Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Win for Science?

By Ian Lowe

The minority government may do more for science than either of the major parties would have done with a secure majority.

The Australian science community felt marginalised in the recent election. Not only were the science policies of the major parties distinctly underwhelming, but there was also very little said in the campaign about science. I did detect a sense of relief that Senator Kim Carr remains the Science Minister. As one climate scientist said to me, the political cowardice of the ALP on climate change is a more tractable problem than the Coalition’s denial of the science. And the rural independents have track records of support for action on climate change. Even the unpredictable Bob Katter is a strong backer of renewable energy systems. So we may well see the minority government doing more than either of the major parties would have done with a secure majority.

There was a minor flurry after the announcement of the new Ministry when it became apparent that there was no specific responsibility for universities. Confusion reigned when different statements suggested that responsibility fell under either “science and innovation” or “skills and jobs”. A last-minute rethink as the new Ministers were on their way to Government House added “tertiary education” to Chris Evans’ portfolio.

But New Zealanders are wondering whether having a Minister for Tertiary Education is a good idea. Steven Joyce has floated the idea that the university funding model might not just consider course completions, but also whether graduates get jobs. “I want to see funding linked to employment outcomes,” the Minister was quoted in the press as saying. Universities understandably worry about the pressure to get students out of science into fields that promise short-term employment.

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I recently addressed a conference convened by the Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum. This body is the result of an agreement between the Australian government, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland. It recognises that the Basin transcends the arbitrary lines drawn on the map by 19th century British colonial bureaucrats: sensible planning requires a perspective that recognises the ecological boundaries rather than the political ones.

The Lake Eyre Basin spans 1.2 million km2, or about one-sixth of the entire continent. Its major rivers – the Diamantina, the Georgina and Cooper Creek – have more variable flows than any streams of comparable scale anywhere in the world.

While climate change has clearly increased average temperatures in the region and will bring further increases in the future, there is uncertainty about rainfall. Prof Amanda Lynch of Monash University told the conference that two of the most highly regarded global climate models predict decreasing rainfall, but the other two predict increases!

The Basin spans two distinct weather systems, both of which are changing. And the effect of climate change on the El Niño Southern Oscillation is uncertain. So surprises are inevitable, but increasing temperatures will accelerate evaporation of the water that does flow into the rivers.

Prof Richard Kingsford of the University of NSW reminded the conference of the explosion of bird life that follows heavy rainfall. His team estimated there were between two and four million water birds there during the 2009 flood of the Georgina and Diamantina rivers. Over 60 species and more than 30 active breeding colonies were identified, some extraordinary in scale. The researchers estimated that one pelican colony had 30–40,000 breeding pairs. The RAMSAR criterion for an internationally significant wetland is at least 20,000 water birds.

The region has some problems: introduced species, pressures for water allocation, and the impacts of economic activities like tourism and mining. But it also has real opportunities, especially with the promise that broadband communications could make outback areas more attractive places to live than crowded suburbia.

Mark Stafford Smith of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems has written extensively about the social issues that comprise “the desert syndrome”: sparse population, limited services, cultural differences, limited productivity and social uncertainty. But he also reminded the conference that remote parts of Australia rank highest on every measure of social capital. People in remote areas are more likely to feel part of the community, get together more often with friends and have greater support when things go wrong. So there is every reason to feel optimistic about the future of this sprawling region.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.