‘Does Australia care about science?’

Professor Ian Chubb argues in The Conversation -an Australian website for ‘informed commentary’- that scientists are an unappreciated force for good in Australian society.

Ian Chubb is the Chief Scientist for Australia. Prior to his appointment as Chief Scientist Professor Chubb was Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University from January 2001 to February 2011. He was Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University of South Australia for six years and the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Monash University for two years while simultaneously the Foundation Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics for 16 months.

Most Australians, probably all Australians, are affected by science every day of their lives — from the soles of their shoes, to the clothes on their back, to the food they eat, the medicines they take, the transport they use, their ubiquitous mobile telephones (and landlines, too), the screens they watch, the airwaves they listen to.

But how many Australians pause to think, even occasionally, about science and its place in their lives? How scientific knowledge has been applied to their benefit; how scientists have worked to understand the very nature of things so that benefits might flow from that knowledge.

“Not enough” is the most likely answer. Because when science and scientists are attacked, for whatever reason with whatever motive, it seems there are more than a few who nod and fall into line.

Scientists have been called all sorts of things recently — corrupt, frauds, racketeers and so on — simply because their observations lead us to conclusions some people don’t want to hear, read or see.

We also know the best way to change the minds of people who may not have deep and specialised knowledge of a scientific field (most people) is to sow doubt. Repeatedly. And it works.

Australians need to care about science and more carefully judge the opinions expressed. All science is damaged when the very basis, the very core, of some science is relentlessly attacked.

As the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was recently moved to comment:

“We are concerned that establishing a practice of aggressive inquiry into the professional histories of scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions.”

That would be truly dangerous.

Contest of ideas

Science does a lot for us now, and will in the future. But to reap the maximum benefit for humanity, it has to be able to do its job. Scientists must be able to make observations, conduct experiments, interpret the results and present the results both inside and outside the immediate scientific community, freely and frankly.

As scientists, we need to engage in the robust contest of ideas — that’s the way science works. Scientists must influence the way we think by accumulating evidence, while remaining open to changing their view as new evidence or interpretations that have stood the test of close scrutiny are accepted. And when there is a very substantial body of evidence pointing in a particular direction they are entitled to call that a consensus — meaning a majority view, not some contrived opinion or ‘groupthink’.

Science is not aloof from its community. Properly conducted science will operate within a framework of standards, ethics and sometimes regulation consistent with community standards and expectations. A scientist can’t do just anything because they deem it to be good. The peer community sets standards as does the wider community through prevailing values.

Of course, there are scientists who don’t like rules — just as there are drivers who don’t like the road rules. Scientists are human, but they do operate within a framework that is unsympathetic, to be generous, if they stray towards the unethical or the unconscionable.

Australian science has another important dimension. As a country with a small population, we contribute more than 3 per cent of the world’s knowledge as defined by research publications. While that is not bad for a country with 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, it tells us two things:

1. We need the expertise to make use of (understand) the other 97 per cent, since some of that will be of direct benefit to the lives of Australians. We can only do that if we have local expertise. The time is long past when we could expect the rest of the world to simply tell us what they knew without the slightest contribution from us.

2. By contributing to the world’s stock of knowledge — especially beyond our weighted share — we get a seat at the table where the big decisions are made. We have a chance to influence outcomes, because we are a contributor. We get that seat because we are entitled to it, not because we are outside, hand out, palm up and pleading.

Both are important. Australia’s capacity to respond to the risk of future pandemics, for example, is much increased because we have the scientific expertise to assess and prepare. We have the scientific expertise to ‘Australianise’ the latest scientific developments wherever they come from.

When you come to think of it, isn’t this what the Australian community should expect its scientists to be? High quality; ethical; sceptical; open to new evidence and interpretations. But be constantly trying to understand the nature of things, so better applications of that knowledge can lead us to better lives.

Source: The Conversation, November 2011.

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