A tale of two cultures – when science and politics clash

A series of media stories – at both home and abroad – involving the intersection of science and politics have created ripples among the research community. So how does Australia measure up in terms of scientific integrity, asks Staff Association President Dr Michael Borgas.

DOCTOR KARL Kruszelnicki – perhaps the Australia’s most popular science broadcaster – was recently recruited to promote the Abbott Government’s Intergenerational Report to lend scientific authority to the policy sales job.

It didn’t end well.

Kruszelnicki, who originally “thought that it would be an independent, bipartisan, non-political document,” discovered upon closer inspection that the finished report failed to clear that lofty bar.

Unfortunately the horse bolted on ‘Dr Karl’ with the contracts inked, advertisements filmed and website already launched.

In addition to his public mea cupla, Kruszelnicki has now promised to donate the proceeds from his tainted endorsement to needy school kids in an attempt to repair some (not inconsiderable) reputational damage.

‘Integrity is everything’ 

In science, integrity is everything and the proper communication of science remains paramount. However it remains a cynical decision by government – that apparently bypassed proper processes – to enhance the credibility of a suspect report by employing the trusted voice of science and one of the country’s most preeminent science communicators.

The negative responses to the Dr Karl Saga further reinforce pejoratives about the naivety and unworldly nature of scientists often held by bureaucrats in the long standing ‘two cultures’ dilemma.

“The separation between the two cultures (scientific and traditional) has been getting deeper under our eyes; there is now precious little communication between them, little but different kinds of incomprehension and dislike,” wrote physical chemist and novelist C.P. Snow in his seminal 1956 essay.

If one imagines a modern day Snow shaking his head at the state of relations between the two cultures in the antipodes; he’d be no doubt fascinated – perhaps delighted- at recent developments between the United States and Iran.

Science and international diplomacy

The news that Iran has reached an agreement with the world on developing its atomic capability brokered by the United States is remarkable enough. The fact that the lead negotiators from both the American and Iranian sides where two scientists seems incredible. Ernest Moniz representing the US, and Ali Akbar Salehi, representing Iran are nuclear physicists and alumni of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

 

However it’s not as simple as chalking it up as win for science over diplomacy – more a victory for integration between the two – indicating “that science can function exceedingly well when integrated into politics, with little need for new and improved forms of communication, or for the re-education of policymakers and the public,” says Roger Pielke Jr, writing in The Guardian.

 

As is often the case, the integrated use of science in government is essential for strategic, and sometimes diplomatic, interests of nations.

 

In the United States, strategic science is directed by the Whitehouse’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, an agency where Ernest Moniz spent some time. One important function of this office is to coordinate Science Integrity policies of all Government agencies relying on science, whether that function is research, regulation, monitoring, innovation or forecasting. Australia’s Chief Scientist

Towards a science strategy 

 

Ian Chubb and Minister for Science Ian Macfarlane held discussions with President Obama’s Chief Science Adviser John Holdren at the Office of Science and Technology policy in Washington last week.

 

So how does Australia shape up in the science integrity stakes and integration with policymaking? It’s a mixed score card, to say the least.

 

The Federal Government took a step in the right direction with news that the Commonwealth Science Council, chaired by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, will move to develop an overarching science strategy with priorities for national interests in addition to the drivers of curiosity, competition and collaboration.

 

It builds on the advocacy of Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb in favour of a national science strategy and represents an opportunity for the Abbott Government and the research sector to mend fences and establishing relationships and processes that are consistent, consultative and collaborative.

 

One the other hand, reports of another Captain’s Call to partially fund an $8 million research centre housed at the University of Western Australia and headed by Bjørn Lomborg did little to reassure the science community that a new era of consultation and collaboration with government had dawned.

Mixed messages

 

Setting aside opinion as to the merit or otherwise of Lomborg’s credentials and contrarian views on climate change, the fact that UWA academics had no idea that the centre was in the planning isn’t a great advertisement for best practice process. Perhaps more concerning is what the decision to fund Lomborg and UWA says about the Government’s view of their public sector workforce when it comes to capacity and integrity.

 

Environment Minister Greg Hunt lauded the decision to fund the “economic analysis unit and thinktank,” saying that Lomborg would be “looking at all sorts of economic cost-benefit analysis” and “getting the best bang for your buck.” No doubt the hundreds of economists, social scientists and researchers employed across dozens of public sector agencies will be heartened and encouraged by the Minster’s vote of confidence.

Seriously, it’s a confusing look for a government that has made such hairy-chested virtue out of slashing public spending to eliminate so-called duplication.

 

Sadly, this all adds up to a gradual erosion of integrity and trust in our decision making systems. Alongside union members from other parts to the public sector, the CSIRO Staff Association has long campaigned for consistent science integrity policies for our government agencies.

Yet despite broad agreement, our most recent progress (under the previous Labor Government) was blunted by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) in true Yes, Minister fashion, perhaps an outcome to be expected given the rise and fall of five science ministers over those six years.

Fight for rights

 

Fast forward to the present and it’s a cruel irony that the APSC is now driving a harsh and unworkable public sector industrial relations agenda; devoid of integrity and lacking any sense of moral compass. Large scale disputation is beginning to occur – including at many science agencies – headed by CSIRO staff who are taking action.

 

The fact remains that back then the APSC couldn’t or wouldn’t encourage the development of science integrity policies, but now it has no shame in ordering deep cuts to the conditions, rights and pay of scientists and public sector workers at large. Australia deserves better, public sector workers deserve better and public research agency scientists deserve better.

 

For some time there’s existed a broad consensus that a strategy for science will help the policymakers and bureaucrats better understand the role of their own public agencies and learn how to integrate those capacities into government actions with integrity.

 

Following a year of disastrous science decisions by the Australian Federal government, the possibilities for a better future are at best only tentatively emerging. It is essential that as a nation we enhance integrity and trust in the system as we progress.

 

Dr Michael Borgas is a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and President of the CSIRO Staff Association.

 

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