Archive for the 'Science' Category
Saturday, January 21st, 2017
As has been pointed out in several earlier posts and essays on this website, education policy in the last 40 or so years, in a number of western countries though not to the same extent in much of Europe and Asia, has increasingly focused on the school years, emphasised parent choice as to the school the child attends, demands accountability in the form of standardised tests on a few core subjects, tends, in a few countries, to favour independent schools rather than public or government schools and seeks to hold teachers to account for the achievement of the students.
The high quality research on the other hand reveals early childhood as critical in terms of brain development and cognitive gain and recognises socioeconomic status of the family to play a major role in the early years which follows through to later experience. The reason is to be found in the very different advantage enjoyed by high socio-economic level families, the greater variety of experiences and much higher level of support of the growing child. Just like health, as Boyer lecturer Michael Marmot so lucidly explains.
As to school, substantial research shows that, by controlling for socioeconomic background, independent schools return no greater student performance than do public schools. It is the value added and the fact that school is by no means the only influence: there are also peers and out of school informal learning experiences. Teacher competence is vital, greatest successes being achieved when entry standards for teachers are high, teaching is recognised as important, teachers trusted and school leadership focuses on supporting the role of teachers in learning and encourages cooperation, preferably among schools, not just within each one.
It is not schools that make the difference but teachers. Competition among schools hinders cooperation which New Zealand found in its 1990 reforms. And parents don’t choose schools only on the basis of academic performance: the background of other students enrolled, something more amenable to parental investigation than learning achievement relative to that at other schools, may be very important. So what is the point?
In a number of countries debate focuses nearly exclusively on the release of results from standardised tests and media commentary attends hardly at all to agreed understandings from research as to what makes a difference: there is an obsession with school average scores and rank, and in international tests with country rank and trend across test years of the individual country. In the US, the UK and Australia this is especially so.
Important results of tests were released in the last two months of 2016 and debate followed the usual course. But extremely important research and commentary also appeared: the research was not of much interest to media or politicians in Australia. Social determinants of education were not exactly ignored in Australia but the strong position of non-government schools achieved very much as a result of increased funding by the Australian government from the time of the Howard government made consideration of inequality much less of an issue than it should be: some commentators ignored or denied the importance of such issues.
Inequality was a major feature of the very important report by the Panel chaired by David Gonski: the adoption of some of the recommendations led to legislation envisaging increased funding to address school need, something also addressed 40 years earlier by the Whitlam government. The government of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull refuse to recognise the importance of this and continually talk of substantially increased expenditure on schools that their government has provided, an increase which is illusory, and of course, the importance of quality teaching. Meaning what, exactly?
The latest national tests administered as part of the NAPLAN program in December produced the usual flurry. The fact is the program’s value is suspect and there is no evidence it has contributed to improved ahcviement, a point made already! Disability of various kinds, remoteness and indigeneity are revealed as negative contributors. One does not need standardised tests to reveal that.
Tests are summative and not accompanied by any real analysis of contributory factors. Minister Simon Birmingham, like his predecessor Christopher Pyne, intends to bring the tests on line and favours introducing the test to an even earlier school year than at present. Some people ridiculously obsessed with accountability in the name of finding out which students need special help, as if teachers do not know that already, want tests introduced to preschool kids. Creativity anyone? Is play irrelevant? Important research on formative evaluation, to which student self-assessment makes a vital contribution, is ignored in the government’s approach.
Some of the commentary in the context of the NAPLAN talkfest addressed the need to trust teachers and others asserted the Minister was wrong in his intention to not fund the reforms resulting from the Gonski Panel. Presumably the Coalition would have agreed. So it was interesting to find that Minister Birmingham raised the fact that a number of schools – specifically a large number of independent ones – were overfunded and presumably should lose money through redistribution. Researchers were able to identify the overfunding and its location. Next?
It is hard to go past the most recent claims by Senator Simon Birmingham’s recent claims about funding and achievement as an indication of the way in which the government continues to distort claims about school education. Birmingham continually claims huge increases in funding by government and points to poor results from the funding.
A recent “Education Brief” from Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools addresses the claim by the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, that a 50 per cent increase in Federal funding of schools since 2003 failed to improve student achievement is highly misleading in several ways. Cobbold’s research “Birmingham is Wrong Again on School Funding and Outcomes” of Sunday January 22, 2017 shows that “the increase in total government funding (from Commonwealth and state/territory sources) per student, adjusted for inflation, for the nine years from 2004-05 to 2013-14 was only 4.5 per cent”. Most of the increase in total funding per student favoured private schools (9.8 per cent) who enrol only a small proportion of disadvantaged students; for public schools it was only 3.3 per cent.”
