a place in the policy process, I urge you to remember the words of Margaret Mead—“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

© 2018 Australian Academy of Science

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