I can imagine that, if I got more feedback on this site, one of the questions would be: Why Australian science? Science is global after all. Isn’t there something nationalistic about devoting a blog, not to mention a book, to the science of one country?*
Part of the answer is simply that I fell into it. At a point in my life where I was getting knocked back for delivering local papers I got an incredible opportunity with Australasian Science. It was, and remains, only one day a week and the pay is pretty ordinary. It is however, a truly fascinating role, and I’ve been there ever since. Having developed a fair amount of specialist knowledge in the area I figured I should play to my strengths.
However, having come into the specialisation by chance, I’ve come to the conclusion that Australian science is particularly in need of promotion, and there are good reasons to focus on it.
1) Australian science is dreadfully under reported. Scientific powerhouses have access to media outlets with real substantial scientific coverage. With the exception of the ABC, Australia lacks that. Other nations lack mainstream media with a tendency to cover much science. However, my impression is that in those places there is more of a local focus on what they do cover. While Australian media will obsessively cover the Aussie athlete winning bronze and the Olympics, while ignoring the gold medal winner, we seldom do this for science. I’ve often received media releases about really interesting Australian research that doesn’t seem to have been covered in places like The Age, and found on Google News, that most of the coverage they have received has been overseas – usually in India for some reason.
2) While much science is truly global, not all of it is. Quantum mechanics and stem cell research may be the same around the world, but there is a lot of science that is location-specific. Most ecosystem research for a start. It’s also worth looking at the number of telescopes based in the northern and southern hemispheres, and thinking about which part of the sky is better studied. There are plenty of topics where Australia makes a particularly good laboratory – often the only good laboratory amongst the large economies – and it’s worth promoting this work.
3) Australian scientists do seem to be particularly good at some things, particularly given the relatively poor funding for Australian science. Stem cell research is an example of a field where we lead the world, without any obvious competitive advantage. In some cases the reason is simply that a brilliant researcher created a team around him or her and created a centre of excellence. However, in some cases there may be more interesting reasons. I once interviewed a researcher who had been part of Australia’s two leading solar electricity teams. He was expressing frustration at how little funding the teams were getting, noting that Japan had offered many times the support. I asked how it was that these teams still managed to lead the world, despite the lack of resources. His answer was simple: “Multiculturalism,” he said in his thick German accent. “In Germany I was part of a team who were all brilliant, and very well funded. But we all had the same training and we all tended to think alike. Here I work with Australians, Chinese, Americans…. The diversity makes us much more creative.” (This statement is written from ten year old memory, so the exact words are probably wrong). Of course Australia does not have a monopoly on multiculturalism (see CERN for example), but it is an idea that puts our research into a different light.
4) Finally, I’m obviously particularly concerned about Anthropogenic Global Warming as an issue, and on this topic Australia really is ground zero in a whole range of ways. Not only are we the largest emitter per capita of any large nation (and the largest coal exporter), but we are also the most vulnerable of developed nations to the effects, given our already fragile ecosystems. On the other hand, we’re a particularly good proving ground for the solutions that will be relevant for most of the world. Wind is far more developed than solar in part because when places like Germany and Denmark chose to invest in renewable energy in the 1970s, they looked at the resources they had. Most of the world has a lot more sun than wind, but lacks the scientific infrastructure to utilise it. Australia, along with the south-western USA is unusual amongst wealthy nations in sharing a climate with most of the developing world. We should be, could be, using that to spearhead solar’s development. Australian climatic research matters too. The whole notion of a major “Medieval Warm Period”, so beloved of the deniers, gained traction because initial paleoclimatic research was concentrated in Europe and North America, where the MWP actually happened. It was only once the research went global that we discovered how small the MWP really was. Australia’s paleoclimate is drastically under researched, so any studies that are done are particularly important. On the other hand, CSIRO has been at the forefront of global atmospheric modelling, and this role deserves to be highlighted. Putting all these things together, Australia’s significance in the whole climate change debate far outweighs an area of similar population in the US or Europe, so a local focus makes sense.
1 I do try to cover New Zealand science as well. The name of the magazine is Australasian Sceince, not Australian Science. However, the quantity of good science coming out of Aotearoa is much lower than for Australia, even allowing for the smaller population. Moreover, most of the time I have been at Australasian Science we weren’t even getting media releases from most NZ institutions, so I’m less familiar with the research that is being done. That’s recently been corrected, but it takes a while to catch up. Putting all that together then NZ contribution here is small enough as to not really affect this post.
Update: Just after I wrote this I came across a report from Sara Phillips of the ABC environment website noting that Australians made up almost a quarter of the scientists invited to a conference in Canada devoted to how we can transform electricity production. Considering Australia represents around 1% of the world’s science budget and 0.3% of the population of the planet, this suggests I’m not the only one who thinks this country is disproportionately significant in these issues.