Is science a new driver for policy making?

Dec 7, 2021
(Image: Unsplash)

What governments call science is only one part of it. With COVID-19 and climate change, the government picks and chooses which science it listens to.

In the past year or so, Australian politicians have relied on science to justify their decisions over their policies. It’s happened with Covid, it’s happening with the new variant Omicron. Is this a genuine, rational process, or just the use of science as a convenient word to assume credibility, without understanding its real significance?

As a scientist I naturally welcome the new regard science seems to be getting from governments. It’s a welcome change after some 30 years. I remember remaining speechless during a call from Bob Hawke inviting me to become a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, the authority that advises the prime minister and Cabinet on those matters. The emotion was shared and lasting. The Labor government of the ’80s believed in science to the point of creating a new Department of Science and Technology, and to appoint the extraordinary Barry Jones as minister from 1983 to 1990. It set up a scientifically competent infrastructure that would become able to contribute to relevant policy making.

That department is long gone, so scientific advice is now more dispersed, while some coordination is made by the chief scientist. A variety of external experts speaks to the media and governments alike, leaving the impression that science rules within many opinions, each release left on a limb until time finds a way to crystallise the evidence. This is normal in academic research, not in a government without a science department that should be there to assess, plan and manage scientific data in an emergency

This week, the virus variant Omicron has posed one such challenge. Scientists don’t have enough data yet to decide whether this change in the virus genome is good or bad news. We’ve heard interviews speculating on disaster, increased rate of infection, vaccines unable to  protect from the variant, higher virulence and more serious disease. We’ve also heard hopeful views, arguing that so many mutations (more than double the number in the Delta variant) may run amok in the conduct of the virus, in fact disabling some of the virus functions with the result of a less effective pathogen. This has happened with the H1N1 influenza virus and others: it may happen again.

Scientists say it will take at least two weeks to come up with some realistic conclusion: time to do some laboratory testing with this new variant, and to observe what’s happening to its infection rate in the real world. What does the government do in the meantime? Science can’t help for two weeks, leaving the Coalition to listen to various advice ­­— secret of course — and take some impromptu decision that will close borders, delay arrivals, poke anxiety.

Impromptu: without being planned, organised or rehearsed. A ministry of science would have had the multiple competence to assess the emergency and build scenarios based on the biology of the virus, on its evolutionary capacity to mutate, on the different viral functions dictated by its various genes, and so on.  At the moment, the government receives most advice from epidemiologists, not biologists. Epidemiology is based on history, it comes after the fact: what happened when people got infected, at what rate they were infected, what measure has curtailed infections, and so on. Biology comes before: it looks at the new, unique infectious agent and at its properties, at the possibility of mutations, good and bad. The two scenarios and their modelling are very different and both are useful and complementary.

Had the Australian government commissioned biological modelling, it would not find itself in this scientifically unknown circumstances. In a sense, science has become indispensable, but it’s still little understood. What governments call science is only one part of it. The models it has obtained are only epidemiological and they cannot help with Omicron, because this is new and never happened before.

What about climate change and its global problem? Is science gaining ground on this subject? Many decades have passed without much notice of the alerts climate scientists raised with increasing alarm. And yet, they were highly organised and supported. In 1988 the United Nations followed the advice of its environment program and of the World Meteorological Organization to establish a top intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The world now had a dedicated body of climate scientists to produce and  disseminate news on the state of the climate on Earth, and to do the modelling for its future.

In time, the IPCC climate reports became more and more realistic — news converging with, even anticipating their models — but few countries took immediate action to mitigate the changes. They did establish Conferences of the Parties (COPs), where problems were discussed and decisions taken, the first one taking place in Berlin in 1995. The last one, COP26, closed in Glasgow a few weeks ago with some real progress at last.

Does the Australian government abide by climate science? Not a whit. Climate science is a rather dirty word for the Coalition. Much better to talk about “technology”, a substitution that may attract progressives of sorts; also, a potential lever to grant coal and other fossil fuels an extension of their infrastructure investments and lifespan.

That choice between science and technology is not insignificant: the former is always an addition to knowledge, a good thing on its own; the latter, depending on the use people make, can be good or bad. Marie Curie’s discovery of radioactivity was a major scientific advance, and undeniably it was applied well to become a beneficial medical technology. Nuclear bombs however were a regrettable use of the radioactive fission technology.

Will the CO2 “capture and store” technology, so dear to the Coalition, result in a good or bad application? Will certain politician manage to pass nuclear technology in Australia, with all its potential consequences? Will the Coalition last long enough to use their “technology” to add to, or correct, climate change woes while continuing to ignore climate “science”?

With COVID-19, the Australian government hides behind science, relying only on one particular branch of it. With climate change it hides behind technology, choosing dubious applications. In both cases its policies underwhelm and lack a sustainable model. They come about spuriously and opaquely. Most of all, they lack the background of a consolidated government structure where a mix of competent people can build the essential tools  and processes to address a changing world.

Instead, as the latest reshuffle saw the light, the science and technology portfolio found itself folded into the Australian Department of Defence, without any autonomy to pursue its wider remit.

And yet, science and technology will have an immense impact on the future of Australia. This will require a dedicated structure with expert jobs in house to address the consequences of that impact: the extraordinary input of external data; the probabilistic prism of quantum reality; the penetration of artificial intelligence in all sectors; the operating advantage and the flaws of blockchain technology; as well as the vaccine and pharmaceutical advances, all provide new knowledge and useful technologies. For all this, the government needs to address specific policies and regulations to ensure those technological changes occur while respecting science and society.

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