Australian Science – If it was just more like sport!

Science  (Noun): the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Science Is To Be Ruled & Managed

In Australia lawyers, economists and accountants rule, while the media (journalists, bloggers, talk back radio and others) filter and shape opinion (see The Corporate Classes). Scientists do not rule and are therefore ruled. Hence, science is not judged in the non-scientific community by the peer review of other scientists but by those in power – the lawyers, economists etcetera. The media love an Aussie winning a science prize because for just a few minutes it seems like sport.Then it is back to business as usual. This situation is made easier for the public by one important characteristic of science. That is despite all the benefits science has delivered, including economic, health, lifestyle and aesthetic, it is not directly associated with most of the benefits. People do not look at their iPhone and see all the amazing science that was done to make it possible or for that matter the engineering. What most people do see is a consumer product defined by it’s function, ‘Apple’ PR & marketing and popular culture. (Medical science may be an exception because of certain characteristics – more on that later.)

Is Science Progressive?

Science by it’s nature implies progression and change and the possibility that what we now believe to be true is possibly wrong. Could it be that at the heart of science is a ‘progressive’ philosophy? Could it be that political conservatives conflate the ‘progressive’  nature of science with a ‘progressive’ political view – and if so, then if you are a scientist, you are by definition a ‘progressive’ and so you might as well be a lefty. Is it any wonder that conservative Australians, starting with the conservative government, treat science with suspicion – especially any ‘soft’, social science (it’s even worse for disciplines not considered science such as philosophy, history and art which can be openly mocked). Until science has been bought under managerial control, evaluated using managerial values (e.g. efficiency, productivity, profitability etc.) and turned into ‘moneytorised’ technology or activity it is treated as a marginal, lefty activity for nerdy eccentrics and the socially challenged with no legitimate experience of the real world. Only when plainly obvious to an investment banker how research will create financial benefits does it become of value.* This is not done at all well in Australia (2011 OECD rankings: 21st for R&D expenditure,26th for % large firms with new to market products and only 2.6% of innovations are University research related). Business and University partnerships are much touted by governments but in reality are very shallow. As such many if not most opportunities are lost or taken up by other countries including areas such as solar power and renewable energy.

Let’s Partner With Business

The new/current Federal government is (again) getting the idea of a science and industry partnership up just as the mining boom winds down. To help it along, the science portfolio/policy has been put in the control of Ian MacFarlane, the Industry Minister. This perfectly reflects how the conservatives view science as a service to industry. Mr. MacFarlane, the affable farmer and long time conservative politician reassures us he likes science and is a good person to have in control. Oddly the relationship between farmers and science is possibly the strongest in Australia industry because of the CSIRO. Just how healthy is the relationship between science and business? Well Australia manages to be at or near last in the OECD for businesses employing research scientists and a very distant last for scientist and business collaboration.

Science that is not yet ready for obvious financial exploitation needs managers, lawyers, economists, accountants and occasionally shock jock radio journalists to decide when that research is of value. (Australians feel much more comfortable and certain with some new laws to regulate a problem or issue than with some research that contradicts their beliefs and expectations.) This is especially the case if the research suggests change is required and that the change might involve costs. Scientists are generally not trusted to reach the ‘right’ conclusions. After all a PhD is not a real Doctor (the medical ones). For example: most (not all)  scientists have concluded that it is very, very probable human activity is affecting climate. Most people being uncomfortable with complexity and probabilities prefer things to be simplified to conclusions such as right and wrong. That is, the scientists are either right or wrong about … put your favorite topic here. Thankfully we have Andrew Bolt and some lawyers, investment bankers et al to set us on the right path. Scientists have also concluded that dumping dredge spoil on or near the Great Barrier Reef is very, very likely to damage it. Again we have experienced managers and lawyers et. al to set them right and make sure we can take the cheapest option for dredging and to give sureties that any side effects and unintended consequences (like killing the reef) can be managed (because that is what managers do!). Fortunately for the managers, the scientists are employees of corporate entities and so it is also quite easy to censor their silly ideas and let managers and PR professionals get on with the job of protecting the reefs. With fully 50% of the 1980 Great Barrier Reef left they have been doing a wonderful job so far (October 2012 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). Julia Bishop, the lawyer who is currently Australia’s Foreign Minister recently felt compelled to tell Barack Obama just how well Australia is looking after the Great Barrier Reef. She mentioned the administrative structures, the policies and regulatory framework and probably even the budget. All good legal, management stuff. Just don’t mention what the scientists have to say and what the result has been so far.

Medicine Is The Exception

Medical research tends to be the exception to most other science. Medical research causes are so highly regarded that they can and do raise significant sums of money directly from the public. This is because medical issues touch peoples lives directly and medicine obviously saves and improves lives. It also makes great television viewing. Further, if you are ill and dying then you are prepared to pay  – (pharmaceutical and medical technology companies know this.). And they are ‘real’ doctors and are much smarter than the pretend doctors in other areas of science. This is despite medical Doctors not being scientists and much of the medical research being conducted by people other than medical Doctors. Perhaps it is also because at some time, even if just for a moment, most of the lawyers thought they might do medicine when they went to University. Besides knowing that they might need them one day, lawyers feel real doctors are their social equals and will include them in their social circles – unlike science graduates. After the great Victorian age of discovery elites have never considered any science other than medicine.

With few exceptions for a scientist to be considered seriously by those in power (or just about anybody) they must first enter the managerial class and have the right titles and positions. To not have the right title and position is to be patronized and/or ignored no matter how truthful, professional and knowledgeable you are – just ask anybody who is part of small business.

  • It took a while but Australian Universities have realized this and now have managers and lawyers trying to take airtight control of any and all Intellectual Property. It is possibly one of the fastest growing managerial functions in Universities aside from the application of circular and relativist logic within Ethics committees. In the end the lawyers and accountants will not help the transfer of science to industry, nor the monetorization of science. It will help lawyers take more control over the practice and dissemination of ‘science’ and we all know society needs more of that. In all probability they will also be paid more for their efforts than the scientists.

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One response to “Australian Science – If it was just more like sport!

  1. Pingback: Science, The Prime Minister & ‘The Fixer’ | The Corporate Meme

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