You can tell something isn’t right when a new Prime Minister starts their term by showing scientists the door. It demonstrates an alarming shift in priorities and a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of science in a democracy.
Let’s do a stock take of the damage. As of last week there will be no Minister for Science in Cabinet for the first time in 82 years. The Climate Change Commission, an independent body designed to promote climate change science, will be closed. The Climate Change Authority, responsible for managing emissions reduction schemes, will be shut down as soon as possible and there will, of course, be no minister responsible for climate change. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation, set up to direct $10 billion worth of investment into renewable energy technology, will be scrapped. Meanwhile the responsibilities of these groups will be simply neglected or absorbed into the Ministries for Environment and Industry.
Science has attained an elevated position in our society because it is engaged in the rigorous and painstaking task of producing objective knowledge based on hard evidence. It is easy to see why Abbott might find this activity a threat to his agenda. Despite the consensus of climate experts on the urgency of action, Abbott has spent the last six years blocking any meaningful climate change policy. He clearly intends to free himself from independent scrutiny by smashing the structures set up to promote the voice of scientists in decision making.
The Abbott Government harbours many climate change sceptics but the spillover of their ideology to all aspects of science is surprising and deeply troubling. Nobel Laureate and astrophysicist, Brian Schmidt, described the lack of a Minister for Science as “disconcerting” and, like many other scientists, is worried that a fragmented government structure will fail to deliver the policy changes required to support long-term research projects. When planning scientific enterprises, researchers require stability. They need to be confident that funding will not be pulled halfway through the project or at the end of a three-year election cycle. Procuring equipment, establishing international partnerships, and planning complicated technical procedures can only be done if financial support is guaranteed. The lack of a dedicated body to manage future research and effectively react to issues is indeed a loss to the scientific community.
For a self-confessed hardcore conservative, Abbott is doing his best to shake things up in Canberra. The omission of a Science Minister and the collapse of government bodies associated with climate change will keep the government and the public in the dark about crucial issues affecting the future of this country. It is as if Abbott has simply dismissed the central role of science in human progress as well as the power of using scientific research to inform government decisions.