Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Science is not in Australia’s future

The Australian Prime Minister announced today that it had picked the steering committee for its “Australia 2020” meeting- a long term brainstorming meeting to be held here in Canberra later this year. Having caught bits and pieces of it (mostly criticisms of the 10-1 gender imbalance) on the radio, I started to compose in my head an entry on how to mount a blog-based populist campaign to get at least some young researchers into the conference. Australian academia in general, and geology in particular, is shockingly inbred, so from the snippets I heard on the radio, it appeared that the conference was shaping up to be an establishment, closed shop sort of thing. I figured that there would be one, possibly several crusty old scientists designated with the responsibility of guiding the country’s research goals for the next 12 years. The reality was far grimmer, though.

Science is not even on the agenda. None of the focus areas address Australia’s brain drain, stagnant research funding, inbred university system, or educational deficiencies. There is no mention at all of primary research. And the areas for which applied science is relevant are run by non-scientists. There is a sustainability area, but it is headed by a former public servant. The head of the technology area is politician.

There is only one scientist in the selection committee. Professor Michael Good is a malaria specialist who now heads the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. But his area of scientific expertise has little to do with his focus area, which is, “A long-term national health strategy.” Neither are there public figures who happened to study science in college before becoming famous for unrelated reasons (e.g. Colin Powell).

There is also nobody from the resource industry represented, despite the fact that mining constitutes about 6% of the economy and 35% of the country’s export market. But that is not such a huge problem. We know how to find and dig stuff up already. The question is how the government thinks it can transition from a resource-based economy to a modern one, while ignoring science. When the conference was announced, Kevin Rudd said he wanted the "best and brightest". Obviously people who unlock the secrets of the universe for a living don't fall into that category.

The committee members, and their focus areas, are listed here:

• Professor Glyn Davis - Chair
• Dr David Morgan - Future directions for the Australian economy
• Warwick Smith - Economic infrastructure, the digital economy and the future of our cities
• Roger Beale AO - Population, sustainability, climate change, and water
• Tim Fischer AC - Future directions for rural industries and rural communities
• Professor Michael Good - A long-term national health strategy
• Tim Costello AO - Strengthening communities, supporting families and social inclusion
• Dr Kelvin Kong - Options for the future of indigenous Australia
• Cate Blanchett - Towards a creative Australia
• John Hartigan - The future of Australian governance
• Professor Michael Wesley - Australia's future security and prosperity in a rapidly changing region and world

And if you wanted to know what they studied in college, it is:

• Professor Glyn Davis – Political Science
• Dr David Morgan - Economics
• Warwick Smith - Law
• Roger Beale AO – History and Law
• Tim Fischer AC – none (Vietnam campus of Hard Knocks)
• Professor Michael Good - Medicine
• Tim Costello AO - Law
• Dr Kelvin Kong - Medicine
• Cate Blanchett - Drama
• John Hartigan - ?Journalism? (no web biography, AFAIK-WTF)
• Professor Michael Wesley – International Relations

Twenty20 summit web page


Chris said...

As someone who's about to move to Australia to put my geology training to use in the hot, stinking outback, I'm rather surprised at this list of people. When I heard Australia's best and brightest would be represented at this conference, I thought "They're going to have to pick some of the talented geology folk from ANU to represent learned opinion on important subjects such as the mining industry." But alas, your analysis of those attending leaves me wondering where Australia's actual best and brightest might be meeting. And then I stopped wondering, because they're likely in the same places New Zealand's best and brightest are - probably in Europe, where science is regarded as important.

Chuck said...

A fair few are actually in Canada, and I think some of the astronomers end up in the US. And as Asia develops, some people are starting to trickle up there.