Testing times for science credibility

A perceived government disregard for science has the potential to permeate through industry, education and social policy. Already at a crossroads, all eyes will be on what the Abbott government does next.

The Abbott government has its own scientific problem. Even before being sworn in, the government received national and international criticism for its perceived disinterest in science and research and development. The criticism has only heightened with the absence of a dedicated science minister and Thursday's decision to abolish the Climate Commission.

New Scientist magazine has suggested research was under fire in Australia, with a more politicised approach to research funding, the dismantling of the Climate Commission, whose job it is to produce and disseminate the latest science and research on climate change, and funding cuts to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which helps support clean energy research and development. 

In an article on September 10, 2013, New Scientist reminded its global readership of Tony Abbott’s notorious quote of August 2009 that "the climate change argument is complete crap”, a comment Abbott has tried to distance himself from. The new environment minister, Greg Hunt, has made it clear the government accepts the climate change science.

The prestigious Smithsonian Magazine picked up on this theme, suggesting “Abbott does not keep his climate scepticism a secret”, adding that “his campaign slogan of ‘Choose real change’ may turn out to be unsettlingly on the mark”.

These criticisms occurred before the ministerial line-up was announced and the absence of a dedicated science minister – for the first time in 80 years – intensified these concerns.

The government has also been badly let down by some its closest advisers. The executive director of the Liberal Party-aligned Institute of Public Affairs, John Roskam, has led a campaign to denigrate climate change science and has said he’s sceptical about peer review science “in as much as you’re reviewed by your mates”, even though the Australian Academy of Science says it’s the gold standard for assessing the quality of science.

The Coalition’s chief business adviser, Maurice Newman, has gone even further, describing climate change as a “myth”, and attacking the CSIRO for daring to research climate change. He has described climate scientists as a “global warming priesthood” and suggested climate change concerns are a “global warming religion”.

Perceptions matter, and this perceived disregard for science has the potential to shape the government’s short and long term agenda, permeating through industry, education and social policy, as well as creating difficulties for Australia’s international climate change negotiations. Science, research and evidence-based decision-making are central to methodical public administration. The scientific problem needs to be knocked on the head quickly by the new government.

The government needs to turn the absence of a dedicated science minister into a virtue by taking a more rigorous, whole of government approach to science, innovation and research, and by having a forceful spokesperson on science matters.

After the announcement of the new Cabinet, the Nobel Prize winner, Brian Schmidt, tweeted “Symbolism of no science minister unfortunate-but I don't care, IF cabinet supports science. Strong support better than weak minister”.

The chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb told ABC’s Lateline: “my hope is that we do get somebody who's influential enough … to have an impact on the decisions that are made about science in Australia.”

In Ian Macfarlane, the science community has someone of influence and someone they may consider a supporter. Ian Macfarlane told ABC radio that he was passionate about science, "My mother is a scientist. My grandfather was a scientist, a geologist. I'm a great believer in innovations and inventions." He will be the primary minister for science and research matters in the Australian government.

The government should strike early in addressing a perceived weakness by emphasising its strong support for science and research and development. It has a positive story to tell – increased funding for rural research and development, the restoration of funding to the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, the Howard government’s record of support for research and development tax credits, being just some examples.

The government should deliver a strong response to the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, making it clear through the prime minister that it accepts mainstream climate change science and has a plan to help the world avoid a 2 degree increase in global temperatures – reinforcing Australia’s international commitment. The Coalition’s promise to drive an international climate change agreement through its chairmanship of the G20 will be important here.

The government should reconsider its decision to abolish the Climate Commission and convene a summit of Australia’s leading climate scientists to help develop a long-term response to the IPCC’s Summary for Policy Makers report.

If the government does not change tack and establish an independent scientific body on climate change, the research community and the broader community needs to do the government’s job and set up its own independent body. It can be done and it needs to be done.

The prime minister should also convene an early meeting of the PM’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Committee and give them responsibility, as the chief scientist has suggested, for a whole of government approach to science policy. Climate change should be a core issue for PMSEIC. John Howard attended his first PMSEIC meeting within six months of becoming prime minister. Tony Abbott should aim to chair a meeting within three months.  

Ian Macfarlane will need help in promoting a strong science and research agenda. He has a massive portfolio covering industry, innovation, manufacturing, resources and energy and aspects of climate change policy, as well as science and research – all without a junior minister. The need for a dedicated science and research minister will not go away, but the government can turn this weakness into a strength through a dedicated approach to promoting science and research and development.

This is a test for the new government. It needs to strike down the hypothesis that it is anti-science. Many will be watching and hoping that it passes the test.

Wayne Smith is the director of Clean Economy Services, a renewable energy consulting firm. His clients include solar and renewable energy companies and industry associations. This article reflects his views only.

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