Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Politicians Abandon Science, Community Abandons Politicians

By Ian Lowe

Should we trust bureaucrats more than elected politicans or scientists to make decisions about new technologies?

Science and technology featured prominently at the Adelaide Ideas Festival in October. Former Chief Scientist Penny Sackett delivered the opening address, and then discussed the issues she raised with broadcaster Philip Adams, immunologist Peter Doherty and local science educator Barbara Hardy, to whom the festival was dedicated. The session was recorded, so the plea for rational debate and proper attention to science reached a wider audience than the group packed into Adelaide Town Hall.

The National Enabling Technologies Task Force also ran its annual public event as a special session of the festival. In the wonderful old Exchange Building, which now houses the Royal Institution, a series of panels faced the public to discuss emerging technologies.

It was a chance for the community to have their say. Not surprisingly, there were mixed views about the feasibility of low-carbon cities, the acceptability of synthetic meat and the consequences of our increasing capacity to replace body parts as they wear out.

I was on the panel considering low-emission cities. While there was general support for clean energy supply systems and better public transport, there was less enthusiasm for the suggestion that future cities might grow genetically modified crops on the sides of buildings! There is clearly a high level of community suspicion about the general proposition that we can safely modify the genetic code of food plants.

The session addressed the interesting general issue of who should be making decisions about the acceptability of new technologies. The audience members were allowed a secret vote using key pads. Options included the scientists, elected politicians, lay panels, government officials or corporations. The views were mixed, but I was really interested to see that more people trusted government officials than elected politicians. I’m rather uncomfortable with that notion.

Weighing up the overall costs and benefits of an innovation cannot be an objective process. Deciding whether the economic benefits, real or alleged, of an innovation justify the social changes and the environmental risks is inevitably a value judgement.

If the majority of the community thinks that politicians get it wrong, they can vote them out at the next election. But if the judgment is made by unelected officials, what can the general public do if they are unhappy with the decision?

I suspect the vote might have reflected distrust of elected politicians rather than positive faith in bureaucrats. I can understand that, given the continuing retreat from rational science-based analysis in politics. The Coalition seems particularly bad, with one Senator even supporting web sites devoted to climate science denial along US Tea Party lines. A scientific colleague observed a recently retired politician colluding with senior journalists to spread misinformation about climate change in a conversation that could have been scripted by the authors of Merchants of Doubt. And I referred in my October column to a group of Coalition MPs pushing the tired old line that northern Australia could be turned into a “food bowl” by damming tropical rivers.

Now the Australian government seems to be joining the party. Spooked by the hysterical reaction to the draft report on the Murray–Darling Basin, the government appointed a new chairperson who seems to have adopted what a colleague called “the pre-emptive crumble”.

The refereed science all says that the river system needs to be given back 4000–5000 GL/year to have a fighting chance of recovering. Craig Knowles has canvassed the possibility of returning only 2800 GL/year and hinted that 2400–3200 GL/year was being explored. I said that was a bit like the Wallabies deciding that they could not beat the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final and debating whether to try to keep the loss below 15 points or let it blow out to somewhere between 20 and 25.

Then the Wallabies lost by 14 points…

I wish readers the compliments of the season, but also remind you that our region still has higher levels of skin cancer than anywhere else in the world. Please protect your skin from ultraviolet radiation as you relax this summer so you remain regular readers for decades to come!

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University.