Science fights for hearts and minds

James Riley
Editorial Director

It was the annual Science Meets Parliament confab in Canberra last week. Cool … If you like that sort of thing.

It was also the week Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – the brains trust of the short-lived “Ideas Boom” campaign in 2016 – announced his new, new idea: the parliamentary #BonkBan in response to fallout from the Barnaby Joyce “situation”. Hot! Sizzling! 24/7.

And yet another little highlight of the week was that Valentine’s Day also occurred within it.

Prof Emma Johnston: Sounding the warning bell on Australian complacency

It was as if the universe was intent on making the pitch for science funding so much harder for the Australian political and media classes to hear. But Professor Emma Johnston, the President of Science & Technology Australia (STA) made a cracking good go of it regardless.

Prof Johnston, a marine scientist by training and by day, and the chief advocate for an association representing some 70,000 Australian scientists and technologists, began her impassioned speech to the National Press Club stating that she “regularly wakes in fright.”

“(We) understand deeply the future that is barrelling toward us,” said Prof Johnston. “We know the heat is rising … and we see all too clearly the many challenges ahead – in climate, health, cybersecurity, energy and transport.”

“That clarity and insight allows us to reflect and to work strategically toward solutions.”

Even in the midst of #bonkban season on Twitter, this was a jolting start to what ABC presenter and National Press Club president, Sabra Lane had described, in introducing Prof Johnston, as a “bit of a love letter … about how important science and technology is (for Australians).”

Prof Johnston revealed that Australians overwhelmingly agree. Not so much about the love letter analogy per se – but more about how important science is.

She announced that the STA recently conducted a Galaxy Poll surveying some 3000 Australians’ attitude to scientific output and funding issues.

The poll found that a “whopping 94 per cent of people believe Australian science and technology is important to their health and well-being; 90 per cent agree that the very latest science and technology should inform policy and action on global and domestic challenges”; and a bit less, though still a solid eight out of ten think we “should be investing more in research.”

Okay. That’s interesting, I guess. It’s not that surprising though is it? I mean, approving – or even disapproving – of anything from the comfort of distance doesn’t cost us anything beyond the time it takes to answer a phone poll or check a box on a form.

What’s way more interesting to me is what the STA Galaxy poll didn’t ask or provide any insight to.

Specifically, whether any question on the survey asked respondents whether they valued science and technology enough to influence or change how they vote politically, how they mentor their children in terms of educational and career choices, or how they invest their money for the short and long term.

Without a deep dive into those questions, any positive survey response is just a reveal of armchair cheerleading.

As inspiring as Prof Johnston’s speech was, the bulk of it showed a much darker reality: the massive mismatch between the tacit broader community support for a science-attuned nation versus skin-in-the-game commitment, investment and action to make it real.

How do we reconcile the survey’s findings with the reality most in the science and technology sectors know only too well and articulated in Prof Johnston’s address and many, many before over at least a generation?

Just two weeks before, the chair of Innovation and Science Australia (ISA), Bill Ferris, stood at the same podium and pitched the ISA 2030 strategic plan: Prosperity Through Innovation.

Mr Ferris’s NPC audience was smaller in number than Prof Johnston’s, probably because he didn’t have the captive audience that comes with Science Meet Parliament week.

But in plea, challenge and argument, both Prof Johnston and Mr Ferris were consistent in their case for science, tech and innovation investment and action on a national scale.

Just some of that reality includes: Australia invests a meagre 1.8 per cent of GDP in research and development, way below the OECD leaders; we have, in the last decade, witnessed a sharp decline in numbers of enrolments of students in science and technology degrees and sharply declining STEM capability of students generally.

This is in stark contrast to countries like Israel, China, South Korea and many, many others.

In policy and parliamentary circles, we do not have a “whole of government” science and technology mission and we are very thin on science-savvy talent and the political will to invest in it.

Before and since Senator Arthur Sinodinos resigning due to illness, we have no cabinet level advocate for science, entrepreneurship and innovation, nor or even a dedicated minster for science.

(Although, we do now have Zed Seselja, the newly appointed Assistant Minister for Science, Jobs and Innovation); and perhaps even more disturbingly, according to Prof Johnston, an alarming number of Australian scientists and researchers are opting out of their chosen profession early on or in mid-career because, well, the work is hard, the money not great and other rewards – like changing the world – painstakingly slow and often elusive.

All this is happening – the slide away from science and technology-driven mission and problem-solving at scale – at a time when competitor and allied countries are racing ahead.

And when short-termism and old time political gamesmanship is the life-blood of 21st century media.

This is completely counter to the long termism of science-based endeavor.

Both Mr Ferris and Prof Johnston delivered their thought-provoking speeches to the same wee smattering of already-converted, non-mainstream business and political media – at the National Press Club.

In any science or technology forum in Australia there is rarely the full-lid of senior business and political columnists and provocateurs present that you see when a banker, an economist, a traditional corporate business leader or a politician speaks about the same ol’, same ol’. (Just witness what press were present at this week’s National Press Club event featuring Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton).

How can the Australian science and technology community turn this reality around and, bit by bit over time, win more of the hearts, minds and wallets of a broader cross section of the Australian and international community?

When the reality is that Australia’s business, media and policy audiences have historically and consistently shied away from or been completely disinterested in STEM-related issues (beyond like, the NBN or climate change) then the science and technology community has to get smart, muscle-up and pay-up to devise and implement a multi-faceted and in your face communications strategy.

When asked very frankly about this at the press club, Professor Johnston said (and I am paraphrasing and condensing slightly):

“As the Fourth industrial revolution unfolds, as the pace of (global change) quickens, as the centres of political power become more distributed and less transparent we are going to find it very, very obvious that science and STEM are skills that are absolutely integral to all of the growth areas to the work sector and integral to our capacity to manage the environment.

“And as that happens – and I can see it unfolding every day – parliamentarians will have no choice but to lift the profile of science and technology and to lift the investment in that sector.”

I think Johnston was predicting an existential crisis in our future. But do we really have to wait for one?

The biggest squandered opportunity for a shared “embrace the 21st century” growth and reform mindset was in early 2016, after Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister. His government spent $27 million dollars on the “welcome the ideas boom” campaign.

It was the type of mis-judged campaign that comes from disconnection from its subject matter. It was the Australian equivalent of America’s “Bridge to no-where” fiasco. It didn’t evoke any inspiration or action from anyone, even those that already believed that ideas meant something.

So, if we haven’t blown it for another 10 years…if there is a small opportunity to turn this around, what might the science and technology sector do to make it a little more mainstream resonant?

Off the top I’d recommend the following as a starting point:

For elite business and political media: Less bleeding heart, long term futures and more “science (and entrepreneurship) as contact sport”. It’s messy; It’s colourful; It’s full of miss-steps and giant leaps forward. Truth is stranger than fiction in this sphere. Go find it. There’s lots of great stories there.

For parents and educators: Less “geeks can be cool too when they grow up”. More, “there’s money, travel, even fame in your kids’ future with science and tech skills and critical thinking talent. As CSIRO chief Larry Marshall once said “In America, they don’t call techies just geeks. They call them millionaires and billionaires.”

For Big Business leaders: “You cannot justify your complacency. You are insulated, old fashioned and boring. Skill-up. No one will want to work in your company as it is.”

For union leaders and members: “Get on board and advocate for 21st century solutions to 21st century problems. If you don’t want it to eat a shit sandwich for decades to come, help be part of the solution.”

For policy-makers: “So you think you are safe? Just wait a minute. Disruption – and perhaps relevance deprivation – is coming to an electorate near you.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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