June 29, 2008

Scientists Mute at 2020 Summit

By Anonymous

The voices of science were drowned out when 1000 of Australia's brightest minds discussed ideas for the nation's future. Six years ago this magazine launched conScience, an opinion column to give Australians an outlet "for expressing forthright views on national issues". The first columnist was Bryan Gaensler, a young Australian astronomer making a mark with his discoveries from his base at Harvard University.

Under the headline "Time for Scientists to Rock the Boat", Gaensler urged his fellows to become proactive in public affairs. Looking home, Gaensler wrote: "What is lacking is a national presence. Many of the qualities of a successful scientist - intelligence, integrity and clarity of thought - are precisely those needed to make a useful contribution to the topics of current debate."

Now back in Australia as a Federation Fellow and Professor at the University of Sydney, Gaensler was the sole researchactive scientist in the Productivity "stream" at Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's 2020 Ideas Summit in April. The Productivity streams agenda included "education, skills, training, science and innovation", and the organisers told participants they were not representing institutional interests or specialist lobbies - making this a perfect occasion for genuinely disinterested "ideas" to be chewed over, refined and applied.

Gaensler's account of how science was "lost in translation" at the Summit (see p.6) is a sharp indication that not much has changed in the 6 years since his column. Apart from Gaensler and a few like- minded colleagues in his discussion group, the voice of science was mute.

While institutions spend big on "communication" to promote their research, the fundamental values of science as the essential bedrock of economic and social development are seldom explained. Australian science sorely needs some persistent and articulate champions who can inspire young Australians to recognise and apply the values of science and its methods evidence-gathering and formulating and testing theories in open debate.

Is it too much to hope that the rare conjunction of major appointments currently in play - the Chief Scientist and Chief Executives of CSIRO and ANSTO - will throw up at least one highly credentialled scientist who can speak out persistendy as a true champion of science?

Copyright Control Publications Pty Ltd Jun 2008

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