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The Abbott Government and the Future of Australia

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Like thousands of Australians I have been almost consumed by frustration over the political situation in Australia over the last several decades. To anyone reading these pages that will come as no surprise. The last 25 or so years have for the most part been exceptionally difficult as politically and economically the country seemed to retreat to the past, to embrace more than most other countries an economic model which on examination lacks any real justification in history or people’s behaviour, a subject I have already traversed in the context of education policy.

Australia has achieved some astounding things in its relatively short history.

And it has been through some horrendous experiences, though almost as nothing compared to what has fallen on the citizens of many countries. And continues!

But more than that, the embrace of a policy – neoclassical or market economics – which focuses so much on the short run, on a belief in the merits of competition and financial rewards and more, indeed an ultimate gain in individual gratification through financial success, has led to further marginalisation of the less advantaged and ongoing limitation in the expectations for many. That is seen in policies for education and housing which entrench advantage, in limited investment in infrastructure of all kinds and in continued reliance on resource exploitation and primary production, a “dig it up and ship it out” mentality which allows that commercial enterprises, especially those owned by overseas interests, need not necessarily devote resources to research and development in this country because the answers can be got from overseas, sometimes from their branches. In particular little attention has been paid to economic diversification whilst the contribution of some areas of the economy, especially mining, are vastly exaggerated by their supporters. The Australia Institute has released reports showing, for instance, that solar energy contributes more to the economy than coal mining.

To some, such things as concern for the disadvantaged, for universal access to education and universal health care, to decent housing for everyone and to functioning and attractive physical and natural environments, to a system of justice which recognises and protects the dignity and justifiable right to reasonable privacy for all, a society in which creativity and inquiry are valued and not least a society in which diversity, cultural, racial, gender, age and more including sexual orientation, seem justifiable only in an economic frame. That these things, along with workplaces which respect and appropriately reward the unique contribution of everyone, do actually contribute very substantially indeed to economic success is evident beyond any doubt to anyone who considers that evidence. Seemingly, that is not sufficient to those who allow that personal experience and entrenched belief should trump everything. So political propaganda and patronage of fear can play havoc and divert attention from the imperatives of the future in favour of the emergencies of the present. Something that the wonderful Barry Jones said decades ago.

Ignoring the substantial contributions that Australians have made to science and the arts are just part of the mix, a view that innovation is something that business does but government doesn’t. That is wrong! As Mariana Mazzucato points out in her book The Entrepreneurial State (Anthem, 2014), very many extremely significant commercial developments developed from basic “blue sky” research by government funded agencies, not from business. Business takes on the results of the basic research and brings the product to market. To do that requires business to be prepared to take risks, including the risk of failure, an essential element of innovation. The claim for certainty heard often from business is antithetical innovation and ignores the real world.

The response? The Australian government’s spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP is now the lowest it has been since 1978 and the third lowest of any OECD country. For several decades there has been a drive for CSIRO to be more commercially oriented and substantial numbers of staff have been lost from the organisation. In 2007 the Productivity Commission reported concerns about the focus and called for the tax breaks for business investment should not be targeted only at commercial benefit. Then science minister Julie Bishop dismissed the concerns.

In October 2014 the Abbott government announced $500 millions for programs entirely directed at certain areas of the commercial economy and Industry Minister Macfarlane acknowledged that there were concerns about reductions in funding but blamed the budgetary situation!   At the same time most other countries are investing heavily in science. The 2013 budget contained very substantial cuts to research in universities and proposed increasing charges for students attending universities. These were part of proposed university deregulation which large universities, some policy groups like the Grattan Institute and the Business Council supported. That is despite clear evidence that in Australia the return to the community is far greater than that to the individual.

Of course we do well in sport: well we don’t actually achieve internationally in sport as we do in the arts and in science, for our size. Recall the number of leading actors, dance companies, orchestras – the Australian Chamber Orchestra recognised as the best small orchestra in the world – authors and musicians. Films don’t miss out because they are no good but because of the scene being swamped by huge promotional spends by overseas companies.

