Science battles for recognition in Canberra


Generally speaking the Abbott government lacks recognition of science, to the point where its stance can be characterised as anti-science. That is certainly the case in climate science, but can be seen in many other ways, not least in the use of science infrastructure funding as a pawn in the political wars over how university teaching should be funded. Certainly too, the Abbott government lacks an appreciation of the contribution science and mathematics can make to transitioning out of our dependence on mining and other product exports in the economy.

In this context the Chief Scientist and the Australian Academy of Science commissioned a report The Importance of Advanced Physical and Mathematical Sciences to the Australian Economy. The report was produced by the Centre for International Economics (CIE).

The aim has been to produce an economic framework that can use the available statistics and economic modelling techniques to provide a timely reminder of how much of our national economic activity depends on the advanced physical and mathematical sciences (the APM sciences). The APM sciences comprise physics, chemistry, the earth sciences and the mathematical sciences, where ‘advanced’ means science undertaken and applied in the past 20 years. Biology and the life sciences were not covered in the report.

The direct contribution of the APM sciences is estimated to be 11% (or about $145 billion per year of the Australian economy). The contribution in additional and flow-on benefits equals another 11%, bringing the total benefits to 22% or around $292 billion per year.

This exercise was not helped by Age journalist Gareth Hutchens with an article entitled Australia’s scientists forced to rely on pseudo-science to be taken seriously in Canberra starting with:

It’s a shame that scientists have to stoop so low.

Climate scientist Roger Jones defended the report and its progenitors in a blog post.

We can all agree, Hutchens included, that it is a disgrace that such a report should be felt necessary for science to be taken seriously by those govern and plan for our future. There should be no need for a “timely reminder”; our leaders should have science and knowledge-based industries front and centre in their thinking. But to dump on the report in the way Hutchens does is in my view inflammatory, derogatory and misleading in that it gives the impression that the exercise was worthless. What Hutchens calls “guesses” were in fact informed estimates by the most knowledgeable people available.

In large part Hutchens is entering with hob-nailed boots the old argument of how much science there is in economics. I don’t know enough science or economics to usefully contribute, but Hutchens own account of the methodology used suggests a disciplined and rational approach.