Science Is Not Consensus

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					Science Is Not Consensus
                                                       BOB CARTER

            HE ideas that science          particularly egregious example epito-      that these fields are more important

   T        should work in society’s
            interests, that scientists
            should be accountable or
                                           mizes the problem, which is the hope-
                                           lessly inadequate understanding which
                                           both the Queensland and Federal
                                                                                      than others? Who picks the winners?
                                                                                          Those who usurp to themselves
                                                                                      the authority to pronounce one or an-
that scarce research money should be       Governments exhibit about the end-         other discipline field as of national
spent on science that is useful or fits    less phantom threats generated by en-      interest at the expense of another—
national priorities are apparently in-     vironmental crusaders about the Great      or, worse, at the expense of funding
nocent, reasonable ideas. Yet these are    Barrier Reef.                              for the enabling and basic sciences—
wrong assertions, and their implemen-          As a mechanism for concentrat-         exhibit a breathtaking, albeit often
tation has profoundly damaged              ing a scientist’s mind, however,           innocent, arrogance. Such funding
Australia’s research capabilities.         project, rather than baseline, funding     mechanisms produce the anticipated
    Between the 1950s and the 1970s,       can’t be bettered. It provides a mas-      result, which is, along with some suc-
Australia built a national capability      sive incentive for writing project re-     cesses, the support of much politically
in science which, given the small size     ports which, in one guise or another,      popular, bureaucratic and mediocre
of the population, was outstanding. At     always discover the need for more          science. On the plus side, particularly
that time, leadership in science mat-      money to be spent on this or that al-      for the newspaper and advertising in-
ters often came from CSIRO or uni-         lied problem. And if an allied prob-       dustries, the move towards funding
versity researchers, but excellent         lem can’t be identified, then the          special centres has admittedly seen
science was also accomplished within       fertility of human imagination is such     the generation of a new national in-
many State or Federal government           that a new one always can be; the so-      dustry of Scientific Public Relations.
agencies. As an example, all States        lution of which, coincidentally, usu-      Such PR offices have now propagated
supported some type of geological sur-     ally requires just the training and        throughout the University sector and
vey organization (often under the um-      expertise possessed by the report          the scientific civil service, and their
brella of a Department of Mines or         writer or by some of his or her profes-    staffs vie to provide frisbee-science
Primary Industry), which was respon-       sional dependants. Ably assisted by        stories to reporters who generally have
sible for systematic geological map-       environmental scare campaigners, our       neither the time nor the skills to write
ping and mineral and other resource        governments have become truly              accurately judged science stories from
surveys, and which provided the gov-       world-class at problem generation.         scratch themselves.
ernment with generally dispassionate           Regrettably, such politicization of        The university research funding
advice on related matters.                 science has not been confined to the       that came to be directed into special
    With the 1980s, however, came a        government service. Under the guise        centres and areas was, in general, not
restructuring of the way in which such     of competitive excellence, similar         the fruit of a new tree. Rather—in the
groups operated. Public-good pro-          methods are increasingly being ap-         typical zero-sum exercise that has for
gramme funding for the activities of       plied by national research funding         too long kept Australia’s R&D below
government science agencies shrank,        agencies to manage university re-          1 per cent of GDP at times when in-
and was replaced by funding for indi-      searchers. In the past, these agencies     telligent nations spend more than 2 per
vidual projects with limited lifetimes,    have generally made a sound invest-        cent and aim for a target of 3 per
a management technique which turns         ment of their (our) money, with laud-      cent—the money has been in part re-
out to be in large part responsible also   able scientific outcomes, by calling for   directed from the insultingly termed
for the ongoing imbroglio at the Aus-      applications in all areas of knowledge     ‘welfare’ or ‘margarine’ (a little, spread
tralian Museum. An individual scien-       and funding only those of the highest      thinly, for everyone) research funding
tist’s salary thus often comes to be       quality. Since the 1980s, however,         which used, properly, to be allocated
funded as a part-charge against several    more and more research money has           to nearly all university staff. ‘Properly’,
different projects, and when a project     been directed into special interest        first, because the competitive nature
ends, so does the salary. So, too, comes   centres of one type or another, and        of their appointment ensures that, with
an abrupt end to the chances of a gov-     into tagged areas of alleged ‘national     very rare exceptions, all university staff
ernment getting disinterested advice       interest’ such as genetic engineering      have the ability and training to accom-

on science matters of the day. One         or microelectronics. But who is to say     plish productive research; second, be-

