Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 08:27 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 08:27 | SYDNEY

Bridging science and politics

19 November 2010 16:19

Matt Hill is a Lowy Institute intern in the Global Issues Program. A New Zealand Freyberg Scholar, he recently completed a Master's in Strategic Studies at the ANU.

Last night was the occasion for the 2010 Lowy Lecture, the highlight of the Institute’s calendar. Dr. Megan Clark, Chief Executive of CSIRO, the Commonwealth's premier science and technology institution, provided a fascinating overview of the startling advances being generated by Australia's scientists. The lecture also dwelt on the relationship between scientific research and our collective engagement with emerging social, environmental, and economic challenges.

A theme that jumped out at me from Dr. Clark's presentation was the question of strategic direction and leadership in public research. As a species, we inhabit a continuous, global ecosystem, nited by the products of technology. In turn, we are utterly dependent on science to manage the diversity, complexity, and magnitude of human possibilities. While our understanding and appreciation of physical reality is increasingly nuanced, the practical challenges of finite resources imply a need to make hard choices about the scientific and technological paths we pursue. The private sector and market-driven innovation will provide many new tools to aid our progress in the decades ahead. But there exists a strong demand for the public sector to fund those initiatives, particularly in the areas of basic science, frequently beyond the reach of the profit motive.

This raises the question as to how we should arrive at decisions on the direction of publicly–funded research, and how that research should then shape our national agenda. Scientists themselves are obviously best placed to appreciate the technical opportunities and constraints of our understanding of the physical world. Yet at the same time, the actual definition of challenges and opportunities requires a judgment on the ‘good’ of individuals, of societies, and increasingly, of the species. There is an inescapable moral element inherent in shaping the strategic direction of scientific research and application that necessarily locates it in the political sphere.

In a democratic society, this implies that the strategic direction of science and technology must be integrated with the input of the populace, through their elected representatives. Ideally, scientists lay out a technical understanding of the world to the public, whose values and interests provide a basis for the political prioritisation of research programs. New discoveries in turn reshape society, and ultimately their values and interests, which then shape a new political direction of public research. 

The problem is that this dialectical interaction between science and politics is imperfect. It all too frequently breaks down when the complexity of scientific phenomena collides with perceptions of fundamental values. This dynamic is epitomised by the current debate on climate change. However, we can see similar discussions, both within Australia and further abroad, regarding stem cell research and the adoption of nuclear power. The vicious debate over these topics has inflicted divides in society and politics that have stymied our ability to respond to, adapt, and exploit emergent developments.

These debates reflect not just a failure of communication, nor a mere tension between scientific judgments and the subjectivity of value decisions, but a more fundamental disconnect between politics and science across entire areas of environmental, energy, or health policy. In the US, for example, Representative John Shimkus, a Republican contender for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee (with oversight over federal policy on climate change) has advanced theological arguments contending that the divine promises contained in the book of Genesis are a valid guarantee that climate change is not a serious threat to human security.

Such attitudes are in the minority, but they are vocal. In delicately balanced political ecosystems such as post–midterm Washington, their influence could prove decisive. Given the global scope of these challenges, investing in the mutual awareness of the scientific community and broader public appears increasingly crucial.

Photo by Flickr user Noel A. Tanner, used under a Creative Commons licence.