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An Energy Wolf in Greens’ Clothing?

By Ian Lowe

Is the creation of a single government portfolio encompassing energy and the environment a fatal conflict of interest?

The shuffling of ministerial responsibilities after the Australian election has produced some very interesting allocations. Greg Hunt, after an uncomfortable time as Environment Minister charged with promoting the obviously inadequate climate change response of the Abbott and Turnbull governments, has been moved sideways to become Minister of Industry, Innovation and Science.

Ironically, one of his first public actions was to offer extra funds to CSIRO for climate science, restoring a small part of the cuts to that area announced by CSIRO head Larry Marshall while Hunt was Environment Minister. Hunt has said that the $37 million offered over 10 years will fund 15 climate science jobs – a small fraction of those lost in the earlier round of cuts. At the time, Hunt’s silence was deafening and it appeared the government tacitly supported the attack on climate science. Much of the expertise he now wants to encourage has already left the organisation, and critics see the funding offer as a politically motivated gesture to deflect concern about Australia’s still-increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

In a novel combination, Josh Frydenberg has been made Minister for the Environment and Energy. Some observers have praised the combining of the portfolios, saying that the pattern of energy supply and use is the critical factor driving the most important environmental problem, climate change. Others have suggested there is a fatal conflict of interest between the Minister’s role in promoting the energy industries causing the problem and his responsibility for protecting the environment. This is a serious concern.

A parallel could be drawn with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the dual roles of promoting the nuclear industry and overseeing its regulation. Critics say that the enthusiasm for promoting the industry has inevitably meant a very generous approach to regulation.

Where the normal government system would see the energy minister being briefed by a department strongly supportive of fossil fuels and the environment minister being charged with putting to Cabinet the case for clean energy, under the new arrangement any environmental advice will be invisibly processed in the minister’s office. The early indications are mixed.

While the Abbott-era vendetta against wind energy has clearly been wound back and Frydenberg addressed the clean energy community in positive terms at their recent conference, he has also given the sort of strident defence of coal that would not be expected from an environment minister.

With a new One Nation senator supporting the bizarre view that climate science is some sort of United Nations conspiracy, and some Liberal Party senators also in denial about the science, there seems little hope of a coherent political response in the immediate future.


A Roadmap for Research Infrastructure

The Australian government is consulting about its 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap. It is an unusually sensible approach, developing a 10-year plan rather than making ad hoc decisions about individual projects. Major recent investments like the OPAL nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, the Synchrotron and the Square Kilometre Array seem to have been made in isolation rather than as part of a coherent strategy.

Now the government has released an Issues Paper, and is inviting submissions from researchers and representative organisations. It says the goal is to develop “a shared view of the capabilities that require national research infrastructure to support current, new and emerging areas of research”.

The Issues Paper identifies broad areas of research that deserve attention, then considers possible priorities within each area. The fields identified are health and medical science, environment and natural resource management, advanced physics, chemistry, mathematics and materials, understanding cultures and communities, national security, underpinning research infrastructure and “data for research and discoverability”.

A common theme running through the paper is the increasing need to store, manage and evaluate large data collections. This is especially important in the first two of those fields, health and medical science as well as environment and natural resource management. The discussion paper explicitly recognises the need in these fields to extract information from large bodies of data.

The exercise provides an unusual opportunity for the research community to suggest priorities for infrastructure.

Information on the consultation program for the development of the overall plan can be found at http://www.tinyurl.com/jhmu83g


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