Malcolm Turnbull assumes the Prime Ministership with a weight of expectation, somewhat balanced by the realpolitik that he’s only become Prime Minister by compromising with the right-wing of his party. There are all sorts of things he can quickly do to telegraph a new approach – appoint a woman as Minister for Women might be a no-brainer. So what are our chances of getting a Minister for Science?
There’s no question that Turnbull understands science, or at least appreciates when to give experts due regard. He has a long public record of personally ‘getting’ science and STEM. Turnbull talked on Monday about the opportunities that face Australia if we are agile and innovative. That gives us hope that he might lead a government that invests in STEM education and in basic research. A simple starting point to signal that sort of change would be to appoint a minister for science.
All the pundits agree that Turnbull can’t change the Coalition’s climate policy in any foreseeable future. He could very easily, though, put the science of climate change back in center position where it belongs. As he said in 2011:
Normally, in our consideration of scientific issues, we rely on expert advice [and] agencies like CSIRO or the Australian Academy of Science, are listened to with respect. Yet on this issue there appears to be a licence to reject our best scientists both here and abroad and rely instead on much less reliable views.
A Minister for Science, and a change in funding priorities would be a good start. Listening to what the scientists say would be a great second step. Given Turnbull’s stated position that he wants to offer substance, not slogans, having facts, figures and research to back positions would seem to be an obvious move. It would also give him credibility if he later has sufficient mandate to be able to do more on climate change.
A government that deals in facts instead of slogans needs to have a strong scientific community feeding in the research which leads to informed conclusions. Having a Science Minister won’t fix the state of scientific funding overnight, but it’s a great start; and it’s something that is achievable within the Prime Minister’s own remit.
As I wrote back in 2013:
We used to have Ministerial representation for Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. None is there now. I look at that list and think those are all part of creating a clever country: And in the case of Climate Change probably the most significant challenge we face as a nation and as part of this World. How can they be subsumed into an Industry portfolio without sending a clear message about what is really important?
We now have an opportunity to once again demonstrate that science and education are important. It’s too early to tell if the promise of Malcolm Turnbull as our new Prime Minister has any chance of being fulfilled; but for the next few days, at least, we have a ray of hope.