October 01, 2014

Article at Cosmos Magazine

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FEATURE | Man on a Mission

Ian Chubb

Australia's Chief Scientist is fighting the good fight, spearheading the effort to have science taken seriously in policy circles. But with budget cuts and an antagonism to climate science in Canberra, Wilson da Silva wonders if he is tilting at windmills.

THE CHIEF SCIENTIST for Australia is slumped in an armchair in his Canberra office at the end of a long day, his ruddy face pensive. Outside the winter sun is fading over a chilly city, while within, burrowing from beneath his arched grey eyebrows Ian Chubb’s eyes glisten with a quiet energy that is inquisitive, if a little weary.

There is good reason.

Depending on who you talk to, Australian science is in rout … or in a rut. What it’s not, is thriving.

In April 2014, as the new Liberal-National coalition government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott was preparing to unveil its first budget, rumours of sizeable cuts to science funding were rife.

Abbott has subsequently come to the world’s attention for scrapping the previous government’s carbon pricing policies – a move many believe was motivated by a sceptical attitude to climate change, which he once described as “total crap”.

But at the time of his election concerns were more focused on domestic science issues. Melbourne’s The Sunday Age – showing an uncharacteristic interest in science policy for an Australian newspaper – lambasted the government’s proposed cuts. “It should be clear, abundantly so, that this is the era of technology, and to throttle back on funding is more than merely stupid or blinkered; it is vandalism.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Ricky Johnstone, assistant director of research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. The Abbott Government has alarmed researchers by the size of its cuts to funding. (Julian Smith/AAP)

But the truth turned out to be worse than anyone expected. When the federal budget was revealed a chill swept through labs across the country. Twelve industry innovation programs worth A$846 million were abolished. Another $378 million was sliced from six organisations: the Australian Research Council, which funds much basic research; the CSIRO; the Defence Science and Technology Organisation; the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; Geoscience Australia; and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Also withdrawn was $91 million from the often lauded Cooperative Research Centres program, which backs collaboration across scientific disciplines and industry, and from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Funding for NICTA, the country’s infotech research hub, is to cease in 2016. It has a budget of $42.5 million and, while it receives $12.9 million in revenue annually, staff say NICTA will struggle to find a commercial model that allows their 300 doctoral students to continue.

Suzanne Cory, then president of the Australian Academy of Science, was thoroughly unimpressed. “These are on top of a $470 million decline in funding for science over the previous two budgets. We’re going backwards as other countries move forwards.”

She was particularly critical of a $137.7 million cut in funding for postgraduate student positions, which universities are meant to supplant with tuition fees, “essentially asking the next generation of scientists to pay to undertake a highly skilled apprenticeship. This will make PhDs unobtainable for many and become a huge disincentive for many more: Australian research will lose its powerhouse”.

A furious Peter Doherty, the Nobel laureate at the University of Melbourne, tweeted: “Cutting resources for science, technology, innovation and education is a sure way of accelerating our transition to a Third World economy.”

The Chief Scientist shifts in his armchair. “Well, the net effect was negative,” Chubb says. “But I think if you look at it as an opportunity – it’s an opportunity for us to come back and say let’s strategically reinvest.”

IAN CHUBB IS WIDELY CONSIDERED a savvy political operator. He had to be, he says. As the longest-serving vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, run under a special federal act of parliament and dependent for the overwhelming bulk of its funding on Canberra, “you’ve got to learn how to operate, and operate in all senses of the word”.

It’s a skill that’s been sorely tested of late. Appointed in May 2011 by the Labor government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, he was considered a Labor favourite, on excellent terms with Gillard and occasionally seen enjoying a curry with Gillard’s Labor predecessor, Kevin Rudd, when he held the office. As Chief Scientist Chubb often strolled the corridors of Parliament House, dropping in and out of ministerial offices and buttonholing key players.

He still does. Since the Liberal-National coalition won government in September 2013 he’s been assiduously plying those same halls. “I haven’t had any difficulty talking to the present Prime Minister or previous prime ministers, and I haven’t had any difficulty talking with present ministers or previous ministers really,” he says.

What Chubb has to say about climate change is less welcome
in the corridors of power.

“I know some better than others. I’ve known some of the present ministry for 20 plus years, I’ve known some for 20 plus days, and some not at all. But I think that you just have to focus on the issue, and you’ve just got to be willing to put yourself out there and say, ‘This issue is important for these reasons, it’s a consequence of it being important for those reasons, this is what I think you should do’. And you’ve got to live with the fact that sometimes they’ll take your advice, and sometimes they won’t.”

