‘Science meets politics’

17 March 2014

‘Science meets politics’






It’s great to have a chance to speak with you this morning on the ‘dark arts’ of politics and the media.


I’m here as Labor Leader, and as the Shadow Minister for Science, to urge all of you to become political communicators.


Australia needs you.


I took on the Shadow Science portfolio because I believe we need to make science and innovation a matter of national political importance.


Not an enclave up the back of the Department of Industry, without a Minister for Science.


Central to all our policies. And our prosperity.


I believe that every policy challenge Australia currently faces will benefit from a more scientific focus – and more scientific input.


We need new ideas in health – driven by human genomics.


New ideas in education - informed by neuroscience and psychology.


New ideas for our economy - underpinned by innovation, research and development.


New ideas for farming and food security – working with cutting edge and productivity-creating technology.


And new ideas for our environment - shaped by a recognition of the scientific consensus, not some ideological repudiation of it.


History tells us that the policy imperative alone will not be enough.


The essential merit of any cause is a condition precedent to whether it succeeds.
But the essential merit of any cause is not the exclusive guarantee of whether it succeeds.


The future of Australian science will depend on whether you, and I, can make your cause a national political issue.


This is a challenge that should not be underestimated.


If you’re not prepared to take my word for it – consider the view of Albert Einstein.


At a conference at Princeton in 1946, Einstein took questions at the end of his prepared remarks.


One attendee asked:


“Dr. Einstein, why is it that when the mind of man has stretched so far as to discover the structure of the atom, we have been unable to devise the political means to keep the atom from destroying us?”


Einstein replied:


“That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics.”


In the scientific spirit of the day, I want to report on what I consider a case study for successful policy advocacy from my time as Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities.


The National Disability Insurance Scheme was an ambitious, long-term solution to a complex and important problem that had never before been considered a political issue.


There was an absolute moral imperative.


Until the National Disability Insurance Scheme, people with impairment where effectively consigned to a second class life.


They were exiles in a city with unbreachable walls.


People with disability, their carers and the people who loved them, were invisible prisoners of disadvantage.


None of this was new.


There were two key elements that took the fate of people with a disability from a shoulder-shrugging, forgotten tragedy to a national political issue.


The first factor was the ability of people who knew the most about the issue, and what reform would mean, to raise the profile of their cause through a unified, grassroots campaign with a positive message.


I have always been a believer in the powerful force of consensus and empowerment.


I have always said that like-minded advocacy groups have a choice.


They can choose to spend their time reinventing a modern tower of babel, disputing the things they disagree on, and get nowhere.


Or they can concentrate on the 90 per cent they do agree on and work toward achieving it.


Until the ‘Every Australian Counts’ campaign, each key group had approached the politics of disability in a different way depending on whether they were advocates, carers or disability service providers.


The muffling, sound-defeating pursuit of too many competing demarcations.


The sterile competition for media disinterest– and for limited government resources.


Alternatively, by uniting around a common objective – the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the newly formed National Disability and Carers Alliance became a powerful host, the combined shout of 100,000 voices.


Together they achieved an outcome that would have been impossible alone.


What they lacked in money they created in people power.


For scientists, I know that the competition for research funding is fierce.


I know that you are often forced to compete with your colleagues for government grants that are too scarce.


The challenge for the advocate of science is to find your unifying message.


To articulate a set of objectives based on consensus – goals that will deliver a more beneficial outcome for all of you.


To build a richer political narrative about the benefits of science for all Australians.


The second factor in the success of the NDIS was the enlisting of credible independent experts to round out the policy argument with cogent supporting advice that explained the benefits.


In the early days of the National Disability Insurance Scheme debate, there was a widely-held view that the problem of disability was a bottomless well.


People said you could lean over it, toss a coin in and never hear it hit the bottom.


The Productivity Commission, ably assisted by a remarkable actuary John Walsh, provided the Government with the numbers that put this notion to rest.


It gave us proof that the National Disability Insurance Scheme could be funded.


