Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Yes, Science Minister

By Ian Lowe

The merry-go-round of science ministers raises concerns about instability.

Australia has a new science minister, the fourth in the past 18 months. The Academy of Science’s secretary for science policy, Prof Les Field, noted: “This is the kind of instability that would typically raise a red flag, especially for a sector like science where training, work programs, infrastructure requirements and outcomes all have timeframes much longer than election cycles”.

Some of us remember golden ages of stability, such as when Barry Jones was minister for more than 7 years or Kim Carr for more than 4 years. In the British TV program Yes, Minister, the wily bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby said that reshuffles kept ministers “on the hop” and avoided the danger of politicians knowing enough about their portfolio to challenge the advice they received. That was certainly true of Barry Jones.

Arthur Sinodinos comes to the portfolio with a chequered past, marked by his inability to recall questionable financial dealings when called before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. But he does have a reputation for being an effective political operator. The science community will be hoping to see that in action.

Sinodinos’ recent predecessors have laid some important groundwork. In December 2015, Christopher Pyne announced the National Science and Innovation Agenda. This promised 10 years of funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme. That program has funded 27 projects in a wide range of scientific fields including nanotechnology, astronomy and genetics.

Greg Hunt took over the role of science minister after the 2016 election in July. During his short period in the office, Hunt pledged to support the innovation agenda and increase public sector research spending, as well as saying he hoped to increase private sector spending on innovation.

A critical indicator of progress will be the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, which is due to be finalised in the next few months. Canberra-watchers have expressed concern that the current government plans to reduce its budget problems by raiding the Education Investment Fund, which was established by the ALP government 9 years ago to support research infrastructure.

It will be an early test of Sinodinos as the new minister to see whether he is able to obtain the funding needed for science and commercial innovation.

It made headlines recently when the “Doomsday Clock” was shifted to a new setting of two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the nearest the clock has been to midnight for more than 50 years. The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said that “the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon”.

Ten years ago, the Bulletin added climate change to its historic focus on the threat of nuclear weapons. It should be an urgent warning to world leaders.

As if to reinforce the message, we are seeing more disturbing reports about the impacts of climate change. US scientists have been monitoring the huge Zachariae Isstrom glacier in Greenland. It began to melt rapidly in 2012 and is now crumbling into the Atlantic Ocean, losing ice at a staggering rate of 4.5 billion tonnes per year. The researchers believe that the glacier will continue retreating at a rate of more than 1 km/year until it reaches a ridge about 30 km inland.

A neighbouring large glacier is also melting rapidly. The two contain enough ice to raise global sea levels by about 1 metre.

Closer to home, Australian researchers have shown that five uninhabited islands in the Solomons have disappeared as a result of rising sea levels. They were all small, low-lying islands, ranging in size from one to five hectares.

More significantly, on two other islands in the archipelago whole villages have been destroyed and people forced to relocate. Worst hit was the island Nuatambu, reported to have lost half its inhabitable area and 11 houses. Several of the displaced people have moved to a nearby volcanic island that is higher above sea level. On another island, Nararo, affected villagers have been able to retreat inland to higher ground.

The collaborative study by scientists from four Australian universities concluded that this was hard evidence of the impacts of sea level rise, rather than inappropriate development.

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