Cobbold also pointed out that Minister Birmingham ignored “significant improvements in Year 12 outcomes that are in sharp contrast to the PISA results. The average retention rate to Year 12, the Year 12 completion rate, the proportion of students achieving an ATAR score of 50 or more, and the proportion of young adults with Year 12 or equivalent vocational qualification have all increased significantly over the past 10-15 years”.
Last, Cobbold again pointed out that the Minister ignored the many academic studies, “including five in the past year”, which showed that increased funding does improve school outcomes, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The shortfalls of NAPLAN are to a large extent offset in the OECD program PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) because its reports are not just lists of scores but includes substantial analysis of contributory factors, a fact generally ignored in commentary. PISA results largely confirm and amplify other research so when some in the US particularly seek to downplay the results because of behaviours in some countries such as intense after school coaching or because, non-random sampling to game the system – really? – it isn’t much of a contribution. Much of the analysis is ignored in a lot of the commentary though not by researchers, or the conclusions even contradicted.
Years ago, a leader of the ALP Opposition proposed that independent schools had too much money and should reallocate some of it to government schools. He was roundly condemned. Prime Minister Julia Gillard tried to avoid this outcome by having as one of the terms of reference for the Gonski Inquiry, which was to focus on school funding only, that no school would lose funds as a result of any reforms. The renewed debate forgot that small point and didn’t got to the fact that the Gillard Government in legislating recommendations from the Gonski Panel did not provide for an independent body to establish and monitor school need. Now the issue has resurfaced. Is inequality being kept to the fore? Problems do exist with the measure of socioeconomic background of the students at each school and that is not being addressed either.
There is a view that support for almost any approach to school education can be found in the PISA results; moreover, last year’s results are not the product of last year’s teaching but of the previous 10 years, based probably on policy formulated 10 years before that.
Two major contributions appeared but received not much attention. Both are among the most important of recent years. Distinguished researcher John Hattie of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education presented a special lecture reviewing the current situation, emphasising many of the most important features of successful schooling and teaching and learning and criticising some of the abject failures of the present system. Hattie’s research involves substantial meta-analysis. He called for a rebooting of school education and also lamented the presently inadequate attention to teacher training, explained the importance of classroom feedback to the teacher and the tragic neglect of early childhood.
A major study at the Mitchell Institute’s Centre for International Research on Education Systems by Professor Stephen Lamb and colleagues gathered data from many different sources to review educational opportunity, who succeeds and who misses out at important stages of life from early childhood through to the early years of adulthood after emergence from the formal education system. Very important commentary is contributed about the factors contributing to why some win and others loose.
Continue to the associated essay Educational Opportunity and Education Reform
One of the major areas of real concern is the achievement level in science and mathematics and related subjects. Substantial research in this area elucidates what is likely to lead to superior achievement through genuine engagement of students, schools working with students and portrayal of the scientific enterprise as conducted by real people struggling to understand, not a litany of facts. There are many examples of exciting success though they don’t necessarily end up on the front pages or Minister’s speeches, even when they are Prime Minister’s prizes. A recent post by Professor Russell Tytler of Deakin University merits attention.
Tuesday, December 30th, 2014
This year 2014 has been one of the most difficult years Australians have faced in peacetime. It is a year in which a government showed itself incapable of governing and the citizenry by and large made clear they were not prepared to be a party to an attack on the economy of those less advantaged, especially when they were told the policies would be fair.
So, the following constitutes a kind of end of year rave about Australia and the world at this time. It started out as a commentary on the response to friends about the article of last May by Warwick Smith in The Guardian on the budget: number of economists who agree with government economic policy? Nil.
I am deliberately posting this instead of placing it as an article amongst the pages of this site. This post has also been published on my blog.
The Abbott-led Opposition had consistently criticised the Gillard government as illegitimate and non-functional when it was in fact legitimate (as are many coalition governments around the world) and was able to pass substantial amounts of legislation, albeit not all representing the best that could be put in place. In government, Abbott faced trouble from cross bench Senators throughout the year, passing little legislation.
Government claims of a welfare crisis were undermined by a Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research report that has tracked more than 12,000 people since 2001. The Survey showed working age Australians have become far less reliant on welfare payments since the turn of the century. As Peter Whiteford,Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University pointed out, Australia has the most targeted social security system in the OECD and that total social security payments in Australia, at 12 per cent of average household income, are the third-lowest in the OECD. Strategies aimed at getting more people on welfare, including youth and those receiving disability benefits, into work have nothing to say about job creation!