That one could toss the coin in the well and that, while deep, the well had an audible floor – a measurable value and benefit.


What’s more, the Productivity Commission argued that empowering the hundreds of thousands of Australians with impairment, their carers and loved ones would actually deliver a considerable economic benefit.


It would significantly boost Australia’s national productivity – and save money in the long run by consolidating funding into a single pool.


The Productivity Commission’s report leant new economic strength and policy logic to the moral imperative of the National Disability Insurance Scheme – and played a pivotal role in its design and implementation.


I think science can do more to emphasise its economic value.


Or, put bluntly, the retail benefits of research.


Take the recent debate on Australian manufacturing.


There is a widespread misconception that manufacturing jobs are somehow ‘dirty’, ‘low-tech’, rust belt, commodified industries.


This is wrong.


This is tragically wrong – a wrong that betrays our nation and starves our future.


There is no such thing as a ‘low-tech’ industry.


Rather, there are industries that have invested in cutting edge technology and innovation – and those that have not.


All of us understand that Australian industries that invest in research and development are investing in their capacity for reinvention.


Compared to businesses that don’t innovate, innovative Australian businesses are 78 per cent more likely to report increases in productivity over the previous year.


Yet only around 25 in every 100 of Australian businesses collaborate on innovation.


Australia already produces some of the finest research in the world – we need more collaboration between industries and the research sector.


All of these businesses rely on you, our scientific community.


Scientists have a role to play in spreading this message.


In emphasising the need for collaboration - initiating it if necessary.


I know this is not always easy.


And I appreciate there are active disincentives that sometime prevent proactive collaboration.


Addressing such disincentives should be part of your reform agenda, and it will be part of mine.


By 2013 – a powerful consensus developed around the National Disability Insurance Scheme.


So much so that we even managed to convince the Abbott Opposition to vote in favour of a new levy to fund it.


Building this kind of meaningful consensus to make science a national priority won’t be easy.


All of us, you and me, will need to be prepared for a fight.


In this age of self-publishing platforms, it has never been easier for people to broadcast their opinion to the world – regardless of its veracity or foundation.


On scientific matters, this means any outspoken blogger can pit their anecdotal ‘evidence’ and ‘common-sense’ reasoning against years of painstaking, peer-reviewed research.


What’s more, the idea of ‘balanced’ reporting often requires that the ill-informed view from the fringe be presented as a counter to the scientist’s theory.


I’m sure this is a source of immense frustration to many of you.


It must be hard not to be insulted and infuriated by the way in which your hard work can be subject to baseless criticisms and ‘feel-pinions’.


Australia needs you to rise above the prejudice and gossip and persevere with the more important argument.


We need you to defend your findings, even if it means simplifying the message back to first principles.


I think the degradation of the climate change debate is the cautionary tale for what happens if we abandon the field to the conspiracy theorists and keyboard warriors, the social media trolls and the angry shouts of talkback radio.


On climate change, I think too many scientists – and indeed, politicians - made the mistake of projecting the strong consensus within their academic community onto the population at large.


Too many of us took the popular support for action on climate change for granted.


A mistake that has seen Australia move from a co-operative conversation on the best international method for dealing with the causes of climate change and mitigating against its effects to an argument poisoned by allegations of conspiracy and alarmist ‘warmism’.


There’s an important difference between tackling the misinformation peddled by climate change deniers, and stooping to their level.


A great deal of harm has been done by environmentalists using individual extreme weather events as proof of climate change in and of themselves.


An argument that is far too easy for climate-change deniers to rebut by seizing on any unseasonably cold weather.


All of which only serves as an unhelpful distraction from the real matter at hand – the future of our planet.


This battle isn’t over.


Labor won’t be walking away from our action on climate change – or bowing to the will of a Prime Minister who offers cynical nostrums that emissions trading is rendered meaningless because it deals with an ‘invisible, odourless substance’.


Climate science may be a key policy challenge – but I don’t view the contribution of science to our national life through the solo prism of environmental issues.


