Science and politics

This year has gotten off to an unexpected start in politics with the announcement of a Federal election eight months ahead of the actual date. Although we are told that campaigning can wait until some predetermined time before the election, the on-going interrogation of the various policies and promises put forward by all politicians and parties has noticeably increased.

So I thought perhaps we should have a look at science and politics. Not a case-by-case analysis of particular policies put forward by each individual party, because it’s not my place to tell you how to vote. But an overall look at how politics relates to science and some consideration of what that relationship ought to look like.

My starting proposition is that the findings of science should be carefully considered in the formulation of any policy and the science of an issue ought to be at the core of any political debate. This is largely from the perspective of scientists being one of the few groups who are actually out there in the big wide world measuring and recording what’s actually going on. In many issues they are the only people doing so. That hands-on identity with an issue gives the science a privileged position in any discussion; it’s evidence-based thinking.

However, all too often in political discussions, the science is distorted or even ignored completely when the findings are at odds to some perceived popular position. While a politician needs to keep a close eye on the concerns of their electorate for the pragmatic reasons of garnering their support and votes, it is a foolish path to ignore or discard the science just because it is unpopular or contrary to a preconceived idea.

This can lead to political interference in science, trying to bend the messages of the messenger instead of trying to educate the electorate. Some recent articles in the media point out that, while political interference in science is often an accusation levelled at the political Right, there are just as many examples of manipulating science to suit the favoured notions of the Left. So while there have been some prominent attacks on science such as climate change denial and the teaching of creationism, that are generally recognised as aligned to the Right, there are also wild distortions and denials of genetic engineering, vaccinations and biotechnology that emanate from the political Left. But no matter where they come from, distortions of science or science denial are not constructive paths to take.

A third consideration for weighing the science credentials of a political party is their track record and future prospects for supporting scientific research and its commercial bed-partner, innovation. In an ideal world, science would be funded by a process of identifying the best and brightest and then giving them all the support they need to conduct their research. Pragmatically that seems to be too difficult to do in an economy that measures the value of any endeavour by its financial costs and potential profits. Most research in Australia is funded through government grants and, increasingly, these and other funding sources require some potential financial return sometime in the future. This is dull thinking and limiting to the unleashing of the creative potential of our scientists.

What we need is a system of funding pure research that is generous and secure and not too onerous in reporting. The current Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council schemes (the major granting bodies in the country) are none of these things. This needs to be fixed.

Linked, but separate from research funding, should be a clear incentive for innovation including funds that build that link between pure research and its possible applications. Innovation is not a bolt-on to the end of a research project but needs to be seen as an economy-wide endeavour in which we will all have a share. The world’s most productive and stable economies have taken this view and it is paying them dividends. While we are currently a strong economy thanks to our mineral wealth, we must convert that bonus into innovation and education so that we also have a strong economy in the future when all those minerals have been dug up and sold off. The transition from ‘the lucky country’ to a smart economy ought to be well underway. There is plenty of room for improvement here.

So, when it’s time to consider who you want to vote for, and if you think that science is central to a healthy and productive future, these are three key questions you ought to ask of your prospective candidate. Do they understand and respect science? Do they fairly represent science and accept its findings? And do they support funding scientific research, innovation and education?

To me, these are three relatively simple questions with potentially simple answers. And yet it’s been my experience that very few politicians, regardless of their political colour, can simply answer these three questions with suitable conviction. It’s time to change that. A date has been set. But will this election be a win for science and our future?

Dr Paul Willis is the Director of RiAus