The Prime Minister Tony Abbott ended the year in very bad shape and indeed Treasurer Hockey is said to have failed. Many have been the commentators giving vent to their views on that: I don’t need to here. I have in recent posts. Except it is worth recalling that, on gaining office on September 8 2013, Mr Abbott declared the Nation “open for business”. Instead business confidence weakened, terms of trade declined and the deficit grew. There are multiple reasons which only shows the folly of making grand predictions about financial outcomes!
I do want to point out that the posts on this site have changed from ones that commented in a perhaps fairly staid manner on various issues to increasingly strident condemnation of trends in Australia and more generally. Apart from failures in education in many places the overwhelming failure has been in respect of climate change, though the outcomes of the meetings in Lima atd the end of 2014 perhaps give some hope.
It is fair to say that Australia is involved in conflicts in the Middle East which probably have nothing to do with Australia, or more correctly are unlikely to solved by our intervention or indeed the intervention of any outside power, hideous as the situation is.
Immigration has become a nightmare which decent Australians find appalling, policies based on lies, as pointed out by many including Julian Burnside, Malcolm Fraser and Sarah Hanson-Young, and a level of meanness which is hard to imagine.
Consider this contrasting decision: “Sweden has become the first European Union country to announce it will give asylum to all Syrian refugees who apply as reported by SBS for instance. “All Syrian asylum seekers who apply for asylum in Sweden will get it,” Annie Hoernblad, the spokeswoman for Sweden’s migration agency, told AFP. The agency made this decision now because it believes the violence in Syria will not end in the near future.” The decision, which will give refugees permanent resident status, is valid until further notice, added Hoernblad.”
The government has pursued energy policies totally at odds with any verifiable facts: carbon emissions were decreasing before the carbon tax was repealed and have increased since then with brown coal being burned in much higher amounts. Declines in household energy consumption and in petrol prices have delivered significantly much more financial gain to people than any action of the government. Energy retailers have been profligate – spending some $40 billions on infrastructure that will never be needed – and the Energy Regulator lacked discipline. The arguments for a reduction of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) are merely a sop to retailers and coal miners. (The actions of the Victorian State government in promoting urban transport infrastructure in a process which concealed the lies underlying the asserted outcome and unnecessary desalination infrastructure are similarly egregious.)
Government policies on health are utterly irrelevant. A co-paymdent has nothing to do with maintaining a healthy citizenry and the proposed $20 billion dollar research fund does not address chronic disease. Anyway the health minister was shoved off to Immigration in the December reshuffle whilst Social Services are to be subject to the discipline up to now imposed on Immigration. No hint there of increasing revenue other than further arguments about the regressive GST bolstered by ongoing assertions from Western Australia.
Proposals for funding education so that the major issue of disparities in advantage would be reduced have been trashed in a welter of lies and misrepresentations. Why hasn’t the media reported these two comments by the chair of the panel, the redoubtable David Gonski in his Jean Blackburn Oration to the Australian College of Educators?
“I found most of the schools happy places – places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked.
“To this day I remember a principal at a primary school in a very low socioeconomic area in the west of Sydney looking at me when I asked had he had any success in getting parents involved with the school. He noted that 40% of his student roll changed each year and that getting the kids to school within an hour of commencement each morning was his personal goal for the year – involvement of parents he had tried but just at the moment felt it was too hard.
Continuing to talk of what he saw, Gonski noted, “The outstanding professionalism of both the leaders of the commonwealth department involved in school education and a number of the equivalents in states.
“I confess that my un-researched approach was to assume they were the problem and that bureaucracies were crippling getting on with the job. I did not witness that in actuality at all and indeed saw the opposite. The people I met, who dealt with me, were on the whole open to change, experienced, intelligent and well-meaning. In my view we are lucky to have them.
“I should also mention that dealing with the representatives of the various sectors be they from the catholic system, the independent school sector, the education unions and others was a pleasure. All had designated views and agendas but all dealt with us cooperatively and constructively. This I found very reassuring for the future – and I take the opportunity of this “postscript speech” to thank them.”
Despite evidence that universities are vitally important but that there are needs for improvement in teaching and that for reasons not explained large numbers of graduates have difficulty finding jobs, the government adopted policies for higher education that, like those for schools, had no basis whatsoever in evidence, were promoted by focus groups (which are relevant to what?) at great cost and advocated through an advertising program which did not mention the great cuts to research funding.