As I said before, I believe every facet of Australian policy-making would benefit from a new engagement with science.


I also believe our national political debate (and perhaps the way it is covered) would benefit from the enlarged, future-focused perspective that science brings.


Science encourages us to investigate the unknown and also challenges us to overcome it.


Dr Michael Shermer has written:


Science is not a thing - it is a method, a process, a way of thinking. Science is a verb, not a noun. Science is a method for understanding the world - a process that involves evidence, reason and especially testing claims.


A greater understanding of science and a more meaningful explanation of it might encourage parliamentarians, and the press gallery, to be more willing to acknowledge complexity – and engage with it.


Our world is complex, sophisticated and subtle.


Science allows us to appreciate this.


A more scientific approach to our policy debates might allow politicians to canvass questions – rather than rushing to offer solutions.


An understanding of the value of empirical evidence might allow pilot policy programs to run their full measure, rather than seeing them shelved on partisan or ideological grounds.


An acknowledgement of scientific consensus as an evolving process might mean that a change in policy position is not seen as a ‘humiliating u-turn’ or an ‘embarrassing backflip’, but a new approach based on a re-examination of the evidence.


I want to assure you that I am open to your ideas and keen to lend my advocacy to your cause.


There is so much I want to achieve for Australian science.


I want science to be a national political priority.


It will require a reform process akin to those undertaken in the Hawke-Keating years and akin to the NDIS transformation.


I want science to be recognised as an industry that will underwrite Australia’s prosperity in the 21st Century.


I am convinced the science race, the race for the jobs of the future, is a race to the top – and it has begun.


If Australia is not careful we will be stuck on the blocks.


We do not have three or six years to waste.


At this very moment, too many Australian schoolchildren are being taught science by hardworking but underqualified teachers.


Too few Australians go on to study science – and mathematics – in our universities.


Science units which can form the basis of non-science qualifications.


I believe Australia’s level of investment in research and development needs to significantly increase.


I believe science needs a long term sustainable funding profile.


I believe science needs a strategic approach – not just in terms of setting the right research priorities, but putting in place the right policy settings to allow your genius to flourish and lead to national and global prosperity.


By 2030, global spending on research and development will increase by 250 per cent.


Driven by big investments from countries in our region – in China and India as well as emerging economic powers like Brazil.


I believe that making science and innovation a national policy and political priority is nothing less than an investment in Australian brainpower.


It will not be easy at a time of slowing growth and downgraded revenue – but there are no shortcuts.


After all, the NDIS was born in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the great depression.


In 2014 our nation is at a crossroads: Australia can either get smarter or get poorer – we can choose to compete or give up.


I promise to be a disciple of science and innovation.


I promise to champion Australian creativity and ingenuity.


I promise to value ‘start-ups’.


We need to build a climate that encourages innovation and risk-taking and entrepreneurialism.


An environment that understands research doesn’t always deliver a short-term commercial dividend.


A culture that understands failure can sometimes lead to success.


I believe government can play an important role in covering investor risk, helping to create a climate of confidence and risk-taking that will encourage entrepreneurs to pursue the breakthroughs that will define this century.


I believe that if we are serious about turning Australian genius into wealth for our nation, we need to equip PhD students with the skills they need to commercialise their research.


This does not mean that all of them will, and nor should they have to.


But we do need to create a system that removes disincentives and gives our scientists their best shot.


We need to give our science graduates additional skills such as entrepreneurship, intellectual property management, project management and financial literacy.


So our best and brightest can aspire to be business leaders – and political leaders – and community leaders - as well as professors.


I am sufficiently ambitious for Australia, and Labor, that I hope at the next election, when distributing the Labor card, science graduates will choose Labor, because Labor has chosen science.


I hope these reflections will assist you in capturing the national imagination and the media’s attention in the years ahead.


Australia needs you.


It needs you to enter the political debate.


And you make sure that journalists know you mean business, that there are votes in science.


Because there are.