Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Is Tony Abbott Following Canada’s “War on Science”?

By Ben McNeil

Canada’s Prime Minister could be a role model for Australia’s new leader when it comes to science policy.

One thing scientists can’t do very well is come up with catchy slogans at protest rallies.

“What do we want?” a lab-coated scientist yells to the crowd on the steps of Parliament House in Ottawa, Canada.

“Evidence-based decision-making!” hundreds of scientists answer.

“When do we want it?” the leader shouts again.

“After peer-review!”

Last September, thousands of scientists took to the streets in a “Stand up for Science” protest in 17 Canadian cities. From Vancouver to Toronto they protested against a “war on science” after conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected in 2006.

The Harper administration has cut basic research funding, rolled back environmental laws, withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, muzzled scientists and rebranded its National Research Agency to be “directed by and for” industry. Rather than promoting diverse curiosity-driven research and evidence-based policies, “the Harper government has chosen ignorance over evidence and ideology over honesty,” said Jeremy Kerr, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa.

Harper’s government seems to be aligning with the anti-science sentiment that has recently emerged within the US Republican Party. This is not normal. Historically it has been conservative, not liberal/labor leaders, that have been stronger supporters of scientific research. In Australia, the conservative Prime Minister Stanley Bruce founded the CSIRO in 1926, while Robert Menzies helped establish the Australian Academy of Science, of which he became a fellow in 1958.

Margaret Thatcher championed science as Britain’s Prime Minister. She was a driving force behind the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990, well before other leaders were even thinking about climate change. “We must use science to cast a light ahead, so that we can move step by step in the right direction,” she told the United Nations in 1989.

Conservative political leaders in the US have been very strong supporters of scientific research, dating back to the 1950s. Aside from his approach to stem cell research, US President George W. Bush nearly doubled the medical research budget during his term and substantially increased funding for climate monitoring and understanding of climate change.

Will new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott take a more traditionally conservative approach like Thatcher or Bush, or will he join the anti-science push of Harper in Canada and some US Republicans?

During the election campaign Abbott signalled that his government would shift $103 million from “increasingly ridiculous research grants awarded after expert review by the Australian Research Council” to medical research. This policy seems to align with Harper in completely misunderstanding how science works, and will unfortunately stifle its potential to bring forward innovative ideas and technologies for Australia.

Although no one knows exactly what research will be the most revolutionary, without funding a diverse array of research we virtually guarantee that the biggest discoveries will never come.

By questioning everything and probing of humanity’s most difficult challenges, science has always been a natural ally to liberal democracies – not the left or the right. The pursuit of free thought, no matter how diverse, is the foundation for society to test new ideas, dismiss some and eventually adopt those where evidence supports it.

Yet when politicians don’t like what science is suggesting, they tend to tar it with the brush of their ideological enemies. On the left, genetic research by the CSIRO is part of a Monsanto corporate conspiracy. On the right, climate research is part of some Greenpeace-led socialist march. But fundamentally, you can’t support a liberal, free-minded scientific society and then dismiss proven evidence that you might not like to hear.

Abolishing anything relating to climate science or carbon doesn’t make Tony Abbott anti-science, since science is far larger than just climate. Abolishing science as a Cabinet portfolio by itself doesn’t make him disrespectful of the importance of science and researchers. Even signalling political cuts and oversight of “futile” research doesn’t imply that he misunderstands how science works.

But taken together, it’s anxious times for science and research in Australia, especially as similar actions were taken by Harper when he became Canada’s leader.

Ben McNeil is a senior research fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of NSW, and founder of thinkable.org.