But the tone has changed. For one, what Chubb has to say about climate change is less welcome in the corridors of power. Under Labor his defence of the science was fierce, calling the quality of public debate on climate change “appalling”, the level of scientific literacy among politicians “not high” and some of the language used “bordering on the hysterical”. Since the election he has held the line on defending climate science, if in somewhat more tempered phraseology.

While he hasn’t been shut out, he hasn’t been invited into the inner sanctum either. Since the election, there’s been no meeting of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council – it usually meets twice annually. Chubb was not consulted about the cuts to science. He was also not consulted about the creation of the Abbott government’s marquee initiative in the sector, a $1 billion dollar Medical Research Future Fund, which the government plans to grow to $20 billion by 2020.

Chubb was disappointed by the cuts, but welcomed the new fund – especially the long horizon of commitment. “Research is a long-term issue and I do think that we’ve got to take that strategic approach to it. So yes, I think it’s a good initiative.”

And in that endorsement lies the core of the argument he is now taking to the government – that we need a long-term view of science funding, tailored to national goals with a timeline that stretches across decades. Rather than tinkering and tweaking science funding according to fashion or the obsession du jour, to develop a cohesive approach – a national science plan, if you will.

“The US has had research priorities for 40 years. I look at what the British do, the Germans do, the EU does, the US does, and they choose areas where they think they have some particular advantage, or particular need, or where they can make a real difference,” Chubb says. Then his brow furrows. “But if we talk about that in Australia, we get criticised for trying to ‘pick winners’.”

The phrase, used to criticise government attempts to target promising industries or companies for assistance, has hovered like an unwelcome ghost over any discussion of innovation policy for more than 25 years. It had its origins in Melbourne. In 1982 the Labor state government of Victoria expanded the role of the Victorian Economic Development Corporation (VEDC), turning it into a venture-capital fund that made loans to high-tech ventures. It targeted “sunrise industries” geared for export, such as scientific equipment, computer software, biotechnology, advanced materials and food processing. Like most venture capital, the loans had a high-risk, high-return profile.

But the 1987 stock market crash and subsequent collapse in property values sucked investment out of the sector. High-tech companies faltered and the VEDC racked up losses of $110 million. At the same time, a number of other government-backed lending initiatives foundered.

The failures were key to the defeat of the Victorian Labor government in 1992, with the new Liberal-National government abolishing the VEDC – and other states with similar ventures following suit. The “spectacular financial collapses discredited all forms of interventionism under economic strategy”, wrote scholar Winton Higgins in his review of the period in Developments in Australian Politics.

Flu medication Relenza was developed by Biota, a company that has thrived thanks to government support

But, he added, “their fall obscured the gains of the strategy … between 1983 and 1989, Victoria’s unemployment rate was the lowest of any state, its employment growth exceeded the national average and investment grew at an average of 7.9%, well above the national average of 4.5%”.

Also forgotten was that some companies backed by VEDC survived and prospered: Biota, which discovered the anti-flu drug zanamivir (better known as Relenza) and Amrad, which developed antibody-based therapies against inflammation and cancer and was acquired by giant blood products and vaccines developer CSL in 2006, are two examples.

Nevertheless, critics blamed the VEDC’s failure on trying to “pick winners” – a phrase now tarred with the opprobrium of economic failure and the smell of political death. It is used as a derisive barb by commentators, bureaucrats and politicians to shut down any discussion of a coordinated strategy in industry, science, innovation – anything.

And it’s a phrase that grates on Chubb no end.

“There aren’t too many countries in the world that think choosing an area where you have a need, an advantage and some capability as actually ‘picking winners’, except in Australia,” he says.

But Chubb is unfazed. He has Abbott’s approval to overhaul the government’s science advisory council to follow the US model where half of the president’s advisors come from business and half from research and education. And he’s keen on the council developing a coherent set of priorities for the country’s science effort.

“I’d like a vision that is then supported by the economy, rather than have the economy limit the vision,” he says. “Aspiration should drive the economics, not economics limit the aspiration. You’ve got some view of how the country will grow and develop, and what would be a country that we’d want to build.”

It’s what he means about “strategically reinvesting”, he explains. “What other countries are doing is growing their technology, engineering and mathematics to accommodate that change – and we’ve got to do it too. The good news is that we have good science, good potential and many opportunities, plus a real need. The less good news is that we do not seem to regard this as a high priority.”

It’s a stance with wide support in universities and science circles. “It’s the big elephant in the room,” says Les Field, deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of New South Wales and secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science. “You’ve got to have a long-term vision to build an airport or a highway. How come we can’t muster the same sort of long-term vision to support the big research projects that we have?”