The fact that business can thrive quite satisfactorily and at the same time be regulated to protect the legitimate interests of the citizenry is not a deeply held view. Too often, especially in respect of financial institutions (which incidentally have done best from the measures put in place to confront the Global Financial Crisis), an attempt by government to regulate is howled down. For the governments led by John Howard and Tony Abbott almost any regulation is seen as a burden. Indeed the Abbott government seems intent on abandoning any role in regulation and even the notion of Australia as a nation except in respect of defence and foreign policy and a few other things such as “being open for business”, whatever that means. Providing we determine who comes to this country and allowed to stay!

All of these issues are ones traversed energetically in the increasing conversations in social media and more serious places. But governments in the last 25 years have not necessarily listened to those views which do not suit their philosophies. Though one would have to say that the Rudd and Gillard governments were characterised by substantially greater intelligence than some others. A contested view of course. But think education reform and the response to the Global Financial Crisis. And the substantial raft of legislation passed despite it being a minority government: being supported by intelligent and committed independents made a difference which Abbott refused to admit, branding the government illegitimate but not labelling the coalition government of David Cameron in the UK with that epithet.

Go back further and think of the reforms of the Hawke and Keating Governments, not just economically. The Whitlam government whose achievements have been so acknowledged in the last weeks of October following the death of Gough Whitlam aged 98, achievements of vast long-term economic importance, achievements denied at the time. The Fraser government which enacted some of the Whitlam initiatives, embraced humanitarian approaches to asylum seekers and immigrants which have so enriched this country in the context of multiculturalism initiated during the Whitlam years, difficult though that was. And advanced Indigenous interests.

Now we face critical issues at almost every turn. As I have already written, these essays under the subject of “In Australia” address some of those issues and eventually will suggest some approaches for the future. But the views and suggestions are just more amongst the many views and suggestions of others, the thoughts and opinions of the many Australians whose commitment and intelligence will be evident to anyone reading, listening to or watching the more serious publications, radio and television programs. Most of the last two and some of the first are to be found on the platforms of the ABC and SBS, media branded as inefficient at best and biased at worst by those of the right. Despite being trusted by over 80 per cent of the population on every survey! Despite their attention to the very values which so many cherish and which on occasion have been embraced politically.

The next two essays address a very difficult subject: is the Abbott government competent to lead the country.

John Howard, Climate Change Denier and much more!

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

It would be easy to dismiss former Prime Minister John Howard’s address, to acolytes in London, presented at the invitation of climate sceptic and former UK Chancellor Lord Lawson. Over at New Matilda Ben Pobje has done that. So have others including Guy Rundle and Max Gillies in their 2002 production Your Dreaming: Poets, Pontificators and Expatriates and Jonathan Biggins and others at the Sydney Theatre Company satirise numerous politicians and others every year in their Revue.

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Related articles: Australia’s Carbon Emissions Target: Intellectual Laziness At Work

Owl’s Hoots No. 13: Co-Producing The Museum And What Actually Do We Think We’re Doing?

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Several of Howard’s statements are gratuitous, several are misrepresentations.

Howard’s principal statements must be identified for what they are. To suggest that the climate scientists’ statements are “sanctimonious” and that the term “denier” has some overtone of intimidation, as Howard does,  is to misrepresent the meanings of words and the nature of the discourse.

Howard misrepresents the present state of scientific understanding by branding it as a mantra, as a set of views to be not denied. And he asserted, “In the past five years, the dynamic of the global warming debate has shifted away from exaggerated acceptance of the worst possible implications of what a majority of climate scientists tell us, towards a more balanced, and questioning approach.” Rubbish! Dangerous stupid rubbish!

This article is posted at my blog site.

Australia’s Carbon Emissions Target: Intellectual Laziness At Work

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Most of us have difficulty admitting we have been wrong. More importantly, views which cannot be supported by reasonably intelligent analysis of the facts at hand can be considered intellectual laziness, the failure to keep abreast of the latest knowledge. Behavioural economic and other studies reveal people are more wedded to their preconceived views based on their own experience and the views of those they respect than they are to what is revealed by the latest information and experience. Only what agrees with the past is retained.

That is something that typifies Tony Abbott’s ministers. The debate around climate change and Australia’s strategies have been bogged down by absolute refusal to depart from earlier policy decisions despite overwhelming evidence on two fronts, one of which is well traversed, the other less so but just as important.

The less well-known evidence has been covered several times in recent months by the splendid website Climate Spectator. The most informative article, by Tristan Edis on 16 August last year, pointed out that Australia’s abatement task may in fact be much lower than anticipated. Attention is drawn to this in the just released report from the about to be axed Climate Authority. The reduction needed is actually about a third of what it was previously estimated. So, what is Minister Hunt’s problem in committing to increasing the emissions reduction target to 15%? Or better still 25%!

