The Arch-nemesis of the Nerdy Manipulator has won, and climate sceptics are lining up to be Science Minister. How you voted will be the most important factor in your reaction to this and, incidentally, to your views on a range of things, including climate change – voting intention is highly predictive on some issues! But what will this mean for science in Australia?
Examination of either major party’s positions on science research and higher education funding in general makes for sorrowful reading. Neither seems to favour a long-term vision, and funding levels appear threatened. Perhaps only The Greens presented policy that would strengthen research, but as a minor party, we have to accept that this vision will not be realised, at least not in full.
However, the main reason for this lack of vision, and the near complete lack of any discussion on science funding, is the profile of science in society. Science and technology, whilst being the backbone of modern society, is simply not given sufficient airtime. When it is given time, it is frequently misunderstood or trivialised.
This is because science is simply not important to most people. You need to understand the law to use it. You need to understand finance to use it (well that’s debatable actually – the Wall Street bankers supposedly understood it and look where that got us). You don’t, however, need to understand how a smartphone works to be able to use one, and that’s a problem. Too often we see the law and economics as having a direct influence on our lives, and yet are completely blind to the direct impact of science. This then flows on to our governing bodies and science gets a back seat at election time.
So, instead of seeing the recent election as a missed opportunity to advance science funding in Australia, we should see it as a wake-up call. The need to demand such research from our lawmakers is ongoing. This is not simply an election issue; scientific work is a functional part of a healthy democracy.
If you are a scientist, studying science, or just interested in science, the greatest impact you can have on this part of our democracy is to talk about science. ANY science. Whatever interests you, read about it and talk about it. Soon, interest in science topics generally will increase. That will create greater demand for scientific content in the media and a greater need for politicians to be conversant in scientific topics. One fine day, we may be talking about scientific research in this country before we talk about stopping the boats.
This is not just romantic rhetoric. The things that people are talking about on the street corners, at the water cooler and in their living rooms are the things that matter to them. Sure, a daily dose of scandal in Hollywood is great, but if people have discussions that involve science, eventually this will change the course of public discourse. It has happened before; the space race between the USA and the USSR in the 1950s meant that science was in vogue. For a couple of decades there, science was the very measure of progress, and the politicians listened.
Today, despite huge scientific challenges like climate change that should unite our common humanity, our politicians have gone to sleep on science. They are politicians though, and they want to know what you want. Get out there and make it known that science matters, and drag your fellow humans along with you, even the non-scientists who still enjoy how planes don’t fall out of the sky. Oh, and make it noisy, our pollies are a bit too comfortable at the moment.