We Stand Together

Pigeon point lighthouse, with star-like rays emanating from the light.

I do, seriously, try to keep politics out of my posts but, without being too pompous about it, there is more to being an academic than a big robe and a silly hat. One of the great freedoms of the academic is that we can, to a large degree, do and say what we want in terms of speaking truth to power. In many regards, like many freedoms, this expression becomes an obligation when we see something happening that is contrary to our ideals and our beliefs.

Right now, the University of Western Australia, an institution of a similar nature to my own, has just finished holding a large meeting of its academic staff to discuss a new “Consensus Centre”, run by Bjorn Lomborg, and funded by $4 million of government funding. This, at a time, when the Australian Federal Government has been slashing every other body that, just possibly, has a contrary view to what they would like. Here is evidence that there is academic unrest over this decision at UWA.

Lomborg is a (deliberately) controversial figure who walks an odd line through the areas of climate and economics, believing in events but questioning their impact. He is a Contrarian who has been effectively dispatched from his own country and has been seeking a home for some time, along the way taking the opportunity to speak to at least a few right-leaning politicians who were looking for such an ally. This would all be part of the background noise of science, were it not that he has been, repeatedly, found to be in error and he has not seriously addressed the concerns. From a personal perspective, I think he finds it too easy to make the human lives of the third world equivalent to economic advantage in the first world – to put it simplistically, in his world, people in Africa can die if it makes good economic sense in Europe.

Today, it is my duty as an academic, as a scientist, as a believer in people and as a human being to speak out on this issue.

As I understand it, today’s meeting at the University of Western Australia was effectively a mockery of formal consultative process in that they held the meeting after the decision had been committed to irrevocably. Someone at the meeting reported that:

“UWA VC says Lomborg agreement with Government has been signed.”

Lomborg’s economic credentials are under question. Lomborg’s motives are under question. The Federal Government’s motives are under question. This decision cannot, and should not, be irrevocable.

We need to remember what we are.

We are Universities. We are servants of truth, bastions of art, culture and science. We are the lighthouses that keep the flame of knowledge burning when everything around us is dark.

We stand against the tide of ignorance and we push it back as best we can.

We are not for sale. We take a salary to live but we are not paid to think of one thing or another, we are paid to be the agents, advocates and guardians of the academy.

We do not repeat lies when we know that they are lies. We do not support the repetition of flawed and broken data because it sells books. We do not shore up politicians because it looks good on the bottom line.

I support the staff and students at UWA who are rightly outraged by this and are calling for the deceptively named Consensus Centre agreement to be nullified. I sincerely hope that this matter is resolved – the University of Western Australia is far, far better than this.

Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “How to talk like a policy maker” (#smp2014 #AdelED @ANUasiapacific)

Professor Hugh White from the ANU gave this session as the first part of a two part session.

People in the policy world think differently from you. It’s not science. Science is about finding the truth and seeking knowledge. THe business of policy is the business of making decisions – the logic towards making a decision is different from the logic of truth. (Shout out to Aristotle and his syllogisms, especially the practical syllogism that leads towards actions.) Everything you say in a policy debate should assist the policy maker in making a decision. If they think that you are asking for their money to subsidise your knowledge development, they’re probably out. 

There are only three parts to a decision: finding objectives, determining means and allocating resources. How can what you know be slotted into this system? Let’s break it down into five questions:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. Why does it matter and how much?
  3. What are the options and how much do they cost?
  4. Which one is best?
  5. Can we afford it?

But it’s not actually linear, it’s a complicated loop. The process is dynamic because data, costs and objectives shift. Serious policy engagement is a long-term engagement. It’s not giving a brick to a wall, it’s playing tennis. There are also lots and lots of players. A good policy maker will be working through the policy logic – so try and get to them through the media if you can, rather than directly, because politicians still read papers. If your message can attract an editor, then you’re 98% of the way to putting your message together in a way that other participants will listen to it and hear it.

You don’t have to just talk like a policy maker, you have to think like one, which can be very challenging. How do we bring our principles to bear if we’re being forced to adopt a new mode of presentation? Here are some simple guidelines.

  • Simplify without distortion. How simply can you say it? Put the most work into this.
  • Be vivid without provocation. Don’t be rude or outrageous. Be vivd or striking, without being needlessly provocative.
  • Recognise the difference between advocacy (support based on analysis) and polemic (an attack based on dogma).

Three last observations: when you throw your ideas to the policy debate, you lose them, they’re no longer yours. It’s not like publishing. You have to brave enough to not be afraid of criticism. Once the criticism starts, don’t respond to the critics, just their arguments.

The second part of the session (and final part of the day) was “Raising the standard of the climate ‘debate’: what ‘debate’?” presented by Professor Will Steffen. How can you become a successful communicator and academic? How do people from outside the policy world influence policy?

There hasn’t been a debate for several decades. We know the climate is being rapidly destabilised and the reason is increased greenhouse gases, this destabilisation is increasing risk across the board for our wellbeing. However you measure it, 95-100% of scientists in that field agree on this. The problem occurs when science enters the policy arena. This debate is also mostly an issue in the Anglo, English-speaking world, and is more dominant in the resource-rich and new lands (AUS, US, CAN) and much less in the UK. Professor Steffen thinks this is coming from a more divisive political system in these countries, especially when compared to consensus based approaches to solutions across the political system. Climate change is caught up in polemic in Australia at the moment.

Many people are coming to climate change from pre-existing belief systems (which is on the polemic side) whereas European (Scando) debates are far more on the analytic side. A mention was made of the lobby groups that are seeking to hold things up for powerful vested interest groups who have a strong interest in defeating any moves to combating climate change.

How do we move beyond this phoney debate?

There’s not a whole lot scientists can do about this. This isn’t in the science space anymore. There’s a false balance idea in the media that allows science to be pitted against anecdote. However, there are more fundamental points in the media, fairness, balance and professionalism, that dominate the anecdotal quotes so perhaps it’s time to remind the media of this. Let’s look at the world and ask why Australia has a problem – what do their Academies of science say? What do their other institutions say?

There’s an advantage to talking about change as a good thing, looking at what has happened to societies in the past that have failed to recognise threats to their development and wellbeing. Historically, many societies reach a high point and then collapse. It’s rare to see societies transform themselves. Those that do threaten and challenge their fundamental beliefs but this is hard to get into a policy development setting.