An important juncture for Australian science

Professor Les Field

Professor Les Field AM FAA, Australian Academy of Science Secretary for Science Policy

As far as the Australian science scene is concerned, this has been a tough year. There have been cuts to key science programs and agencies, and the Australian Government’s vision for the role of Australian science it is not yet clear. We are at a really important juncture for the future as far as setting the overarching policy framework that will impact on science and on the research sector moving forward.

We are at the stage where we will have a change of Chief Scientist by the end of the year. As Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb is an exceptional advocate for science both with government but also by raising awareness in the community. He has been able to work constructively with multiple governments and has a deep understanding of the workings of government as well as the science and research sectors. Ian has done remarkably well to highlight the importance of scientific and technical literacy in the community and to raise the looming shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) training, particularly amongst our next generation. Ian really has raised the profile of the role of the Chief Scientist both with the government and with the public, and it is really important that whoever is appointed to the role next has the same drive and commitment to building a sound and strategic future for science in Australia.

We are also waiting on a number of important reviews to report and for the government to respond, such as the review of independent medical research institutes; the review of the CRC program; and the review of research infrastructure. Perhaps most importantly of all we are waiting on the government to respond to the Chief Scientist’s proposed strategic approach to STEM in Australia. This response has the potential to get us thinking about the bigger picture about how we use science in the future to build new economies and solve the grand challenges facing our nation.

With so much current uncertainty about the future surrounding science policy in Australia, we need to get the message out there that ‘evidence-based policy’ is important for good government. This is something that we have never been terribly good at in Australia. When you or I face an important or a difficult ‘life-changing’ decision we would normally take advice very carefully—whether it's about financial management, our health, building a house or having an emergency response plan for when disaster strikes. We all have a fair idea about who we would want around the table to advise us (and probably who we would not…). We would take advice from the best experts we could find and weigh up the advice carefully in deciding a final course of action.

Of the mountain of decisions facing governments, many are increasingly complex and technical and many of them do have quite dramatic long-term implications. The key issue for me is to make sure that governments draw on solid science when dealing with technical decisions and issues. Unfortunately the overall level of science literacy in parliament isn't high, either at the federal or the state level. I still recall appearing before a state government inquiry into nanotechnology a few years ago where the people on the other side of the table included a clergyman, two farmers and a banker. While I took it as an enjoyable challenge to deal with the ins and outs of nanotechnology in very plain English, it did hammer home to me that our political leaders do not always possess the level of scientific understanding we would hope for.

Over recent times, we have seen important debates over a number of issues that are informed by science—such as the need for a community-wide vaccination program; water management in the Murray-Darling; the rise of genetically modified crops (and foods); the impact of potential mining development and shipping on the Great Barrier Reef; how exploitation of our coal-seam gas reserves can be managed; a Royal Commission into nuclear energy (which has now been initiated in South Australia); the need (or not) for regulation of stem-cell-based therapeutics and so on. Each one of these topics is complex scientifically, and in some cases controversial. Governments have the difficult task of balancing the economic, political, environmental and social agendas of these issues and, while there may be immediate winners and losers, the consequences of any decision can be far reaching.

It is imperative that robust science underpins and informs each and every debate. The challenge for us is to communicate what are complex issues rigorously in plain English, supporting and informing governments to have the confidence to weigh up the science appropriately when making the call and setting policy.

This does beg the important question as to how we could go about boosting the level of science literacy in government. The UK actually has a number of quite progressive programs to get science embedded in government and they have a mandate that there is somebody responsible for science in every government department. This would certainly simplify communicating complex science to our political leaders.

My closing comment builds on the need for good plain English communication, but this time targeted to the wider community. The Chief Scientist has rightly highlighted our levels of science literacy in the community are not where we would like them to be. That places a greater responsibility on those of us who actually do have a higher degree of science literacy to make sure that complex and technical issues are well explained and well understood. If the community is well informed, the debate on complex issues jumps a notch to a higher level which is where it needs to be.

EMCR Pathways Issue 3

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