And the ABC and SBS had their funds further reduced. Like CSIRO, excuses were made and the issues ignored and the blame avoided. That any government concerned for education and an informed citizenry and future prosperity would of necessity generously fund scientific research and public broadcasting escapes these people. The ABC and SBS deliver an extraordinary array of material of extremely high quality. But as ABC’s Mark Scott has said the focus is on some small part of what they do. Skilled and experienced people left. Skilled and experienced scientists continued to leave CSIRO after a plethora of reviews over more than 25 years. In both places corporatisation has delivered exactly what?
The greatest tragedy of the budget, though in this sense the present government is not completely different only much worse, is the way it has ignored the major challenges facing humanity. Those will always be argued about but inequality, addressed by CEO of the IMF, the Governor of the Bank of England and French academic Thomas Piketty as well as a host of others, immediately comes to mind.
Of the many excellent reports of those challenges, the Oxford Martin Commission, “Now for the Long Term”, chaired by former Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Pascal Lamy (and including an astonishing array of internationally respected economists, specialists and political leaders) can be mentioned. And there are several insightful reports from the United Nations and the OECD. When Lamy visited Australia mid-year the Commission’s report received media attention only from the ABC and he met no government Minister! I don’t know if he met any business group. His talks in capital cities were booked out. (The visit was promoted by the Centre for Policy development.)
Here are three recent tweets of mine, relevant to the above, that those who do not tweet will have missed (no doubt to the relief of some):
Try this. If scientific organisations employed methods of banks & corporates astronomy would hardly have advanced beyond Galileo. More
Try this. If scientific organisations employed methods of banks & corporates we wd b drawing blood 2 cure illness. DNA search wd b 2 risky!
Advances gain f prev unknown knowledge & skills. Instead of colonisation & takeover try join w others 2 leverage knowledge Mkt econ model NO
If the meaning of these ravings are not clear, I can explain. I consider that banks and too many (not all) other corporates are engaged, not in innovative solutions to advance society, but simple behaviours merely to enrich a few people who fund them.
After all banks have gotten into trouble because they did things like decide to reward people for lending money without any regard to whether the loan would likely be repaid; they could have decided to reward only those who had made successful loans. Even better they could have engaged with a multiple of reinforcing goals such as “advance economic performance whilst encouraging innovation in pursuit of improving the health of minorities (or even the middle class)”.
Consider the recent behaviour of the ANZ bank (whose chair is a climate change denier) which bought an investment vehicle at a knock down price and then pursued the debtors, closing their mortgages if they missed one payment. These are farmers: what were National Party politicians like Barnaby Joyce doing? Answer: nothing!
The chair of the National Australia Bank Michael Chaney recently said that banks had a duty to fund the mining of coal! This is even more stupid than Abbott’s comment that coal was good. Banks have no obligation to fund anything other than what is consistent with their goals and prudent. Chaney was once chair of the Business Council and advocated then, as the BCA still does, nonsensical views about financial incentives driving teacher performance and test scores representing teacher competence.
The behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank is well known.
For the rest, consider corporate failings and illegal behaviours. I have a list.
As to colonisation and takeovers. The first thing to recognise is the huge cost over time. Most of these ventures are loss-making. Consider Vietnam and Algeria, not to mention French and British interests in the Middle East. (The British betrayed those who gave their support to the defeat of the Turkish forces in WW1 and British and French representatives divided up the land as they had in Africa to suit themselves.) The present insurgencies in Syria and Iraq represent the ongoing return on investment by those powers.
All colonised peoples have knowledge and skills of great value which are completely ignored and supressed so that the people can be applied to the simple tasks of working at little or no wages in enterprises which the colonizers have dreamed up as appropriate to achieving their own ends. Such as ground nut farming in East Africa. (See the history of pioneer ANU anthropologist Bill Stanner whose writings were recently edited by Robert Manne, the novel and play “The Secret River”, Bill Gammage’s book, “The Biggest Estate on Earth” and “Into the Heart of Darkness”, etc, etc)
Most company mergers in the end benefit only the lawyers who arrange the mergers and a few people who get “success fees”. What generally follows is downsizing or, in other words in not a few cases, at least temporary unemployment sometimes leading to worse. The simple solution to “wealth generation” is followed: cut the costs by increasing the margins which results in increase in the stock price which, since the “investors” leverage their borrowing against stock, represents a considerable gain for them. When they have made enough they sell on the company which by now is diminished. All a result of companies considering the main role to be generation of wealth for their shareholders rather than providing needed goods and services to a specific market.
The boards of such merged companies often contain no person who actually knows anything about the business; the directors are rewarded with large fees, a process which makes virtually no difference to performance as has been demonstrated by research on behavioural economics. Employees are hired by another company so the principal company doesn’t have to worry about the workplace conditions. And employees are engaged in whatever country pays the lowest wages with little or no regard to conditions of employment or any sense of decency. (See ‘Why Work Is More and More Debased’ by Robert Kuttner in New York Review of Books October 23, 2014 reviewing ‘The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad For So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It’ by David Weil and ‘Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street’ by Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt.)
