Science Week 2021 - Aus needs independent Science advice

Parliament needs independent science advice

by Senator Kim Carr

This is Science Week, when Australia celebrates the work and achievements of its scientists.

The Morrison Government’s preparation for Science Week, however, was to deny Parliament access to independent scientific advice and support.

Last week – the same week that the IPCC delivered a dire health check for the planet – Coalition and One Nation senators voted down a motion to investigate the establishment of a Parliamentary Office of Science.

Creation of such an office was one of the recommendations of the Senate’s inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy, which submitted its report in February.

The aim was to provide independent, impartial scientific advice, evidence and data to all members and senators, and until last week this had not seemed to be a contentious idea. It also had bipartisan support.

After all, if members and senators are going to debate and pass the laws that govern Australians, they need access to reliable information.

The institution and processes of parliamentary democracy would not be possible without that access. It is what the proposed science office would provide.

This is not a revolutionary idea; the parliament already has an agency that provides independent advice, the Parliamentary Budget Office.

This Science Office would operate in a similar way, and could be modelled the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).

POST works for both houses of the UK Parliament, and describes its job as helping to “bridge the gap between research and policy” by providing parliamentarians with up to date research evidence and expertise to inform legislation and scrutiny.

POST has proved its worth – it has existed since 1989 having been established under the Thatcher Government. Yet a Thatcher-era proposal seems too radical for the Morrison Government in 2021.

We should be conscious of how much damage has been done, in all democracies, to the notion of informed opinion.

Establishing a formal relationship between the nation’s scientists and the Parliament is not only important for the sake of Parliament.

I have long advocated for the building of a charter between the scientific community and the parliament setting out the responsibilities that both have to each other. Building a Parliamentary Office of Science is part of that charter.

We should also be working to overcome the toxic effect of scurrilous attacks on science.

Attacks promoted by some, including members of the present Parliament, who ought to know better. They have done it for partisan reasons and it has been all too easy for them to get away with it.

What is the Government’s reason for denying an inquiry into a Parliamentary Office of Science?  It claims there would be “no appreciable gain in the effectiveness or the efficacy of scientific advice”.

Not for the first time, this Government’s attitude can be summed up as “trust us”. By taking that attitude, the Government shows that it wants to retain control of the most vital resource of all – information.

This is not the way accountability to Parliament should work. We should not have to trust the Government never to be self-serving in its use of advice.

Parliament should have access to independent, reliable information on matters that require scientific expertise.

We need to rebuild trust in Parliament, because if Parliament is trusted to do its job properly, trust in government will be rebuilt too. People trust governments they know are being held to account.

One of the lessons of the pandemic has been that trust in public institutions increases when people see that decisions are made in accordance with informed advice.

The Australian Academy of Science has contrasted the way that citizens have responded positively to medical and other experts speaking about COVID-19, and the mistrust sown by some politicians in previous comments on climate change.

That is why the former chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, proposed that the Australian Government set up a formal relationship between Parliament and the scientific community. This formal relationship would define what it means to provide scientific advice to Parliament and the Government.

This relationship already exists in the UK, where the Parliament has a signed agreement setting out the roles and responsibilities of the two parties.

When we stand with science, when we take advice from the scientific community, we are making a declaration to those who have elected us.

Also read: ‘MAD ‘ Scientists, stereotypes confound science ambition

We are not just trying to solve technical problems. We are saying that we stand for social cohesion, against those who want to destroy it.

We are saying that we have hope in a better future for humanity, against those who try to extinguish hope.

By investing in science, and by demonstrating our trust in science, we are also strengthening our democracy. Democracy does not thrive when there is no respect for truth.

It does not thrive when people in the public sphere act as though there is no such thing as objective truth.

When they pretend that there are “alternative facts”.

Parliament should have ready access to the best information and advice that science can offer. That is why there should be a Parliamentary Office of Science.

And it is why the Government should stop trying to control access to scientific advice and information.

Neither the Government nor Parliament should fear science. If we do, we are afraid of the truth.

This opinion piece was first published in Campus Morning Mail on Wednesday, 18 August 2021.

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