It’s not somebody having a dream one night and saying, ‘Oh, I think
I’ll write a paper saying the Arctic will be ice-free in 25 years’

THE OTHER ELEPHANT in the room is climate change. The Abbott government is averse, even antagonistic, on the topic. In opposition it campaigned vigorously against the carbon tax introduced by Labor. Its first act in power was to abolish the advisory Climate Commission, then move against the Climate Change Authority and Clean Energy Finance Corporation, while the country’s Renewable Energy Target is under review.

The carbon tax was repealed in July 2014 drawing fire internationally: “Australia’s actions are appalling,” said Lord Deben, who served in British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative cabinet and now chairs the UK Committee on Climate Change. “While the 66 countries that account for 88% of global emissions have passed laws to address global warming, Australia is repealing them.”

Wind farms like this one at Bungendore, near Canberra, face an uncertain future with a government that is viewed as sceptical about climate change

Despite this Chubb hasn’t given up and continues to talk about the issue with government and the public. “The evidence for humans putting CO2 through their activities into the atmosphere, that it’s a greenhouse gas, that it’s trapping and re-emitting heat, that the planet overall is warming, and the impact of that on icecaps – that’s all stuff that’s actually measured. It’s not somebody having a dream one night and saying, ‘Oh, I think I’ll write a paper saying the Arctic will be ice-free in 25 years’. The evidence is pretty strong, and if that’s what I think, that’s what I’ve got to say.”

He decries the amount of heat, and precious little light, the subject attracts. “It’s really a pity that the debate is not rational and it’s often not civil.”

But Chubb is not above entering the fray either. In an opinion piece in The Australian in August 2014 Maurice Newman, chairman of the government’s Business Advisory Council, said global cooling was more of a danger than global warming. He criticised governments for “having made science a religion” and described climate research as “a virtuous cycle where the more scientists pointed to human causes, the more governments funded their research”. Chubb shot back.

He suggested Newman, a stockbroker and investment banker, should stick to finance rather than “trawl the internet” for scientific papers questioning climate change. “You still need to explain why the huge, the overwhelming scientific evidence says the opposite,” Chubb said, adding that he, as a scientist, would not presume to write articles about economics. “People with no scientific knowledge persist in the view that they can find three or four papers from the hundreds and hundreds of papers on the subject, and then dismiss the overwhelming bulk of evidence … it is a silly response to a very important issue.”

The assertion – made by Newman and other climate change contrarians – that there is a global cabal of scientists colluding to manipulate the scientific data – is “completely ludicrous”, says Chubb. “To say that there’s some organised group of all these people who say, ‘Look, no matter what we see, no matter what we observe, no matter what data we have, we’ll all say that the planet’s warming, so that Freddie can get another research grant or Charlie can travel business class to the next conference’, it is beneath contempt,” he says.

The issue is “difficult for politicians” whose focus is on the immediate future, not 20 to 60 years out, and he sympathises. “That they should be doing something I think is unquestionable. Exactly what, and how, becomes a really serious issue, but it ought not to be mired in hostile politics.”

What really riles him is the lack of any basic scientific literacy in the discussion. The dismissal of carbon dioxide as a “trace gas” and “plant food” aggravates him, as it ignores basic physics – that energy from the Sun hitting the Earth is emitted as infrared radiation. “Most of what’s in the atmosphere doesn’t care about the infrared – nitrogen, oxygen, argon – that’s 99.96%. It’s the 0.04% that’s CO2 and other things like methane – that’s what is trapping the heat,” Chubb says, with a hint of exasperation.

“People say, ‘But CO2 is naturally occurring, so how can it be a pollutant?’. Too much of anything in the wrong place, naturally occurring or synthetic, is a pollutant. Arsenic is naturally occurring too, but it’s toxic at something like 40 parts per billion.”

Chubb came out of retirement to take the job as Chief Scientist. After 10 years leading the ANU and 20 years as a vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor at Flinders and Monash Universities, as well as a career as a neuroscientist with more than 70 scientific papers to his name, he was ready to put up his feet. But he lasted less than three months.

“I think basically I’m a fairly impatient person and I like challenges. I felt I could contribute.”

He certainly has a challenge ahead of him, and the country’s future is at stake. Is Australia’s fate to be a “nation of quarries, golf caddies and waiters” as former science minister Barry Jones quipped in the 1980s, or an economy that generates knowledge and grows on the back of its intellectual capital? For his part, Chubb believes the future is something you can make, rather than just have it happen to you.


Wilson da Silva is a science writer in Sydney, and the former editor-in-chief of COSMOS.

The article as it appeared in the October 2014 issue of Cosmos