Scientific advice to governments and communities is one important thing scientists do. There are many scientific voices in the media, so it can be confusing. These voices can also often lobby politicians for vested private interests rather than for broad community benefit. That is why CSIRO is important – it is largely funded by the public for public benefit in Australia. It is regularly scrutinised in open senate estimates committee hearings to test its integrity and it is an independent statutory agency, not a government department controlled by a Minister.
I worked as an Atmospheric scientist in CSIRO* for 30 years and represented scientists as President of the staff association for 15 years. When I began my career at CSIRO, I was directly involved in the Latrobe Valley Air shed looking into pollution from coal-fired power stations.
Over time issues have changed: climate change, wind energy, bushfire smoke, atmospheric particulate matter, even airborne viruses, all of which have recently impacted on South Gippsland, where I am now living.
Public research activity and science always changes as new issues impact on our lives. Often, and today, our work as scientists goes beyond narrow economic benefits, for concern about our shared health and well-being affects us all. The decisions that governments make need to be informed by the best science, but politicians don’t always respond well to experts. CSIRO is important for advice on climate, energy, water resource management, agricultural and human biosecurity, all critically important current issues. For example, CSIRO biosecurity scientists warned in December 2019 against international travel because of the coronavirus.
On the other hand, CSIRO advice on climate science has famously been ignored in Canberra and many State capitals — repeatedly, year after year, it seems. For all of Australia, what we need is leadership from our elected representatives, leadership which relies on the best scientific advice. We also need responsibility from all citizens to assess, and to learn to assess, the scientific advice that impacts on how we are going to live our lives: from lockdowns, hygiene, energy use, climate adaptation, pollution mitigation; this advice is crucial to the future economy and the creation of jobs.
Clearly, our lives are changing dramatically right now, and we need to demand wise and compassionate leadership to build a future containing the broadest community benefits. We are fortunate to have active institutions like CSIRO (among other public agencies) to help advise on the path forward. It is up to us as citizens to demand that our politicians work more closely with scientists and with communities, in open, consultative ways, if we are to rebuild our lives, and society in safer, cleaner, prosperous and sustainable ways. Simply asking your elected officials to do this is a way to start – you can always write an email in a lockdown.
Republished from Just Community No.2 April 2020
*For more on CSIRO scientists see here.