Last updated May 1, 2017 at 12:44 pm
The following is the transcript from Paul Willis’ speech he gave at the Adelaide March for Science rally.
Why are we here today?
I ask that as a rhetorical question, not ‘why have we bothered to turn up’ but ‘why is it necessary to come together to show our support for science?’ Research and polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Australians think that science is a bloody good idea, that more science and evidence-based thinking should be injected into public policy and that they approve of providing adequate support to make scientific research happen. But, of late, there have been emerging anti-science sub-cultures that actively denigrate or challenge some aspects of science and those minor but loud voices have been catching the ears of some of our society leaders, both politicians, and in business, religion and others in positions of influence.
We are here today to raise our voices in support of science to drown out the dark murmurings from the fringes and we are here today with three simple but powerful goals.
Firstly, we call out for a respect for science and the researchers who conduct science across the nation.
I’ve met thousands of scientists during my career as a science communicator. A huge diversity of scientists from Nobel Laureates through to undergraduate students across every conceivable discipline and area of research. And every last one of them share a key feature; they do their research because they love it and because they realise the importance of their research as a contribution to society.
Of those thousands of scientists I’ve met, not one of them is doing it for the money.
They are united in their understanding that science is the best grip on reality that we’ve got and, if we don’t investigate and understand our world with the meticulous detail of the scientific method, we will miss problems that threaten our very existence and have no tools with which to solve those problems.
If we don’t know how the real world works, we cannot come up the technological advances that have made our modern society possible.
So the scientists of Australia quietly beaver away out of sight in laboratories or in the field, measuring and monitoring, observing and hypothesising so that they can tell us all about what’s happening and how reality is structured.
Perhaps it is because of that unseen nature of most scientific research that scientists do not feel they get the respect and recognition that they deserve. They do not present to us with just another opinion about what they think is going on within the mechanics of what we call life. They are the only ones who can tell us what cogs and coils there are inside that machine, what they do and how they work, and how the operations of the machinery of life affect us.
So science would appreciate the respect of having their findings and work taken seriously and it forming the foundation of so much public policy. Which neatly brings me to the second goal of today’s rally; to raise the level of awareness of what scientists do and what it means. This is the proposition of scientific literacy.
We must strengthen school education at every level so that the next generation has a better understanding, not just of the facts and figures of science, but also how science works and what it means to have a rational world view.
We must encourage more tertiary students into science, technology, engineering and maths, the STEM subjects, which have proved to be the seed bed for innovation and technological advances that will be needed in the future.
How can we expect our political leaders to make decisions informed by science when so many of them are unaware of what science is? Currently, in Canberra, less than one in four MPs have any formal education or experience in science.
We hope that a more scientifically literate society will be one that does not cherry pick which bits of science they like while rejecting or ignoring the rest. Science is a bulk package. You cannot accept the science of Climate Change and reject the science of vaccination, the safety of GMOs or the nuclear fuel cycle.
Policy must not be made by choosing an endpoint and shoe-horning bits of science in to buttress that conclusion. We must build public policies by looking at all the evidence before us before proceeding to a conclusion of action.
Perhaps, with increased scientific literacy, our community decision makers, both inside and outside of politics, will not be swayed by conspiracy theories and non-sensical alternative facts.
There are no alternatives to reality no matter how emotionally or economically appealing they may be.
So raising the awareness of what is (and what is not) science is our second goal of gathering here today. This is the domain of my entire working life and that continues on Australia’s Science Channel – google it, tune in and increase your own awareness of the amazing diversity and relevance of Australian science!
The third goal is to call for the sustained and egalitarian support for scientific research. Successive governments have cut funding to the CSIRO, the ARC and other funding bodies and have picked favourites by defunding areas of science that they do not understand or respect.
And, equally in the spotlight here, is the business community of Australia. Where as many comparable nations in the OECD have a 20:80 ratio of research funding from government and business respectively, in Australia this ratio is reversed. The industry and business sectors must pick up their game and increase their contributions to the national research effort.
We must find a way to reliably fund research and researchers conducting long-term research. We must provide well-structured and well-renumerated career paths in research.
And we must grow the pot of funds available for research – we are currently down on the OECD ranks for research funding and this has to be redressed.
These three goals; Respect, Understand and Support, are intimately entwined. Science can do so much for Australia’s future if only Australia will let it do so. But the alternative path; to ignore, dismiss, deride and defund science, is a very dangerous path to take – it is unthinkable dangerous.
So we are gathered here today to call on our society and our civic leaders to respect, understand and support the endeavours of science. Do not cave in to popular myths or the fringe agendas of conspiracy theorists. Our future as Australians and as a species, depends on us understanding what’s going on in the world and what we can do about it.
Our future depends on us listening to, respecting and supporting science.