DECEMBER 2003                                                                                                                 11
cause it is an established pragmatic          well-meaning, often doesn’t know            or from any of our much-vaunted Co-
principle of economics that the first         what is best. Our skepticism about ex-      operative Research Centres which
allocated dollars are always the most         perts should also be sharpened by the       hasn’t been tweaked and tuned to ex-
cost-efficient; and, third, because such      splendid misjudgements that they so         tract the maximum press (and there-
funding has proved to provide huge            often make, as when a former Chair-         fore public) interest. Global warming
multiplier and productivity benefits.         man of IBM estimated in the 1950s           alarms are followed by biodiversity
    Formerly, in the 1970s, a small           that there would be a market for 5–6        alarms are followed by salinity alarms
amount of annual funding of this type         computers in the whole world.               are followed by rising sea-level alarms
was made available to nearly all re-              The result of a ‘picking winners’       are followed by destruction of the
search-active university staff. The           process, inevitably, is to provoke a des-   Great Barrier Reef alarms. Why? Be-
funds provided a needed stimulus for          perate scramble by scientists to justify    cause governments no longer employ
research output, and had a markedly           their own expertise in terms of the         or support scientists to do the science
beneficial effect on the standard of                                                      which interests them, but rather to do
both teaching and research in univer-                                                     the science which government—using
sities. To achieve support for their re-                                                  a magical insight that no normal mor-
search today, university staff are               Current public                           tal would claim—adjudges to be im-
required to compete in an annual                                                          portant. To capture government’s
round of grant applications through           debates in Australia                        attention, and funding, requires the
the Australian Research Council. This                                                     generation of a crisis in one of these
system, although of historic excellence
                                               on matters such as                         politically sensitive areas. And for a
and still excellent in principle, is                                                      government employee to speak out
grossly underfunded. Each year, the
                                              GM food, the health                         against a prevailing science or societal
Council has to brand as failures four         of the Great Barrier                        wisdom which generates research
out of every five research grant appli-                                                   money for his employing agency is,
cations submitted from amongst the
cleverest and best trained persons in
                                              Reef, and the reality                       rightly, perceived to be professional
                                                                                          suicide. Thus did our venerable
Australia. Research skills and experi-         of climate change,                         handmaiden, science, become a sex-
ence which many applicants have                                                           worker.
spent decades of unpaid overtime hon-         are irredeemably in                             Government is aided in its aims to
ing are thereby deemed not worthy of                                                      control science directions by the gen-
support. You do not need a degree in            the hands of the                          erally uncritical nature of the press and
psychology to understand the corrosive                                                    public. That nothing sells newspapers
damage that such a system inflicts.               spinmeisters                            like a good public alarm is seldom lost
Lacking support for their research ac-                                                    on editors, who, with a few honourable
tivity, university staff, cynical and dis-                                                exceptions, do not employ journalists
illusioned, retreat to their weekenders       nearest ‘winner category’, and the loss     who are competent to separate science
for a spot of fishing where—unlike in         of the type of disinterested scientific     hype from science bullshit. For in-
the shark-pool of ‘winner-take-all’ re-       advice which has hitherto been a vi-        stance, during the recent heated pub-
search grant competition—there is at          tal part of the way our democracy           lic debate on GM-food in New
least a likelihood that they will catch       worked. Such disinterested advice is        Zealand, the Royal Society of New
something.                                    now a part of history. It has been re-      Zealand commented that ‘what is so
    Profoundly unfashionable though it        placed by science advocacy and spin         alarming about the debacle is the stun-
is to say so, it is in Australia’s national   to such a degree that many of the pub-      ning degree of scientific illiteracy (or
interest that (in addition to increas-        lic have lost their trust in science al-    wilful ignorance) which was demon-
ing the pool of competitive large-grant       together. Robert May, President of the      strated amongst so many of the com-
moneys) small-grant research funding          Royal Society of London, describes          mentators who joined the feeding
should be restored for all university         ‘the resulting crisis in public trust’ as   frenzy’.
staff. Instead, the focus of attention is     ‘one of the greatest challenges facing          Rather than employ scientists
on ever larger grants for ever fewer sci-     scientific policy-makers today’.            whose aim is to find out about the
ence superstars or supercentres. More             Current public debates in Austra-       world because it interests them, gov-
than 300 years of experience should           lia—or what passes for them—on mat-         ernment agencies now instead employ
have taught us that progress in science       ters such as GM food, the health of         managers whose aim is to tell us, of-
is not achieved through picking win-          the Great Barrier Reef, and the real-       ten at the behest of environmental-
ners or via ‘Mummy knows best’                ity of climate change, are irredeemably     ists, how we can and can’t enjoy our
mechanisms. Every teenager under-             in the hands of the spinmeisters. Nary      natural heritage. Witness the audac-
stands that Mummy, though always              a press release issues forth from CSIRO     ity of the Great Barrier Reef Marine

