ADDRESS TO SCIENCE MEETS PARLIAMENT

ADDRESS TO SCIENCE MEETS PARLIAMENT

CANBERRA

WEDNESDAY, 14 FEBRUARY 2018 

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Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to speak to you once again.

This is the 19th Science Meets Parliament that I have been involved in.

Many of you will have heard me talk about the role of science in the life of the nation before.

For those who this is your first science meets Parliament, you may not.

For those of you who are veterans, I trust that my arguments have been consistently put.

So let me take this opportunity to talk about what a Labor government would look like.

About the values of social democracy, science and progress and how these are intertwined.

Social democrats have long regarded science as a liberator, an instrument for releasing human potential.

Labor’s focus – and my personal focus – has been in harnessing the power of science and technology to transform industry and society, create new opportunities for individuals, and enrich community life.

I believe that for all the sciences – my definition includes humanities as well - there is a compact between researchers and society.

I repeat my assertion that Labor in Government will back you with the best kit the country can afford.

We ask, in return, for the wherewithal to help our people.

To cure the sick.

To feed the poor.

To build better factories.

To save the planet.

These commitments matter, as we have understood since the earliest days of the Enlightenment.

This is the gift of science to society

They mark the divide between fact and opinion, evidence and assertion, science and humbug.

That does not mean we look to science for absolute truth.

Doubt and uncertainty are part of knowledge, not separate from it.

The greater your expertise, the more qualified your scrutiny, the more chinks and inconsistencies you see.

What has changed in my time in public life is the urgency of this social compact.

To which I add a new demand – the fight to restore confidence and hope, even legitimacy, of our political system.

The rise of anti-intellectualism in political culture is not an aberration.

It marks a collective challenge.

We have not yet built a better Australia. Far too many of our people’s experience of economic and social change has seen them become worse off.

In regional towns and outer suburbs, secure well paid blue collar jobs have been replaced with insecure, precarious work

This is not an experience confined to blue collar workers. 

Many scientists – some of you in this room - can relate to the issues of insecure work and casualisation.

So there is never a more urgent time for Australian science to step up and offer your creativity in the service of building a better Australia

Science meets Parliament is not just a chance for your to speak to political leaders

I believe it is a chance for you to answer a fundamental question: what is the role of the scientist in modern political discourse?

Not just in this place, but in the country at large

Because while most Australians have faith in the scientific project, an increasing number have become disillusioned

Disillusioned at the pace of change, disillusioned at the political system, and disillusioned at the institutions in our society – including that of scientific authority

Many people are losing confidence in the ability of democratic politics to deliver a better life.

They no longer feel as if they are productive citizens.

They feel as if they are the byproducts of an uncontrolled economic experiment.

Living this way makes them vulnerable to manipulation by extremist movements.

And that in turn becomes a threat the legitimacy of the state.

This is not unique to Australia. It is happening across the Western world.

In this time of anxiety, it is absolutely crucial that we find the right way to communicate the benefits of change.

We must give people hope.

Science must be a part of that process of communication.

And governments must explain why science matters.

Governments must not only invest in science.

They must advocate for science.

They must make the case that investment in science is absolutely crucial to the national interest.

They must explain that without investment in science and in innovation programs, we cannot rebuild a modern economy.

An economy in which prosperity is shared and the sense of full citizenship – of full participation in society – is restored.

Governments must be willing to make the necessary investment in science in addition to undertaking the task of advocacy.

I can promise you that Labor will not shrink from this task.

But we can’t do it alone.

I would argue that you have a part to play.

As this event winds down, I want to challenge you to decide what part in building a new Australia you want to play.

Science communication – the stories we tell the public – needs to be valued and rewarded

Engaging the public should not be seen as an extra curricula activity in your workplaces, but valued as a core activity.

Particularly since public scepticism is on the rise

As Bill Ferris has made clear Australia’s very position in the world as an innovation nation is at question

Bill Shorten told you last night that Australia’s R&D performance is slipping.

The latest figures on Gross Expenditure on Research and Development show that Australia has fallen to 1.88 percent in 2015 from 2.11 percent in 2013.

It is worth noting that the OECD average is 2.38 percent, and we are falling below it.

Business R&D activity is also declining – from 1.19 percent to 1.01 percent over the same period

National policy, unfortunately, is not contributing to reversing these numbers

Witness the $2.2 billion cuts to university funding in the December mid-year economic update.

Or the $3 billion in cuts to science, innovation and research in the 2014 budget

No amount of happy clapping, revivalist, cheer squad rhetoric will fix this problem

Only substantive policy, coherent and consistent policy will meet this task.

That is why Bill Shorten has made clear that supporting science is part of Labor’s vision for Australia.

Not just ensuring that science is always represented by a Science Minister at the cabinet table.

But by setting what he calls a “clear national goal”

That by 2030, we should aim to dedicate 3 per cent of our national GDP to science, research and development.

Yes, that will include a share of applied research, supporting innovation and emerging industries and companies

Bill Shorten has said we must also champion and support discovery and basic research.

Because, as you know that scientific research is a long-term project.

It cannot be done without matching the right people with the right resources.

Bringing them together, and ensuring that they are able to work effectively, requires coherent and consistent policy.

Unfortunately that is not what we have had in this country for some years.

Unfortunately public funds are increasingly directed towards research that turns a quick buck.

Basic, curiosity-driven research is being devalued and defunded.

Not only is this a failure to understand what science is.

Its’ a failure to understand the relationship between basic and applied research.

A nation that does not invest in basic research will degrade its ability to do applied research effectively.

In his speech to the Academy of Science last August Bill Shorten made the point:

  • “Science research in this country cannot always be about quick fixes, the short term, the dollar payback and immediate cost recovery.
  • “We have to restore a view in this nation that basic scientific research is fundamental because it’s about pushing our knowledge to new heights.
  • “It’s about stretching our understanding beyond the accepted truth, testing and challenging the limits of the possible”.

We have also begun to set out policies that will deliver closer collaboration between science and industry.

In particular, we were the first major party to announce a plan to establish an Australian Space Science and Industry Agency.

An agency tasked with doubling the size of Australia’s space industry within five years.

Of course we welcomed the government’s 11th hour realisation of the possibilities of space science, and wait for the details and budget for the new agency

Because building our own capability in space is in Australia’s national interest.

Not only to meet present and future needs, but to mitigate the risk our satellite services becoming unavailable.

We have announced the first phase of our space industry plan, and there will be more announcements to come.

A modern, technologically advanced nation cannot afford not to invest in science.

And it cannot afford to operate on a science policy that expects only quick turn-around results.

Science has always expanded the future options for humanity.

Our job is to ensure that the public – who pay our wages – understand that we are engaged on the great national project to meet the challenges of the twenty first century

And I will do everything possible to ensure that Australian science continues to be able to do so.

Thank you.


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