Last week, I had the great pleasure to co-launch the ‘Parliamentary Friends of Science’ group at the annual ‘Science meets Parliament’ dinner.  This was preceded by a masterclass on the stars and universe conducted on the roof of Parliament House by 2011 Nobel Laureat Professor Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University. 

Trust me… this is going somewhere.

To be given a guided tour of the heavens by a Nobel Laureate in astronomy was truly a defining moment in my education.

I was an enthusiastic student of science at school and university.  At heart, I will always feel that I am a student of science.  I grew up in the afterglow of the Apollo moon landings. 

As the legacy of these extraordinary missions projected across the seventies, they gave us the sense that the possibilities of human endeavour were limitless.  They gave us a sense that the discoveries of science were bounded only by our imaginations.  And they inspired a new era of curiosity about the universe beyond our planet, curiosity about worlds many light-years beyond our reach.

Curiosity is as innate to the human condition as breathing. 

Australia has a proud history of scientific achievement.  This history encompasses Lawrence and William Bragg’s work on x-ray crystallography, Howard Florey and his life-saving research on penicillin, Macfarlane Burnett’s achievements in the field of immunology, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn and her ground-breaking work on telomeres, Professor Ian Frazer’s cancer vaccine – and Professor Brian Schmidt’s remarkable observations about our universe.

As proud as that history is fewer Australian children are now studying science at school.  That is a concern, because without their pursuit of academic studies in science, we may not see the next generation of Elizabeth Blackburns and Brian Schmidts making the great discoveries of tomorrow.

And so we need remarkable achievements in order to ignite the flame of curiosity and keep it burning in the next generation.  Because we need scientists.

Professor Schmidt and his High-Z Supernova Search Team were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering that the expansion of our universe is accelerating.  This has implications about the nature of dark energy which appears to be responsible for this acceleration and which comprises about three quarters of our universe.  We are yet to fully understand these implications.  The mysteries associated with this discovery tell us that, for all we now know about the universe, there is much more that we do not know.

Professor Schmidt’s research goes to the very origins of our existence and raises questions that are truly wondrous.  And that is surely the key to encouraging more people to study science.

It is these kinds of questions which will inspire our kids to be curious about science, to be inspired and full of wonder at the mysteries of our universe.  And through this pursuit of knowledge, they will become the scientists who will solve the great contemporary challenges of humankind: from food security to the eradication of diseases, to climate change and developing commercial models for renewable energy.

All of these serious policy challenges highlight the significance of science to our nation – and our nation’s Parliament.

Science underpins so much of the work that our Parliament does.  As Parliamentarians, we aspire to make good policy on the basis of rigorous science in areas like health, resources, conservation, and even economic policy.

Yet just as science informs the work of our Parliament, so too the work of the Parliament underpins science, whether through supporting the operations of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) or the funding of research at universities and other institutes.

The Parliamentary Friends of Science aims to build closer links between Australian scientists and Parliamentarians.  It is about giving members of Parliament access to the very best scientific research in relevant areas of policy.  Equally, it is about bringing the important work of our scientific community to the attention of Parliamentarians.

It is a collaboration that we need to have. And so, along with the Member for McPherson, Karen Andrews, my co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friends of Science, I am very pleased and proud to be part of this endeavour.

I encourage scientists, students and politicians alike to join in.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.

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17 comments

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    • iansand says:

      07:03am | 25/09/12

      Congratulations on being part of the Parliament that has succeeded in politicising science.

    • Achmed says:

      07:45am | 25/09/12

      Parliament has been funding science for many years.  Even the Liberal demi-god (sic) Howard used science when he proposed intorducing an ETS.
      How do you figure it is THIS parliament that politicised science?

    • iansand says:

      08:42am | 25/09/12

      When Howard introduced an ETS it was basically bi-partisan.  It isn’t now.

    • Achmed says:

      06:11pm | 25/09/12

      because that would mean Abbott would have the same policy as Gillard and with his immature “its the role of Opposition to oppose” stance he is stuck with opposing something that he supported.

    • Mahhrat says:

      07:27am | 25/09/12

      We should be leading the world in science.  We have a vast range of climates, stable geography, and we *should* have top quality education for all the major sciences.

      At the risk of nauseatingly poor cliche, we’ve traded long enough on being the lucky country; time we got smart.

    • Rhino says:

      09:57am | 25/09/12

      +1
      Science, beyond maths, should be a compulsory subject at school all the way to year 12 (even if it is only some sort of “General Science is Special” basic course).

    • Lisa Meredith says:

      12:40pm | 25/09/12

      Dear Mahhrat and Rhino,

      +2

      If we expect science to deliver the technology we rely on and use every day, then I believe it is incumbent upon us to know and understand science.

    • HC says:

      08:59am | 25/09/12

      The problem is that stupidity is as boundless as our imagination and as long as stupid people walk the halls of parliament (afterall the only good Australian politician is a dumb one) science and the enlightenment it provides will forever be treated with contempt.

      Whether it’s the conservatives and their reliance on ignorance to garner support or the progressives and their contempt of people who are intellectually superior, science is doomed to a new dark age in the near future in this country.  Unless of course it can turn a buck or three.

    • GigaStar says:

      09:26am | 25/09/12

      Our next Ian Frazer is still at Uni paying twice as much in fees for his science course as someone doing feminist or peace studies.

    • Rhino says:

      09:59am | 25/09/12

      And a massive amount more than the politicians, who made university cost money, paid when they got there free university education.

    • Alfie says:

      11:30am | 25/09/12

      It ain’t Tim Flannery then?

    • GigaStar says:

      12:34pm | 25/09/12

      Alfie says:11:30am | 25/09/12 “It ain’t Tim Flannery then?”

      No, he too busy with his waterfront property.

    • nihonin says:

      09:35am | 25/09/12

      acotrel, this would be a great job for you, act as an intermediary.  You’d be perfect seeing as you say you are a scientist and you believe you know all there is to know about politics, step up and do your bit for the country.

    • MF says:

      12:08pm | 25/09/12

      Where’s our next Ian Frazer, you ask?

      Like most other highly trained scientists, they probably got their PhD here and then took off overseas already due to lack of funding opportunities and effectively no possibility of tenure in Australia.

    • SydneyGirl says:

      01:54pm | 25/09/12

      While the situation here is not good, let’s not forget that Dr Frazer - and his oft forgotten collaborator, Jian Zhou - were both immigrants to this country and it was their work at UQ that lead to the vaccine.

      There tend to be a lot of immigrants - including from non-English speaking places, the sciences being one of few places where it is not a huge deal - who work here and contribute to the sciences. Some return, some stay on.

    • MF says:

      03:06pm | 25/09/12

      Yes, and they came here long before the current situation in academia came to fruition. Research budgets being slashed. There are no opportunities for early career researchers. Even mentioning the desire for tenure is laughed off as a joke by mid- to senior-career academics.

      Things have changed wildly since Ian Frazer moved to Australia.

    • SydneyGirl says:

      03:32pm | 25/09/12

      MF I am a scientist. and I agree that its a daily struggle-way too many adhoc positions and no job security.  Its a small country and in general academics is a sideshow here.  I don’t know when that will change.

      Still a lot of folk stay on/return from the US and do good work. And foreign students do come even though the US is the prime destination- they form a fair proportion of PhDs and postdocs . 

      Not sure about this parliamentary friends thing though!

 

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