13 September 2014

Why Science Is Not An Industry (and Our Petals Are Precious)

Science and despairAustralia currently has no minister (or department) for science.  One of the first acts of Prime Minister Tony Abbott when his government was elected last year was to name a cabinet in which, for the first time since 1931, there was no minister with the word ‘science’ anywhere in his title (I use the masculine pronoun intentionally, because one of the other characteristics of the current cabinet is that it includes only one woman in a total of 19 members).

In October 2013, Abbott defended this decision in front of an audience of scientists, saying:

It’s been remarked upon, ladies and gentlemen, that we don’t have a minister for science as such in the new government. I know there are some in this room who might have been momentarily dismayed by that, but let me tell you, neither does the United States have a Secretary for Science, and no nation on earth has been as successful at innovating as the United States and I’d say to all of you, please, judge us by our performance, not by our titles; judge us by our performance, not by our titles.

The difference, in case it is not obvious enough, is that the US has never had a Secretary for Science, whereas Abbott made a conscious decision, after 82 years of there having been a science portfolio in every Australian government, to erase the word from his ministry.  Where the previous government had a Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, the current government has a Department of Industry, headed by Minister Ian Macfarlane

Supposedly, responsibility for science continues to lie with the Minister for Industry.  However, it seems that Macfarlane is starting to get a bit tetchy with people who think, just because he does not have the word ‘science’ in his title, that he is not, in all but name, the Minister for Science.  And when I say ‘people’, I mean ‘scientists’.  And when  I say ‘scientists’, I mean (according to Macfarlane) ‘precious petals’.  Because last week Australia’s Minister for Industry, the Honourable Ian Macfarlane, MP, said:

I’m just not going to accept that crap [criticism of the lack of a science minister].  It really does annoy me, because there is no one, no one, more passionate about science than I am. I am the grandson and son of a scientist, and I give science more than their share of my time, and just because I’m not the minister for energy, do I hear the whinge from [the energy sector]? No.

But I hear it constantly from some of the precious petals, can I say, some of the precious petals in the science fraternity, and if you can’t guess, I won’t accept it.

Of course, this angered a few scientists, although I think they should wear the label with pride, because they are precious, in the nicest sense of the word!  And responding to name-calling is a distraction from the real issue, which is this government’s rather poor record, to date, on Australian science.

‘Judge us by our performance, not by our titles.’ OK…

It has now been just over a year since the government was elected, meaning that we have had ample opportunity to judge it by its performance, rather than by its titles.  Highlights include:
  1. abolishing the Climate Commission;
  2. the Prime Minister’s denial of a link between climate change and more severe bush fires in Australia, and accusing UN head of climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres, of ‘talking through her hat’;
  3. freezing of funding to science agency CSIRO in November 2013, resulting in cuts of up to 600 staff, with hundreds of further staff cut from March 2014 (including members of the legal team who successfully monetised the agency’s key Wi-Fi patents) as part of a larger restructuring;
  4. initiating a review of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET), with self-declared climate change sceptic Dick Warburton at its head; and
  5. abolishing the R&D tax incentive advisory committee.
All of this was prior to the May 2014 budget which, as I have previously reported, slashed a further A$450 million from key science agencies, including:
  1. A$111.4 million from the CSIRO;
  2. A$74.9 million from the Australian Research Council;
  3. A$80 million from the Cooperative Research Centres program;
  4. A$7.8 million from the Australian Institute of Marine Science;
  5. A$120 million from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation;
  6. A$27.6 million from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; and
  7. A$36 million from Geoscience Australia.
Also in the budget, the Government signalled its intention to impose ‘tuition’ fees on postgraduate research students, and announced that it will cease all funding to the information and communications technology research body National ICT Australia (NICTA) from 2016.

But Surely the Government Has Done Something for Science?

The one bone thrown to scientists in the budget was the proposed creation of a new A$20 billion Medical Research Future Fund.  Unfortunately, this fund (if it goes ahead) is to be paid for out of a new seven dollar ‘co-payment’ to be made by all Australians when visiting a doctor – including the least well-off who, until now, have had the option of medical care fully-funded by the Government’s Medicare system at so-called ‘bulk billing’ clinics.  As matters stand now, this hugely unpopular co-payment appears dead in the water, with balance-of-power senators determined to block the legislation.

