Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Very Public Scientist

By Peter Pockley

Ian Lowe is proof of the value of scientists who apply their scientific training and experience to issues at the interfaces of science, technology, society and policy.

Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe describes himself as “a professional physicist who hasn’t maltreated atoms for more than 30 years. For most of my professional life I’ve been dealing with the large-scale issues of how science and technology affect our society, how we make choices about which science we do and how we use it and how, ideally, we use scientific understanding to make better decisions to improve the human condition.”

A Senior Lecturer from 1980 and later Professor of Science, Technology and Society over 20 years at Griffith University, he negotiated early retirement to become “a freelance adviser with a better work/life balance than possible in a full-time job. I revel in the opportunity to be able to have complete breaks from intellectual work by bushwalking or worrying about the weather for playing cricket.”

Maintaining a wiry frame at age 67, he claims to be “the oldest outswing serious bowler in Queensland cricket”, having played constantly since first grade in his university days. With a puckish demeanour, Lowe manages a frenetic pace across a wide range of publicly demanding roles.

He has been President of the Australian Conservation Foundation since 2004, a referee for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (including involvement in the Copenhagen conference in 2009), and reviewer for the International Geosphere–Biosphere Program. He chaired the first Australian national report on the state of the environment, which was completed in 1996. His list is so long that any profile has to be highly selective.

His origins did not promise a flourishing intellectual career. Born in Sydney, he moved with his parents to the small NSW town of Caragabal, where his father ran a bakery. “My earliest memories are of dust storms and plagues of biblical proportions of grasshoppers and mice,” he recalls. Lowe attended a two-room primary school there and at Tahmoor after the family moved there. Then, there were long bus journeys to Bowral High School with financial assistance of £33 annually from a competitive State Bursary.

Perspectives Broadened
Lowe recalls: “My father had left school at 13 and wasn’t a great believer in education, but my mother was a nurse who believed strongly in education as a way for people to lead a better life, and encouraged me to study. It wasn’t easy as I was the eldest of five children. In my rural environment it was considered aberrant to go to the city and study at a university.” But he persisted, and won a part-time place at the University of Technology (later the University of NSW) while supporting himself with a job as a cadet electrical engineer, which was the subject of his degree studies.

He became more interested in physics and, working as a laboratory assistant building electronic equipment like radar, he transferred to a science degree and then undertook an Honours year with first-hand experience of research under the supervision of Prof Jak Kelly. He particularly relished the General Studies component of UNSW degrees, which required science students to also study humanities so that they weren’t ignorant of their culture when they graduated.

Lowe attests: “The introductory courses I had to study in English, history and politics have been extraordinarily useful in my later life as I’ve had the vocabulary to understand issues in many areas like climate change. The basic sciences are required, but developing the responses requires an understanding of economic and legal frameworks, social psychology and political systems.” He deplores as “a tragedy” UNSW’s recent scrapping of this requirement. However, Griffith University adopted and has retained it.

Lowe extended his scientific credentials with PhD studies at the University of York in the UK under a scholarship from the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which he says is “ironic” given his subsequent vigorous opposition to the introduction of nuclear power in Australia (see p.47). In fact, the problem the authority wanted to be studied regarding the diffusion of heat in uranium fuel rods was, at 2000°C, too difficult for a university laboratory. Lowe instead opted to study a model of such temperature gradients using potassium chloride crystals: “I don’t think it helped the authority and nuclear power much but it gave me a very good grounding in conducting research in basic physics”.

With his DPhil Lowe, now married, scored in 1971 a lectureship in materials science with the revolutionary Open University, which was established by the UK Labour government to provide part-time degree studies for mature people by external teaching. He was “excited by the quality of the learning materials, the quality of the students and their commitment to learning... the multidisciplinary nature of the courses… and their clarity… This was very good for me.”

He stayed there until 1980, broken by a 6-month fellowship to teach the new subject of science, technology and society embedded in the science degree at the also-new Griffith University in Queensland. This put him in the box seat when a permanent senior lectureship in the subject became available, and enabled his return to Australia for a better lifestyle and education for his two sons.

This combination of diverse fields of study and their application to policy issues became Lowe’s lifelong hallmark. A Professor from 1996 to 2000, his unique contributions were recognised by his election in 2005 as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. The citation concluded: “He is seen as one of the foremost communicators of technical issues to the wider community”.

Environmental and Critical Focus
In 2001 Lowe was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for “service to science and technology, particularly in the area of environmental studies, to education and research, and as a contributor to public debate on environmental issues”.

This reflected the breadth of his prolific writings (more than 50 books or book chapters), public speaking, debating and contributions to national media (including recently joining Australasian Science as a columnist; see p.47). His latest book, A Voice of Reason (University of Queensland Press, in press), is an anthology of his writings. Environmental policies and ethical issues have been his dominant topics of late, especially on the conservation of energy, renewable energy, population growth and the “debate” over climate change where he counters the “deniers” surgically.

“It’s a bizarre, cavalier accusation and bordering on the irrational to say that because there was one incorrect projection in 3000 pages of the fourth assessment of the IPCC the whole of climate science is in disrepair and suspect,” he says. “There is a clear dividing line between skepticism, which is an honourable part of the scientific tradition – demanding evidence and observations and a coherent theory to explain them – and denial, which is a refusal to accept the body of evidence or the established theory… Nobody would do this in caring for their own and their family’s health.”

He is disturbed by the “dearth of academics who are recognised by the public and supported by their universities for speaking out on public issues. This is a critical failing of the modern university… Not only is there little encouragement for academics to act as the conscience and critic of society, in some universities this has been actively discouraged.”

By contrast, he wraps up his sense of social and ethical responsibilities: “I see it as part of my job as a scientist, most of whose life has been paid by the public purse, to communicate the insights that I’ve obtained to the wider community. Writing for a range of publications is part of that function, and until I’m incapable of pounding a keyboard I’ll keep writing for people who are prepared to print me and talk with me on radio. That’s part of who I am.”

Among all this, he continues to teach at Griffith University (which has conferred its top honorary Doctorate of the University on him) and the Sunshine Coast and Flinders universities.

reminiScience draws on extended biographical interviews recorded by Peter Pockley for the Oral History Archives of the National Library of Australia. This is the 43rd interview in the series, which is progressively coming online at