Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 2, “Science and Research at the Cutting Edge of Social Change”, (#smp2014 #AdelEd @SenKimCarr)

ParliamentHenge! All praise to the Sun!

ParliamentHenge! All praise to the Sun! (Sorry, I think the inherent ACT geomancy is rubbing off on me.)

This talk was given by Senator Kim Carr, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry and Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science. Senator Carr has a long and distinguished career in the Parliament and, a a designated science advocate in the Parliament, was always going to be an interesting speaker for this audience. (This is also his 14th SmP, which makes him the most veteran of veterans.)

(As a personal note, the chair of this session was someone I met at Science Association Orientation Camp back in Adelaide in 1986. We call it the Adelaide Effect – there’s about 1.7 degrees of separation of most professionals in Adelaide, dropping to about 1 for academics.)

Senator Carr led off by asking us to save the world in exchange for the resources we get as scientists. We need to work with society and be responsible to and for society in terms of our research. He mentioned that a lot of media cover of science is nothing more than a presentation of prejudice and, in his words, humbug. (Hello, unnamed nation broadsheet.) So he commented that it was a harsh part of the cutting edge that so much is asked of scientists and yet they are often represented so poorly. We are at our most technical and yet our scientific literacy may well be at its lowest. There is a growing level of anti-Science behaviour: the merchants of doubt are incredibly strong. Climate change is the obvious example here (yes, it’s happening and, yes, it’s us. Get over it.) There are so many questioned areas and, while science thrives on scepticism, it does not thrive on anti-scientific attacks that cannot be refuted because the attack is irrational. We have a low standard of scientific debate and the nation’s future is on the line.

On Senator Carr’s desk is a (loaned) book from the CSIRO, by J. B. Bernal, The Social Functions of Science.

The frustration of Science is a very bitter thing.

Science can change so much for us but it has to work with social forces that understand its purpose and march to the same end. Right now we have no Science Minister, the ARC is under attack, under-funded Unis (both sides did this) and we are stepping backwards on issues such as Climate Science. The Senator’s message is that we have to engage. We have to engage with the political system and growing enquiries and public debate need to ensue. We need to get back to curing the sick, feeding the hungry and saving the world. The Senator looks forward to having this discussion.

The floor was then thrown open to questions. We then descended into meta-quote that, if the ruling class found the Pythagorean theorem to be against their interests, it would have been disproven long ago. Science must face accountability and contestability but we come back to the realities of a political system that trades on values. We have to ground our facts in terms of the societal context, so that we can communicate science to Parliament. Senator Carr referred back to the scientific method: we collect evidence to inform our thinking as scientists and the role of the politician is to ensure that the resources are there and that the climate can support the question.

Science is a dangerous pursuit. You ask questions. You’re not satisfied with the status quo… you are a threat.

We need to have scientists and social scientists working together to ground in the social context and thus advance our knowledge of the world and the Universe.

Associate Professor Ritchie then asked about impacts on changes to the R&D regime on commercialisation in Australia. We know that we’re not collaborating much and business/academe engagement is not high, in fact it’s really rather low. Business, however, wants to know how much money is involved. Everywhere in the world, Governments and Businesses partner to accelerate the adoption of new technologies – except us. If you want to attract new technologies and jobs then you need to change government behaviour and policy.

The next question was how could we compete with such a small production base and market. Do research incentives lead to smaller and more fragmented clusters – when we should be encouraging critical mass and aggregated innovation clusters? (We touched on automative, which is apparently our largest single R&D investor. Pity we’re getting rid of it then, really.) 30,000-300,000 parts per car makes it a serious innovation candidate but the task of attracting innovation in this space is hard: transport, dollar rate, and so on. What should be the quantum of investment? Which area do we prioritise? Are cars more important than health? (Aside: we only invest 8% of the ARC budget into humanities research.) This is why we shouldn’t have politicians ranking and comparing grants, but instead a defendable and rational ranking process conducted by peers. Senator Carr is a fan of the hubs and spokes model, favoured by ERA. We can’t dilute the research vote down to capture every vote in the country so collaboration is a good idea.

Just because the forces of darkness have a bit of win, you don’t give up. (Anonymous Source)

Keep communicating – letters to the editor, on-line engagement, stand up for what you believe to be true! Political cycles are just that, cycles, and just because you’re at the bottom now doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.

Senator Carr was asked his opinion on 457 Visas. He responded in terms of global science focus and international research training as part of the development of a strong local research culture. However, he had concerns about the abuse of this system for things like the meat industry. The Senator was worried about the cut travel budget at CSIRO for international conferences – the implications of reducing people’s capacity to travel is worrying.

Are research scientists just lobbyists. trying to schmooze some cash? Question moved across into a discussion established versus speculative areas. There’s a lot of ignorance being peddled – what are you doing to combat that? We need to address and counter the Tea Party elements popping up in the far right.

We were asked to change 1% of ourselves to become more like policy makers and Senator Carr was asked if politicians should change 1% as well? Senator Carr noted that it would have to be more than 1%. He is History trained but didn’t feel this was an impediment to understanding science but that the task was to able to argue a case and get key points across to someone who isn’t in your discipline.

A great session and an obviously very seasoned campaigner!