Doomed Planet

Greening science

First published in The Greens: Policies, Reality and Consequences, edited by Andrew McIntyre (Connor Court, 2011).

“Green” policy on science and technology: an exercise in the politically correct

I always imagined the political wing of the Greens to contain lots of academics and would-be academics, and as a consequence expected a certain amount of originality in their approach to science and technology.  At the very least I hoped for some small willingness to question the more naïve beliefs and propaganda attached to the subject. Sadly, there is no evidence of it in their formal policy. 

Their policy tells us for instance that we should increase expenditure on research and development (R&D) to at least the OECD-average fraction of gross domestic product (GDP). In particular we should expand the research capacity of Australian universities, and the funding of the Australian Research Council that supports them. It seems as well that we need to increase the proportion of funding allocated to pure and ‘public good’ research.

All of which sounds reasonable when said quickly enough. Certainly it is typical of the recommendations normally made by scientists to any official enquiry into management of their activity. The fact that it is quite self-serving is obscured by an almost religious feeling that, as far as science is concerned, more is always better. Well maybe.

One can at least wonder what is so magical about the OECD-average fraction of GDP devoted to research and development. No doubt the countries involved continually adjust towards that fraction in order not to be too far away from some sort of ‘normal’, but it’s a good bet that none of them really knows why. And no doubt their politicians are provided with graphs showing that, across countries, GDP tends to increase with R&D. Maybe it does in a rough sort of way, but in terms of cause and effect one should probably say instead that R&D depends on, and increases with, GDP. In which case there is nothing to suggest that any particular level of R&D is best.

As for the amount of pure research in the national mix of R&D, Australia is already punching well above its GDP weight.  Having a too-high proportion of pure research was recognized as a serious Australian problem more than two decades ago, and was the main reason for the establishment of the industrially focussed, and highly successful, Cooperative Research Centres.  The Greens’ expressed desire now to alter the focus of the Centres seems rather strange.

One issue with the ‘more is better’ philosophy, at least in Australia, is that the universities are already producing new PhDs at a rate probably 5 to 10 times greater than is required by the real market for them.  Bear in mind that well over half the market consists of the universities themselves. They need PhDs so they can train more PhDs.  There is a feedback problem here, and the Greens’ policy of throwing more money at the universities and the Australian Research Council is unlikely to fix it. The problem has already created an over-supply of research scientists, which in turn has led, in this country at least, to a disastrously competitive publish-or-perish situation.  Depth and quality of research have been sacrificed in the rush. This, together with a sort of scientific inbreeding that is also a result of too many scientists, sits fairly badly with the Greens’ explicit desire for ‘world class’ research.                                                           

Still in terms of general principle, it seems that “government has responsibility for developing the ethical framework in which scientific research is conducted”. One really has to wonder about that. At the most mundane level, the servicing of ethics committees is a growth industry in both universities and government laboratories.  It consumes great amounts of money and resource.  It is an industry that has emerged primarily by government fiat, and expands by virtue of the knee-jerk reaction of any bureaucracy to a litigious society. It contributes little that could not be achieved by writing a book of rules on the subject and requiring all scientists to read it.  Any difficulties after that would rapidly sort themselves out once one or two scientists were fired for stepping over the ethical line.

But the main problem is that the term ‘ethical framework’ means different things to different people. A formally established framework would open lots of possibilities for government to impose its own peculiar view of what should be the national way of life.  It is of course reasonable that a government should be in the business of codifying an ethical system that has grown naturally from within the national consciousness.  It is entirely unreasonable that it should be in the business of developing ethical principles from scratch. It may be that the Greens imagine their idea of an ethical principle is better than that of the general population, but others would probably doubt it.

Apparently also, “government has an important role to play in the development of scientific knowledge”. Well it does at the moment of course, but whether it should have such a role is an entirely different matter. There are a fair number of knowledgeable people who believe that much better science – including science for the public good, whatever that means – would be provided by private organizations.  The knowledgeable people may be wrong, but the Greens’ uncritical acceptance of the need for government involvement, apparently without a great deal of thought, smacks more of left-wing naivety than anything in the way of principle.

Think for a moment about the Greens’ preference for ‘research for the public good’. I am not sure what exactly they mean by the term, but it’s a good bet that it would be something built around environmental science. Which seems reasonable at face value, except that environmental science has become the exemplar of what is known as ‘post normal science’ – that is, a science where ‘facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decisions are urgent’. In short, it is an ill-defined mix of science and politics.   It is then but a short step into the realm of ‘post modern science’, where research results are valid only in the context of society’s beliefs, and where the very existence of scientific truth can be denied.  One can imagine this as a sort of political nirvana in which scientific theory and results are manipulated to suit the policies of the government of the day.

A fanciful state of affairs you say, and surely not one that is likely to happen?

Sadly, the scenario is already with us. The issue of climate change is now the classic example of post-normal science, originated and serviced by a research machine funded massively and almost entirely by a government department dedicated to drastic alteration of society in the name of fixing the ‘problem’ of global warming. There is almost no avenue, and certainly no funded avenue, for researchers to question the science or policy behind what has become a prime example of unthinking pursuit of the politically correct. 

One gets an overall impression that, while paying lip service to the benefits of innovative technology, the Greens’ policy is really designed to encase any new technology in a straightjacket of government restriction. To be fair, I suppose there is some consistency in their policy. One of their stated principles is an expectation that new technology will create many more high-paying jobs. And that is probably true if one thinks in terms of the many new public service positions that would undoubtedly be required to service and supervise the development of the latest machines. However it is questionable whether the existence of new technology would necessarily create lots more jobs in the technology itself. And if it did, it would probably displace jobs from some other avenue of employment.

Which brings us to the specific subject of nanotechnology, about which the Greens seem obsessed. At least half–a-dozen of their proposed measures have to do with the real or imagined negative outcomes of nanotechnology development. The most revealing of their worries appears as one of their goals – namely, that the Australian Greens will support mechanisms that “prevent or mitigate a nanotechnology divide that magnifies existing socio-economic inequities”. What on Earth does that mean? Are we talking about inequity as a result of the possession by one country or one company of a technology that is superior to that of another? If so, we must presume that the whole philosophy of competition as an engine of innovation has to be abandoned. This, more than anything else, would ensure that the golden goose is dissuaded from laying its golden eggs!! 

From Andrew McIntyre, editor, The Greens: Policies, Reality and Consequences (Connor Court, 2011). Buy here…

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