The very much more productive alternative would be for companies to merge when each recognises the other has experience and skills which the principal company, or both, lacks but has identified as critical to its progress. What would follow is not sackings but a period of considerable training and development of all staff in the new company in the areas critical to success. Those asked to leave are only those who reveal that they are not comfortable with the nature of the new business. (IR policies rest on best practice as revealed by best research and law.)
If this seems too much like naïve and ignorant nonsense answer this question: how has the European Space Agency managed to land vehicles on a moon of Jupiter and a comet, a process which in each case involved hundreds of scientists from many different countries over a very long time? And how did they get the Hadron Super Collider to “discover” the Higgs particle? In the latter case the machinery broke down at one point: 3,000 scientists and technicians worked at fixing it! How have the hospitals which are expert at managing the most critical medical problems got to be that way? (This year’s Reith lectures by Michael Gawande give a clue about managing complex problems such as bringing back to life persons severely injured and seemingly dead after accidents. A clue: the answer isn’t money or competition. You guessed it, it is cooperation!)
Compare the ESA achievements with the relatively simple tasks of rolling out the NBN, installing pink bats, putting in place a universal ticketing system for Sydney’s public transport system and – yes I know that is very much more difficult than putting a decent education or health system in place against the wishes of entrenched privilege) – transiting to a low carbon economy!
The fact is that the politicians and the corporate boards we have in place are not fit for purpose, mainly through intellectual laziness and an overwhelming belief that what they have been brought up to believe is the eternal truth. The influence of those in leadership positions is followed almost unquestionably until they are found to be no longer of use! Sensible decision-making requires constant challenge and exposure to alternative views!
Almost none of these people would dare to consider the proposition that we would all be better off if there was a substantial reduction in inequality, if those on the margin, especially indigenous people*, were granted the dignity and recognition to which they are entitled including equitable access to the judicial system, if the poor were adequately housed rather than living on the street and the seriously disadvantaged cared for, if drug addiction were treated as an illness and not a crime, if children were encouraged to play by themselves unsupervised as part of their learning, if test scores at school were abandoned because all that can be measured is of little consequence, if investment in childhood education was considered the key to the future, if health care were paid for through taxes because the net gain to the community at large is positive over the longer term, if public transport, urban planning and health were recognised as fundamental to a just society and to gains in other areas, if industrial relations were recognised as constituting the processes for mutual satisfaction of competing wants in the alternative village that workplaces are, if investment in scientific research, certainly not economic growth or population growth, was recognised as the principal driver of future prosperity broadly defined. And if the military had to run cake stalls to generate the funding for their weapons!
I believe these are amongst the most important and critical issues. The economy is not the principal issue, at individual, family, local or national or international level. Writers like the Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay have been saying this for some time and so have many people who have pointed to the importance of issues beyond the economic.
In his commencement address at American University Jine 10 1963, President John F Kennedy said, “So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal…”
I finish with some of my favourite quotes. They come from the 2010 Deakin lecture by Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainability at the University of Surrey. (Jackson is featured on TED. One of the first actions of the UK government of David Cameron was to dismiss the UK Sustainable Development Commission: the parallels with Australia will be obvious.)
“The concept of prosperity as an ongoing drive for growth is inconsistent with human nature. … prosperity has a meaningful sense that isn’t directly about income growth. It’s about the health of our families. It’s about the trust of our friends. It’s about the security of our communities. It’s about participation in the life of society. It’s about some sense perhaps of having a meaningful life and a hope for the future…
“We evolved as much as social beings as we did as individual beings. We evolved as much in laying down the foundations for a stable society as we did in continually pursuing novelty…”
Some of these ideas are explored in my book “Education: the Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity” (published early this year by Springer) and in other posts on this site.
- Indigenous Australians fought in both world wars: they enlisted only by concealing their racial background. When they returned they were granted no benefits accorded to non-indigenous returned soldiers, not even able to enter RSL clubs. Their names are not inscribed on the honour rolls of the Australian War Memorial. (The huge turnout at a ceremony arranged by descendants of these people gives the lies to the proposition that symbolic gestures are of no significance and that what matters is practical reconciliation, in other words assimilation!) This was revealed in a Summer Special program on ABC RN on December 31 2014, and enterprise which as I have said, like most other things of value is being trashed by the present government.
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.
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.
Related articles: Australia’s Carbon Emissions Target: Intellectual Laziness At Work
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.
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.