And even if the Medical Research Future Fund were to get off the ground, how would that help scientists in non-medical fields?

So, how can we reconcile the Prime Minister’s claim of last October that he was ‘pleased to pledge the incoming Government to continue to support science to the fullest extent possible’ with all that his government has done?

Making Sense of the Insensible

Well, with Macfarlane’s insensitive assistance, I think I may have figured out the answer.  The Abbott government is not being wilfully deceptive – it simply does not understand science.  Macfarlane, Abbott, and other members of cabinet may genuinely believe that science is an ‘industry’, and that it can therefore be managed and supported (or not) like other industries.

As further evidence of this, Macfarlane also recently suggested that university researchers should receive government grants based on the number of patents they are granted, not the number of academic papers they publish.  While you might think that this idea would please a patent attorney, it certainly does not please this patent attorney.  Because it is stupid idea that could only have been proposed by someone without a real clue about what scientific research actually involves!

In short, with not a scientist (or engineer, even) among them, the members of the Abbott cabinet are simply falling back upon what they know.  And when all you have is a hammer (or a Department of Industry), it is hardly surprising that every problem looks like a nail!

Not An Industry…

But science is not an industry.  The definition of ‘industry’ most pertinent to government policy is ‘a particular form or branch of economic or commercial activity.’  But this is not an apt description of ‘science’.  As molecular biologist Upulie Divisekera and theoretical astrophysicist Katie Mack wrote in the Guardian:

Science isn’t an ‘industry’ per se – it is a pursuit that requires money, sure, but most of all it requires time. It takes time to study a problem or answer a question; it takes time to build up a body of work; it takes time develop the research and research outcomes. The Eureka awards demonstrated the depth and breadth of Australia’s current scientific and research capacity.

The research that won awards on Wednesday was wonderful. One was a study of the climate conditions after the First Fleet arrived, increase our understanding of post-European settlement. That’s important.

So was the research conducted by the CSIRO into the Hendra virus, which resulted in a vaccine and knowledge translatable to the study of Ebola. And so is research that is useful for industrial and marketable businesses.

The range of activities falling under the banner of ‘science’ is enormous.  Some science requires a Large Hadron Collider.  Other science requires nothing more than a pencil and paper.  Science is the discovery of new drugs.  Science is the enquiry into the origins of the universe and the most basic building blocks of reality.  Science is recording, understanding and predicting the patterns of weather and climate.  And science is discovering ways to apply basic knowledge and understanding to the creation of new ideas, new products, new benefits, and even entire new industries.

That last point may be the best evidence of all that science is not, and cannot be, an ‘industry’ – because it has the capacity to spawn industries, and to play different roles in different industries, at different stages of their evolution.  The scientific study of steam kick-started the industrial revolution.  The science behind electricity and electromagnetism led to electrification of cities, and to telecommunications.  There would be no semiconductor industry (or any of the industries built on semiconductor devices) without quantum mechanics.  Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 encapsulates the origins, for better or worse, of nuclear energy.

Conclusion – What is Science?

Ironically, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott asserted in late August that British settlement with the arrival of the First Fleet ‘was the defining moment in the history of this continent’ and ‘the moment this continent became part of the modern world’ (thus ignoring at least 50,000 years of prior occupation by indigenous peoples) what he was getting at, at least in part, was that settlement brought the industrial revolution to Australia.  What ‘natural philosophers’ (as scientists then were) in Europe had achieved, in just a few hundred years out of the tens of thousands making up human history, was the development of what we would now recognise as the modern scientific method.

So science is not an industry.  Science is a process.  All of the diverse ‘sciences’ have in common the organising principles of the scientific method.  Big or small, expensive or cheap, world-changing or merely curious – by its methods shall you know science.

And we need to look after our ‘precious petals’, because their works will bloom into the innovations that will drive our prosperity, and create better lives for the generations to come.

Sadly, it appears that our current Australian leadership comprises not champions of science, but nineteenth-century Captains of Industry.


Mark Summerfield said...

This article has introduced me to another angle of this issue. Very well-articulated. Thank you.

Mark Summerfield said...

You are welcome. I'm glad you found the article interesting!

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