Why Australian leadership would benefit from more scientists


The world would be better served by our leaders acting as scientists do, coming up with the best solutions based on the evidence at hand, says Robin Batterham.


With another sitting Prime Minister dispatched – the fifth change in leadership in as many years – you would be forgiven for thinking the current state of affairs was little more than a circus instigated by reactionary behaviour to public opinion.

These actions are not confined to the Liberal Party. We only need to look back a few years to the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, which saw the Labor party tear itself apart, much like the Liberals, at the altar of the opinion poll.

The recent Liberal Party leadership spill, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and increasing populism sweeping the globe all reflect the changing tone and qualities we now expect our leaders to possess.

We are well and truly living in the post-truth, fake news era, where three-word slogans, policies based on short-termism and an obsession with public perception reign supreme.

A public return to scientific principles

“I suggest it be mandatory that all leaders should have had scientific training, at least in school and preferably for those that go on to university.”

This is why I plead for a public return to scientific principles. Using the elements of science and the scientific method to help understand whether a proposal (in almost any field) is good, bad or indifferent is universal, but we are not seeing this type of decision-making being applied to some of society’s most pressing issues.

Let us consider two current issues dominating the Australian media: the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), and the drought devastating 99% of NSW and ever-increasing parts of Queensland, Western Australia, northern Victoria and South Australia.

The proposals for drought relief so far do not include addressing the natural resilience of soils or building the soil carbon levels up from their current (in many cases) depleted states. Science is not driving decision making.

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel

We are lucky in Australia to have an Office of the Chief Scientist, currently occupied by a very capable person. Alan Finkel has access to ministers, reviews, and experts in virtually any field, as well as a great working relationship with the bureaucracy and I have long argued that science needs to be embedded in government, particularly the parts of government responsible for industry and technology.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has done well in following this line, appointing Karen Andrews as the Industry, Science and Technology Minister. However, they don’t appear to be influencing national responses to very real crises.

Leadership everywhere could benefit from the kind of objective, evidence-based discipline that science provides. This is why I suggest it be mandatory that all leaders should have had scientific training, at least in school and preferably for those that go on to university, at least for one year or a continuing subject through their whole course.

Scientific reasoning is about making a postulate, checking it against evidence and then using the postulate to take a step in to the future. This methodology, the evidence-based approach, may often deliver results that are not popular but, by definition, will often get things right. When the postulate proves unsound against further evidence, then it has to be changed or dropped.

Science is about the utility of postulates. It is not about truth, false news, opinion polls, number of tweets or any other form of populism: it is simply about understanding the world we live in so that we have the best idea of what comes next.

Populism antithetical to the way of science

“The need to base one’s actions on the scientific method runs totally counter to populism.”

I was recently intrigued to note the KPIs for a minister of a state government include the daily number of followers on social media accounts.

From one perspective, the number of followers is a measure of the relevance of a minister and their portfolio, which is a good thing. But it is equally a measure of populism, which can be totally antithetical to the way of science. The need to base one’s actions on the scientific method runs totally counter to populism, and as a result, seeking a government leadership position is obvious anathema to most people with training or a degree in science.

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany and a chemist by trade, is a good example to look to. While Merkel, like her Western contemporaries, is not immune to reacting to public opinion (she limited the life of nuclear reactors, despite their superior emissions track record to date, in the face of public discontent), we consistently see that time and time again, she is guided by evidence and a steady hand.

If we want to attract leaders who, like Merkel, approach leadership and decision-making rationally, we need to start at the university level. While training our students in emotional intelligence and resilience, it is as important for all university faculties to engage students in a lively debate as to whether the world should blend populism with rational, science-based choices.

At the end of the day, it’s not about attracting more scientists to positions of power — although a few more Merkels would certainly be nice. It’s about changing our expectations of leaders around the way they analyse situations and consult with experts and other stakeholders.

I firmly believe the world would be better served by our leaders acting as scientists do; working together cohesively to come up with the best solutions based on the evidence at hand.

Professor Robin Batterham features in the new University of Melbourne podcast series, Expert Hack. He is an Australian scientist specialising in chemical engineering and was the Chief Scientist of Australia from 1999 to 2006.

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