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Professor Ian Chubb – toughing it out


I made a very quick video the other night after listening to some depressing news on Lateline, or rather a depressing interview with our chief scientist, Ian Chubb, about the changes being made by the incoming conservative government. But I haven’t yet got the facility to host my own videos so I’ll write something instead.

Chubb was being questioned about the new government’s intention to abolish the Climate Change Authority, the Climate Commission and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, as well as to scrap the position of Science Minister. Now, you might think that all this scrapping, discarding and abolishing is a clear indication of the value that Tony Abbott and his colleagues place on science in general, and that our chief scientist might have some choice words to say about that, but it seems Professor Chubb is a canny operator who knows how to keep a cool head and to emphasize co-operation and positivity under the most strained circumstances.

Asked first off about the axing of the science portfolio, he put a brave face on it by saying that, as science was spread over a number of portfolios, having an actual Minister wasn’t as essential as having someone in government who is passionate about science. [Only one?]. When asked who that might be, Chubb rather dodged the question, unless you can take seriously his suggestion, presented almost sheepishly, that this might be the Prime Minister’s role. Abbott, you’ll recall, once publicly stated, and not so long ago, that anthropogenic global warming is bullshit.

Chubb spoke, no doubt sincerely, of a strategic whole-of-government approach to science, using the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, but I’m sceptical that the new government will deal with anything strategically. My expectation is that it will govern like most conservative governments – do nothing innovative, abolish, cut and scrap as much as you can, make yourself as small a target for criticism as possible, and boast about your economic credentials while health, education, infrastructure and the rest are run into the ground.

Chubb went on – and I can only marvel at his bravery – to answer a question about Australia’s science education results, and how they lag behind those in Asia, by arguing for a more interventionist approach from government in this area. I thought I saw pigs flying across the screen at that one. Then the interviewer asked about the scrapping of the climate change ministry and the various environmental bodies aforementioned, on one of which, the Climate Change Authority, Chubb actually sits (or sat). The actual question asked was – did these to-be-axed bodies have a value? Chubb couldn’t really avoid that one, and had to respond positively, but he qualified this by saying he could only really speak about the body he sat on, and that, anyway, the CCA ‘will doubtless be compensated for by other bodies and groups and, doubtless, individuals who will be offering advice’. Doubtless? I doubt it.

One individual already offering plenty of advice at taxpayers’ expense is Abbott’s chief business adviser, one Maurice Newman, who describes climate change as a myth. What Newman actually means by this queer claim might be worth investigating, but here isn’t the place for it. When asked about this remark, Chubb was more blunt than usual, describing it as a ‘silly comment’. Generally, though, he countered the negativity and anti-science silliness of the conservatives with a lot of talk about the role of science, the importance of evidence, facts and informed debate. His many remarks about scientists being evidence-driven and free from beliefs seemed a trifle idealistic, but they still needed to be made in the face of the fixed, clearly uninformed beliefs of Abbott, Howard and others on that side of politics. Some of his remarks, such as that every contribution to the climate debate, whether pro or con, was valuable, seemed overly mollifying, but generally he gave science a good rap, in the typically cautious, under-stated way of most scientists.

Still, what I heard in the interview, about what was still then a government-elect, hardly warmed my heart about the future of evidence-based decision-making in this country. Hang on science lovers, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

This is an issue worth keeping an eye on. I’ll try to report on any further developments, or lack thereof.

*Incidentally, I was bemused on reading, in the transcript of this interview, that little Johnny Howard, that Giant of Aussie Science, is to deliver a ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation lecture’ in November, bearing the title ‘One religion is enough’. Now think about that title. It does more than claim that anthropogenic warming is a religion, it claims that any more than one religion is too much! And what is that one religion? Well, Jesus, it must be that religion. So much for our resident Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Jainists, Pastafarians and whatnot. Talk about an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

Written by stewart henderson

September 19, 2013 at 8:03 pm

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