                                                                                                               REV I EW
12                                                                                                                DECEMBER 2003
Park Authority as it endeavours to            policy on research funding has, for 20          As is often the case in human af-
place huge areas of the reef tract out-       years now, been heading resolutely in       fairs, it is relatively easy to diagnose
of-bounds in the absence of a skerrick        the opposite direction.                     the ‘research funding problem’ in Aus-
of scientific justification. As in this ex-       To the extent that it is possible for   tralia. In resource terms it can be sum-
ample, ‘alarms’ have become both a            any human endeavour to be so, science       marized as ‘too little to too few under
necessary and sufficient mechanism by         is value-free. Science is a way of at-      too much managerial control’. In the
which scientists and science manag-           tempting to understand the world in         current political environment it is,
ers raise their funding in Australia to-      which we live from a rational point of      however, not easy to redress this situ-
day. Most active scientists are only too      view, based on observation, experi-         ation.
well aware of the problem, but say            ment and tested theory. Irritatingly,           Science itself is far too important
nothing, not least because speaking           especially for governments, science         for the future of the nation for it to be
out may carry the loss of their job or        does not operate by consensus and it        left to politicians who make a virtue
research funding. As Barry Jones              is often best progressed by mavericks.      of not understanding it, to news edi-
pointed out ‘The public intellectual is       The alternative to a scientific ap-         tors whose prime interest is in circu-
in retreat. We have more paid academ-         proach is one based on superstition,        lation figures, or to environmentalists
ics (in Australia) than at any time in        phobia, religion or politics. These al-     who purposely misrepresent it. Yet it
history, but across the nation they           ternatives are abundantly on display in     is mainly through the eyes of these
have fallen strangely silent’. ‘Trust me,     the activities of the green political       three groups that the average citizen
I’m a scientist’ used to be a proud and       groups, and in general they are neither     today views scientific matters.
genuine claim; it has passed into his-        productive nor pretty. Though claim-            Australia needs a declared spend-
tory as a hollow cynicism.                    ing to base their concerns on scientific    ing target of at least 2 per cent of GDP
    In industry, experienced executive                                                    on research and development, to-
managers understand that much of the                                                      gether with a strategy for achieving
money that they spend on advertising          Disinterested advice                        that figure. At the same time, there
is wasted, in the sense that it has little                                                should be less emphasis on the support
effect on consumer spending. If only          … is now a part of                          of scientific superstars and special re-
one could know in advance which par-                                                      search centres, a significant increase
ticular advertising strategy would be         history. It has been                        in funding for research in the basic and
successful, large sums of money could                                                     enabling sciences and for research in-
be saved. That such advance knowl-            replaced by science                         frastructure, and a restoration of some
edge is generally impossible is the                                                       type of minimal-grant funding for all
source of great sustenance to the ad-          advocacy and spin                          active researchers employed in public
vertising industry. And as it is with ad-                                                 institutions. As part of such changes,
vertising, so it is with science. If we         to such a degree                          larger research awards from the com-
invest in 100 research flowers, then                                                      petitive pool should continue to be
perhaps one will bloom. We do not,
                                                that many of the                          judged on the basis of excellence, but
and cannot, know in advance which                public have lost                         without constraints as to the field of
one. Therefore, the sensible invest-                                                      endeavour to which they apply.
ment strategy is to ensure that the               their trust in                              Picking a few winners not only of-
most excellent scientists and propos-                                                     ten doesn’t work. It also creates a
als are funded irrespective of their pre-      science altogether                         highly cynical and disillusioned atti-
cise discipline field. For in this way,                                                   tude amongst the losers, and results in
‘the random walk of science is pre-                                                       a decreased national productivity
served by the best young researchers          evidence, and intending thereby to          which runs into billions of dollars an-
deciding what they wish to do, not            occupy the moral high ground, many          nually plus unquantifiable opportunity
what bureaucrats and older scientists         environmental organizations are in          costs. For these reasons, if for no oth-
tell them to do’ (John Dewey, accep-          fact abusers of scientific process. For     ers, the time has come for Australia
tance speech on the award of the              instance, their crusading attitude to       to fund its scientists properly again.
Penrose Medal, 1992). Dewey added             the irrational Kyoto Protocol
                                                                                              Professor Bob Carter is a geologist and marine
that ‘our whole system should be              prompted the comment from a former           scientist with more than 30 years of experience in
geared toward trusting and supporting         President of the Mineralogical Society        active research. He has served on many national
clever young people with their own            of America that ‘the idea that humans          and international research funding and research
ideas rather than in designing projects       have significantly enhanced global                     management organizations,including the
                                                                                                               Australian Research Council.
that constrain and shackle them’. He          warming is by far the most massive
is, of course, quite right, and it is di-     abuse of science that I have ever seen’
sastrous that Australia’s national            (Malcolm Ross, interview, June 1997).                                                 I P A

DECEMBER 2003                                                                                                                             13

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