Australia has its own way of throttling science

Malcolm Turnbull’s government is showing us there’s more than one way to kill off scientific research.

Emma Johnston addresses the National Press Club, 14 February 2018. PHOTO Science & Technology Australia

Emma Johnston addresses the National Press Club, 14 February 2018. PHOTO Science & Technology Australia

While rolling back existing US climate measures, Donald Trump’s administration is busily rewriting the science of climate change to match its own version of events.

The Environmental Protection Agency is instructing its employees to emphasise the uncertainty of our knowledge of climate change, a direct contradiction of multiple surveys of climate change science including the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Human influence on the climate system is clear,” says the IPCC. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.”

At the same time, the EPA is planning to loosen vehicle fuel-efficiency standards introduced as a carbon-cutting measure less than a decade ago.

The Washington Post also reports that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has advised staff not to include information about climate “known to be related to divisive political issues”. For “divisive political issues” read: the science behind human-induced climate change.

And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been caught on video apologising to the CEO of a mining company complaining about federal “impediments” to his business. The company is involved in large-scale contamination in the Rocky Mountains with a clean-up bill of tens of millions of dollars.

This is the United States, where politics has been poisoned, I hear you say. Things are not like that in Australia. But is that really so?

Unlike Trump and his cabinet, the Australian government has not directly confronted scientists. But over the past five years funding for science has steadily declined, and since last December it has not been represented in the Turnbull cabinet.

In 2015 the new Turnbull government recognised a “critical” role for science in delivering new sources of growth and economic prosperity. Yet in that same year its own spending on science told a different story: 0.04% of the federal budget – third last among the world’s 18 richest countries.

Australia’s overall research spending record is at best mediocre. Latest OECD figures (for 2016) show that from a high of 2.25 per cent of gross domestic spending in 2008 it had dropped to less than 1.9 per cent, well below the OECD average of 2.4 per cent.

Then there’s the cabinet table. Science had had cabinet representation for 87 years in a row until Tony Abbott removed it from the list of portfolio responsibilities in September 2013.

It was back in cabinet when Ian Macfarlane became science minister in December 2014, followed by Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt and from January last year Senator Arthur Sinodinos. But when Sinodinos took sick leave nine months later, the wheels again started to come off.

A pre-Christmas cabinet reshuffle saw science removed from cabinet titles. Its only formal mention now is in the title of a junior (non-cabinet) minister, Senator Zed Seselja. The claim of his boss, Senator Michaelia Cash, that she was “the minister responsible for science” has no formal basis.

If the government really believes its own message about science’s critical role, this is a very strange way of dealing with it.

Science and Technology Australia represents 70,000 Australian professionals working across all scientific disciplines. During parliamentary sittings each year since 1999 it has organised a “science meets parliament” event at Parliament House, Canberra.

At this year’s event STA president Emma Johnston told a National Press Club audience, including Seselja, that Australian scientists saw “the future that is barrelling towards us” and were gravely concerned: “We know the heat is rising, and like many of you, we wake in fright.”

Johnson warned that a strong, independent Australia depended on science. She called for a whole-of-government plan for long-term investment in “a world-class research infrastructure”, and for policy-makers and decision-takers to understand what it really takes to succeed in research.

Big breakthroughs happen on the back of decades of research and development, she said. Science investment and job security has been hit by “short-termism” in government: “Australia needs a powerful and secure Minister for Science to rise above the short-termism and instability.”

Whatever Seselja thought about Johnson’s pointed criticism of government, including his own, wasn’t recorded, but it wouldn’t have mattered much. We can’t expect this most junior of ministers to have any impact on a cabinet that has so consistently rejected and devalued scientific advice.

Donald Trump’s administration openly defies science. Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers, who don’t like being a target, do their damage through neglect. But the effect is much the same.

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