Do Australians care about science?

Well Canadians do (apparently); and they do more than just about anyone else. See the release today posted on http://cnw.ca/He1J3; reporting on a study commissioned by the Council of Canadian Academies.

The Council  – ” an independent, not-for-profit organization that began operation in 2005. [it] supports evidence-based, expert assessments to inform public policy development in Canada. Assessments are conducted by independent, multidisciplinary panels of experts from across Canada and abroad. [its] blue-ribbon panels serve free of charge and many are Fellows of the Council’s Member Academies: the Royal Society of Canada; the Canadian Academy of Engineering; and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. The Council’s vision is to be a trusted voice for science in the public interest.

The manner of summarising bears some examination, but that aside, the message it conveys is worthy of reflection, given that its Australian counterpart has this month embarked on a new exercise to measure the dollar contribution of the core sciences to the Australian economy.

The Australian Chief Scientist has asked the Australian Academy of Sciences to devise an Australian version of recently released report into contribution of the Mathematical Sciences to the UK economy (conducted for the Royal Society by the accounting firm Deloites). AAS has in turn commissioned the Centre of International Economics to undertake this assignment for the core Australian science disciplines – interpreted as mathematics, physics, chemistry and earth sciences.

It is the inverse question to that posed in Canada: not whether people rank science as important in their world view and whether they are equipped to understand the scientific ramifications in public policy, but rather how much of our present propserity do we owe to ‘new’ science, and so the value of science as an activity or infrastructure in the policy field.

In other words why it is perhaps dangerous for the public to be unconcerned about science done in its name, or to support activities impinging on social cohesion and the ordinary enjoyment of life; why a disinvestment in science as a nationally recognised activity – in secondary and tertiary education; in public and private research – may be more than a little dangerous. 

The most direct way to make this argument is to map current economic activity in relation to reliance on a science base. The absence of that base can then be seen to come at a measurable cost, that can be weighed against other calls on government.

It could well be that Australians unknowingly have been enjoying the benefits of past investment in science, but have been excluded from or left behind in scientific literacy to secure the investment, leaving us exposed and languishing – as the Canadian report by extension indicates.

And what about statistics?

Should not our national agencies be monitoring not only the financial and material investment in science – the knowledge economy – but as well the human investment? The value – moral as much as ethical or monetary of knowing about the world and our place in it. How can people and their representatives be aware of the role of science in their lives, and the role of scientific evidence in decisions without an objective official statistical frame?

The Office of the Chief Scientist may stand in for a “Council of Academies” that can supply briefs to the political process on implications of foundational research (and why this is critical to the future – industrial and social). Certainly the present initiative could be said to concord with the role that the CCA has mapped for itself in Canada. Neither however will be effective without expert guidance in the planning, collection, extraction, accumulation, interpretation, presentation and use of official statistics.

But official statistics is here to be interpreted more broadly than usual: clearly agency collections are hostage to a conservative interpretation: as set out in legislation and circumscribed by a heirarchy of users and a diminishing budget.

What is needed is official statistics as embraced as an area of expertise, of objective and constructive advice, working with public interest organisations in parallel with the portfolio responsibility of government, but not limited to priorities set from government; instead addressing the domain of public policy, in the sense used by the CCA.

Furthermore representatives of the discipline of official statistics can act as (and be seen as) a ‘disinterested party’ alongside the core professions; the institutions of organised science; the enthusiastic advocacy of citizens for policy enlightened by good research, whether local or global, and not coloured by wishful thinking or distorted lenses applied to partial data, typical in the constraints of public advocacy.

Your ideas?

Stephen Horn       

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