Our society lives with a couple of open fictions. A person who works hard will get rich. A good idea will get used. The smartest scientist will get the best jobs. A fair trial will deliver justice. A strong economy will deliver benefits to us all. Good science will serve us a healthy, happy and safe society.

Oh, yes yes – you’re reading this and gagging. (Perhaps Crikey readers gag more than others). You know they’re fictions. Nevertheless – we uphold them, teach them to our children, hold them as ideals even as we violate them. They are partly true, and therefore very powerful. But that combination of power and partial truth also makes them very, very dangerous. And it’s because of such fictions that we get things like the GM crop controversy.

One of the fictions is the idea that science is impartial, that it can be relied upon to form the best possible basis for public policy, and that it is used as such. Oh, if only it were so…

Look at where science is done in Australia (and around the world). Universities, the CSIRO, and (although nowhere near as much as successive Australian governments would have liked), in private companies.

Let’s leave the companies aside for the moment – it’s obvious who they are doing their work for: shareholders. The only reason they don’t go around poisoning you overtly is that it’s bad for business, either by consumer revolt or regulatory crackdown – and to be fair, most people wouldn’t want to do that kind of work. Mostly.

That leaves the “public” institutions – universities, the CSIRO, state-based research institutes. What do they do? Science, and applied science… and increasingly, they develop technologies. Why do they do it? For the public good, right? But that very idea, the “public good” has radically shifted over the past few decades – the worst of them being the “Liberal” decade+1. Since we have all accepted the fiction that a market economy is the best way too look after society, public “good” has increasingly been seen as the provision of “widgets” to be sold. Spin-offs, commercialisation, intellectual property – all this privatisation of the commons has been the dominant trend in Australian science since at least the ’80s, but intensified over the past decade.

Crikey readers will be well aware of the culture wars in the ABC, the politicisation of the public service, the intelligence details our ministers would prefer not to know, the public service self-censorship for career advancement – all in agencies and departments ostensibly working for the public good. Why should we think it’s any different in our institutions of science?

My honours supervisor was a case in point. In 2000, he was a bright and very talented scientist in a large public research organisation, who was told that there was a job for him next year but no money for his salary. He spent less and less time at the lab bench, instead negotiating with the agribusiness corporations to find out what sort of research they were interested in, and then develop a bid for doing that work. Any work that he was interested in doing, well… no-one told him not to do it, but they weren’t running forward with a barrel of cash, either.

How about the death of any co-operative research centre (CRC) that delivers public-good science? If you don’t deliver a widget for the economy, well, you aren’t getting any dosh. Consider invasive animals – there is now a well-funded CRC looking at how we can best manage invasive (pest) animals, which has enormous environmental (think rabbits) and social (think fire ants) benefits. But I think you’ll find what helped push them over the line in the funding competition was the meticulous documentation of the (huge) economic costs of invasive animals. Contrast their success with the demise of the Coastal CRC – widely applauded, strongly public-good focused, but no widgets, no economic stimulus… sorry folks, thanks for all your hard work.

Then there’s the coal-friendly politics that has starved out renewable energy research. There are the allegations of gagging in CSIRO climate science, and the brutal, degrading restructure of that institution’s research program. There’s the flourishing of commercial-in-confidence research work undertaken by our public institutions. I’m sure others have many other examples.

Combine conditions like these with regulations like the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act (2000) – that’s the Act that sets the rules for our Office of the Gene Technology Regulator – that are set up to only consider the best available science (usually available from industry, of course), and you get a sense that we’re losing the balance of public interest.

What this has delivered is an assembly of science research entities in Australia that are hell bent on competing for an ever-decreasing pot of funds – public and private – where success increasingly depends on what gizmo can be delivered. On the other hand, deliver the wrong findings and you can find yourself slowly starved and frozen out. Do you really think you’d get funding anywhere near as easily when you stop developing a technology on public interest grounds as you would in delivering a product?

What this has delivered is a crop of senior scientists that are very cognisant of the way to advance in the current environment. Good news technoscience stories, stimulating injections into our fearless smart economy (you know, the one that’s busy making a fortune exporting raw materials), are the things that people with money want to hear.

In terms of personnel, strategy, and capacity, Australia is dangerously close to failure on its ability to deliver public good science.

Now, take a breath. No, I’m not saying our scientists are all cynical and morally bankrupt. I’m not saying that all science conducted in Australia is suspect. The majority of the scientists I know are motivated by a desire to discover things about the world, and use that knowledge for the benefit of the world. I can’t stress that enough. And it’s a mistake to even talk about science as a monolithic entity – there are differences of opinion, of perspective, of knowledge and motivation.

What I am saying is there is now a powerful, subtle, structural bias in the way science priorities are decided in Australia (and also driven in lockstep with corporate dominance on the global stage, especially in the USA). Scientists are people – they are fallible, they are capable of moral contradiction, they are constrained in what they can do and say by the systems in which they operate.

Make no mistake. We need good science. We need good technology. I choke at so much of the techno-disasterism I see in the anti-GM spin – the bullsh*t meter spins off the dial. And if you can’t see the inherent structure of incentive behind the pro-GM commentariat in government and research institutions, you’re blind. And if you trust it, you’re asking for trouble.

We need well-resourced, independent science. Paradoxically, this means both making science more transparent and democratically directed, while at the same time allowing more self-direction and discretion on the part of the researchers.

This is a question of balance. Like all public interest matters in the last decade or more, that balance has been grossly and pervasively tipped – and we have gotten all too used to it.

Senator Carr’s review of our “innovation system” is welcome and overdue. So too is the (single, as far as I can tell) reference to restoring “public benefit as one of the primary objectives of the CRC Program“. But science research is not just about innovation. The driving rhetoric of the review – industry creation and stimulus – is important, but only part of the picture. Science should also be, in balance, self-directed for curiosity alone and responsive to the broader needs and sensitivities of society. To paraphrase: “We’re a society, not an economy, stupid.”

Science viewed only as a means to wealth creation will only deliver us more of the “GM debate” mess – perhaps one day we really will have a technodisaster on our hands (I mean, apart from the environmental and obesity crises we already have). Surely, we can do better than that.

Ben Gilna has a degree in biotechnology, and did his PhD and a post-doc in a (policy and environmentally) related area.

Peter Fray

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