If only it was happening in Australia

May 8, 2023
Scientists in clean suits using digital tablets in experiment in laboratory.

The French Government’s Research Minister, Silvie Retailleau, has announced a plan to shake up the country’s scientific research including investing an extra Euro 26 billion (equivalent to A$42.5 billion.)

It is in stark contrast to the Australian situation where we spend $11.9 billion on research. To put that in perspective the French spend 2.3 % of GDP on science while in Australia it is 0.6%.

Speaking to Nature (6 March 2023) she said: “My objective is evolution, not revolution, and to strike a balance between the three pillars of my portfolio – research, training and innovation. Academia is tired of new structures and the top-down approach of the past 15 years. It wants stability and a clear vision of where, why and how we are going.” A rather dramatic contrast to Australian governments approaches to science.

Euro 7 billion will be invested in health innovation of which 1.3 billion will be for research. A plan for ‘risky research’ will also be released later this year.

The French will continue to increase researchers’ pay to attract young people to science and Retailleau said “The new landscape should simplify scientist’s life. I would like researchers to have more time to devote to research” through simplifying the management of laboratories.

On top of an existing annual French Science Festival there will also be a new project in conjunction with the education and equal opportunities ministries to attract young people to science.

When asked whether government science ministers coming from civil society have a hard time making themselves heard by their colleagues Retailleau said: “My cabinet colleagues do listen to me and ask for explanations. This has been a pleasant surprise. I wish the media showed as much interest in research as the cabinet. President Emmanuel Macron understands that science is a continuum and questions me in detail about technology and innovation.”

Hard to picture recent Coalition Cabinets, PMs Morrison, Abbott and Howard taking a similar forensic interest in science – even if it did come up in Cabinet. Admittedly Labor Cabinets were not that much better and if they had listened more closely to Barry Jones when he was the relevant Minister our economy, scientific base and education system would be very much stronger.

While the hostility to action on climate change was mainly driven by business and fossil fuel industries the Coalition governments were also pressured by those of their ‘base’ who deferred to their god rather than scientists.

In a way this ‘base’ was following on from much of the history of religious attitudes to scientific inquiry. There were millenia of attacks on science and scientists by religious authorities. Galileo is the most famous example and even if he didn’t actually say, but it still moves, the statement was still true.

On the other hand, the co-existence of science and religion are discussed in Nicholas Spencer’s new book Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion.

Spencer shows that up until the modern period religion often supported science. Islamic society had a scientific golden age as demonstrated by the source of algorithms; Maimonides explored scientific ideas and in the 17 Century the English Royal Society encompassed both science and religion. Newton’s religious ideas were very odd in his day although possibly not so odd as in the beliefs of some of today’s Australian and US Christians groups.

Medieval natural philosophers such as Theodoric of Freiberg and Nicholas of Cusa had no problems combining their thinking with their beliefs.

This is, of course, not to dismiss the Scopes Trial in Tennessee; Copernicus’s forced recantation; theories of papal infallibility; the arguments around Darwin’s theories; and the complex relationships between anti-vaxxer theories, conspiracy theories and religious fundamentalism.

But it does suggest religion has not always been a prohibitive restriction on scientific thinking.

Why then does it seem to be so for many conservatives – perhaps Scott Morrison is a good example – is a puzzle.

But perhaps the contemporary Australian political neglect of science is caused by much simpler factors – anti-intellectualism, a rejection of the modern, or just a simple failure to understand why it’s important.

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