Don’t be too excited over Malcolm Turnbull’s newfound love for science

The Coalition Government has pressed ‘reset’ on its relationship with science.

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Malcolm Turnbull initiated the shift last week whilst handing out the Prime Minister’s Awards for Science, declaring he wanted Australia to be “a country that invests in science and puts it right at the centre of our national agenda.” He continued by stating: “It’s a great honour for me, not just to be prime minister, but to be your prime minister, to be the prime minister that says that science is right at the centre and the heart of our national agenda. Not just that, it’s at the heart and very centre of our future.”

The Government continued the trend this week as it appointed the current Chancellor of Monash University, Dr Alan Finkel, to replace Ian Chubb as Australia’s Chief Scientist. Finkel’s appointment made waves due to his strong advocacy on climate change, arguing both for the end of coal and the adoption of nuclear power.

The Government’s manoeuvres mark a significant shift from previous years. Turnbull’s reception at the national science awards for example is in stark contrast to that received by Tony Abbott, while it is almost impossible to imagine Abbott appointing someone such as Finkel given his climate views. But what will this shift mean in the long run?

The best place to look for the answer to this is the outgoing Chief Scientist Ian Chubb’s report Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Released in 2014, Chubb used the report to pressure the Government to develop a national strategy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Whilst former Prime Minister Tony Abbott let the report sit, last week Turnbull committed to implementing it in full. This makes it the closest thing we have to a national science agenda.

Chubb’s report is broken down into four different categories: Australian competitiveness, education and training, research, and international engagement.

Potentially the most important of these is education and training. Chubb points out that enrolment in STEM subjects by Australian high school and University students is dropping to unsustainable lows. This is partially due to a chronic shortage of STEM teachers, with, for example, 40 per cent of Year 7 to 10 mathematics classes in Australia being taught without a qualified teacher. Polices to build a stronger pool of STEM teachers, whether from local or international sources, are therefore essential.

Research is another area of importance. The Abbott Government slashed funding to some of Australia’s most important research agencies, in particular the CSIRO and the extremely successful Co-operative Research Centres (CRCs). More destructively, the Government shifted their funding priorities almost solely to research with commercial outcomes. This excluded extremely valuable and important research that aims to understand the world in which we live. Chubb’s report rejects this, emphasising both the importance of publicly funded research and of ‘blue-sky’ research — research which is aimed at increasing our knowledge, even if it doesn’t result in commercial applications.

That is the positive. Yet, when I look at the rest of strategy, and Malcolm Turnbull’s own ideologies, I have cause for concern. In particular I worry about Chubb, Turnbull, and now Finkel’s end game. What is the purpose of all of this investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Chubb’s report states: “The end we aim to achieve is to build a stronger Australia with a competitive economy. We will need to facilitate growth in ways and on a scale that we have never achieved before.”

A national strategy for science therefore is all about economics, and seemingly little else. Having science at our heart means having economic growth at our heart as well. Alan Finkel reiterated this focus, commenting on his appointment that “we exist in a competitive international environment and to compete effectively, business needs science, science needs business, [and] Australia needs both.”

For the scientific community this seems rather contradictory. This strategy is about using science to continue a system that scientists have often pointed out is extremely destructive.

It is ironic for example to see scientists cheering a growth-focused agenda, when it has been the very same scientists who have been at the forefront of the fight against climate change. Scientists have warned us for decades again about the destruction of our environment, which is fundamentally a symptom of our growth agenda.

Even with his more climate-friendly rhetoric, this is not an agenda Malcolm Turnbull is going to change any time soon. Turnbull’s appointment of Finkel for example came only a day after he reiterated his Government’s support for coal mining and export. It was only two weeks ago that Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the construction of the Carmichael Coal Mine, once again. It doesn’t seem Turnbull will be acting on Finkel’s no coal plan any time soon.

Or what about the impact our economic system has on our social well-being? Medical professionals have often warned of the serious impacts our work culture has on our physical and mental health. This again is connected to an obsessive growth culture, one which encourages employers and our Government to demand longer working hours. In fact, technology has played an active role in the very problems scientists are researching. Technological development has often been predicted to liberate the workforce, in turn allowing us to work fewer hours and have more free time. But in the hands of employers the opposite has been true. Technology has allowed employers to intrude into our daily lives more and more, effectively meaning we are always at work.

This is something Chubb’s strategy seems to want to continue. One of his stated objectives is for Australia to have “a flexible workforce with the entrepreneurial skills to thrive in an environment of rapid technological change.” This is the very sort of language employers have used to weaken union power and crush the conditions of workers, a position that Turnbull regularly supports. These are the very sorts of moves that increase stress and health problems that many scientists warn us about.

This is why I’m not so quick to get up and cheer over Malcolm Turnbull’s newfound love of the scientific agenda. Greater investment in STEM education, and better coordination of research is definitely welcome. But the contradictions in the approach could actually see us, and science, worse rather than better off.

What does a nation with science at the heart of its agenda actually look like? Well, that depends on how you use it.

Science and technology are powerful tools, but that is all they are. There is a lot these tools have done for us — alerting us to climate change and environmental problems, developing new technologies to make life easier, investigating and finding cures for health problems and diseases. Our world would be a very different place without centuries of scientific and technological advancement.

But the tools of science and technology are only as valuable as those who use them. In the hands of Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition I have little faith they will be used to any good. 

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.