I am proud to be a Precious Petal. Let me explain why I think we should reclaim this term for ourselves.
Australia, apparently, does not have a need for dedicated Science Minister, for the first time since the 1930s. Instead, it is a subordinate portfolio for our Minister for Industry, the Hon Ian Macfarlane, MP. Today, he was quoted in the Guardian, hitting out at “precious petals in the science industry” who are criticising the lack of a dedicated Science Minister. Macfarlane, whose Industry portfolio includes Energy, Skills and Science went on to say:
“I’m just not going to accept that crap,” he said. “It really does annoy me. There’s no one more passionate about science than me, I’m the son and the grandson of a scientist. I hear this whinge constantly from the precious petals in the science industry.”
So I’m not putting words in his mouth – that’s a pretty directed attack on the sector that happens to underpin Energy and Industry because, while Macfarlane’s genetic advantage in his commitment to science may or not be scientifically valid, the fact of the matter is that science, and innovation in science, have created pretty much all of what is referred to as industry in Australia. I’m not so one-eyed as to say that science is everything, because I recognise and respect the role of the arts and humanities in a well-constructed and balanced society, but if we’re going to talk about everything after the Industrial (there’s that word again) Revolution in terms of production industries – take away the science and we’re not far away poking things with sticks to work out which of the four elements (fire, air, earth, water) it belongs to. Scientists of today stand on a tradition of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge that has survived many, many regimes and political systems. We tell people what the world is like, rather than what people want it to be, and that often puts us at odds with politicians, for some reason. (I feel for the ethicists and philosophers who have to do the same thing but can’t get industry implementation partnerships as easily and are thus, unfairly, regularly accused of not being ‘useful’ enough.)
I had the opportunity to be addressed by the Minister at Science Meets Parliament where, like something out of a David Williamson play, the genial ageing bloke stood up and, in real Strine, declaimed “No Minister for Science? I’m your Minister for Science!” as if this was enough for a room full of people who were dedicated to real evidence. But he obviously thought it was enough as he threw a few bones to the crowd. On the back of the cuts to CSIRO and many other useful scientific endeavours, these words ring even more hollow than they did at the time.
But rather than take offence at the Minister’s more recent deliberately inflammatory and pejorative words, let me take them and illustrate his own lack of grasp of his portfolio.
My discipline falls into STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – and I am scientist in that field. Personally, I like to add an A for Arts, as I am rather cross-disciplinary, and make it STEAM, because that conveys the amazing potential and energy in the area when we integrate across the disciplines. So, if Science is a flower, then we have a strong STEM in Australia, although it is currently under threat from a number of initiatives put in place by this very government.
But what of petals? If the Minister knew much botany, he’d know that petals are modified leaves that protect parts of the flower, attract or deliberately drive away certain pollinators, building relationships with their pollinating community to build a strong ecosystem. When flowers have no petals, they are subject to the whim on the winds for pollination and this means that you have to be very wasteful in your resources to try and get to any other plants. When the petals are strong and well-defined, you can draw in the assistance of other creatures to help you use your resources more wisely and achieve the goals of the flower – to produce more flowers over time.
At a time when bee colony collapse is threatening agriculture across the globe, you would think that a Minister of Industry (and Science) would have actually bothered to pick up some of the facts on this, very basic, role of a mechanism that he is using to deride and, attempt to, humiliate a community for having the audacity to complain about a bad decision. Scientists have been speaking truth to power since the beginning, Minister, and we’re not going to stop now.
If the Minister understood his portfolio, then he would realise that calling Australia’s scientific community “precious petals” is actually a reflection of their vital role in making science work for all Australians and the world. It is through these petals, protecting and guiding the resources in their area, that we can take the promise of STEM and share it with the world.
But let’s not pretend that’s what he meant. Much like the staggering Uncle at a Williamson Wedding, these words were meant to sting and diminish – to make us appear hysterical and, somehow, less valid. In this anachronistic, and ignorant, attack, we have never seen a better argument as to why Australia should have a dedicated Science Minister, who actually understands science.
I’m proud to be a Precious Petal, Minister.