A Minister for Industry and Science – is that the answer?

ian-macfarlane_0So we now have a Science Minister, or at least a Minister for Industry and Science. That’s a significant step forward from having no one responsible for the science portfolio, and, by all accounts, Ian Macfarlane isn’t a bad choice from the available candidates. But the question I have is: What do we mean by science in this context? Does its entanglement with industry mean that we see science as akin to industry: Something to be developed for its outputs?

That, by the way, was my very own Dorothy Dixer. There is simply nothing to indicate that this Government actually believes in science. They believe in saleable products that we can generate revenues for business, they don’t believe in scientific thinking or in research that does not have a clear outcome. And I don’t believe that a Minister for Industry and Science will change that.

Now the Government is not entirely to blame. Their lack of understanding mirrors that in the community at large. But the difference is – they are running the country. The only way to change the community’s understanding is through education, and guess who’s running the education system…

We don’t need to have science compartmentalised and fostered for its outputs. In reality ‘science’ underpins everything we do in the world; understanding how our World functions is science. What we need is someone ensuring that all government decision-making is backed by science, that our education system fosters science, and that we see blue-sky research as almost inevitably leading to positive outcomes rather than just derisory articles in the Daily Telegraph juxtaposed with the Hills Hoist as an example of Australian innovation.

I’m sure that having a Minister with science in their portfolio will have short-term positive outcomes. There should always have been one. But the real, fundamental change that needs to occur is at a much more seminal level; we need to change our entire approach. Our education system needs to teach the scientific method and how it applies to the World around us; we need to value the work and thinking of scientists and use actual, scientific research in setting policies, and we need to invest in both abstract research and its commercialisation. All of that involves long-term changes, but the first step must involve a policy shift from the Government. Maybe our new Minister for Industry and Science will start us down the road. Maybe; but my hypothesis is that he wont.

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