Increasing frequency and severity of storms and drought all over the world flowin g from rising temperatures make taking action more important than ever. Messrs Abbott and Hunt and others denied a link between climate change and the recent fires in New South Wales. The just released Intergovernmental Panel’s Fifth Report states clearly in one of its graphs, as pointed out by Tristan Edis, that for each of the three scenarios extreme fire weather is a significant feature!

This post is also on my blog site.

UNDERSTANDING MUSEUMS – UPDATE

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On June 10 last year I reported that the first part of Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, edited with Leon Paroissien, had been published as an e-book by the National Museum of Australia.

Late in the year the remaining essays were published. The complete e-book includes 25 separate essays covering everything from a review of the Pigott Report, developments since 1970 in museums generally through progress in art, science and history, education and touring exhibitions, digitisation and social media.

Following a consideration of the recent history of museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien,  Anne-Marie Condé of the National Museum reviews the important Pigott Report into museums and national collections which reported ot the Australian Government in late 1975. Ian Cook, inaugural Director of the State Conservation Centre of South Australia (later called Artlab Australia) and colleagues describe advances in collection conservation, Tim Hart from Museum Victoria and Martin Hallett from Arts Victoria recount the revolution in technology in museums. Des Griffin considers the very recent advances in technology and social media.

John Stanton of the Berndt Museum writes on ethnographic museums and Bernice Murphy, presently National Director of Museums Australia discusses Indigenous art and art museums whilst Michael Pickering of the National Museum and Phil Gordon of the Australian Museum review repatriation.

Discussions of History and museums are provided by Peter Stanley of the National Museum, Tim Sullivan of Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Margaret Anderson of the South Australian History Trust, Kevin Jones of the South Australian Maritime Museum and Viv Szekeres, formerly director of the Migration Museum in Adelaide.

Daniel Thomas, one time director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, provides an overview of art museums. Caroline Turner, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and the Arts at the ANU recvounts the expansion in international exhibitions and independent consultant Anne Kirker reviews paper conservation in art museums.

Natural history museums and their challenges are discussed by Doug Hoese, onetime head of science at the Australian Museum. Michael Gore, foundation director Questacon in Canberra, and Susan Stocklmayer, director of the ANU Centre for the public Awareness of Science review science centres.

Regional Museums are considered by Margaret Rich, former director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat and by museum and heritage consultant Kylie Winkworth. Representatives of various regional museum organisations consider developments in many of the states of Australia.

Lastly, education and the visitor experience in museums, one of the fields in which there have been significant advances, is addressed by Jennifer Barrett of Sydney University who describes museum studies at universities, Barbara Piscitelli, researcher on young children and museums, who focuses on the relationship that children have with museums, Janette Griffin of the University of Technology Sydney who reviews school students’ learning in museums and Lynda Kelly of the Australian Museum who discusses family visits.

Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), 2011, Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia.

The first part of a volume on developments in museums in Australia since the 1960’s has just been published as an e-Book on the web site of the National Museum of Australia.

Museums were established across many parts of the Australian continent during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. However it was in the latter part of the twentieth century that the greatest burgeoning of museums occurred. These decades also witnessed the consolidation of a sophisticated museum profession, the creation of a single national professional association “Museums Australia” and an active participation of Australian museum professionals in the international museum context. The essays in this section jointly seek to present a scholarly study of museums and museum practice that is also accessible to people outside the museum profession, who daily demonstrate their active interest in museums and their programs.

There are 11 essays in five sections.

Museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

Conservation in Australian museums by Ian Cook et al.

Ethnographic museums and collections by John E Stanton

Transforming culture by Bernice Murphy

Repatriation by Michael Pickering and Phil Gordon

War and Australia’s museums by Peter Stanley

History in the new millennium or problems with history? by Tim Sullivan

Art museums in Australia by Daniel Thomas

International exhibitions by Caroline Turner

Collecting works on paper by Anne Kirker

Museums and the environment by Douglass F Hoese

The second part to be published in late June or July will include further essays on history and science museums. Additional sections will deal with education programs and regional museums and there will be essays on museums and digitisation and social media.