The Rationalist Society of Australia has urged the new Labor government to consider establishing a Parliamentary Science Office that could provide scientific advice for all members of the parliament.
In a letter to Ed Husic, the newly appointed Minister for Industry and Science, RSA president Meredith Doig said it would be of great public benefit if all MPs and senators could have access to well-grounded and impartial scientific advice, evidence and data.
Such a body within the parliament would operate similarly to the existing Parliamentary Budget Office and similar bodies in parliaments overseas. While the executive branch of government can access multiple sources of scientific advice, MPs and senators rarely have direct access to such expertise.
Dr Doig noted that the idea for a Parliamentary Science Office was a recommendation of a Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry in 2021.
“At the RSA, we believe public policy should be made on the basis of evidence and the application of disinterested reason,” she said in the letter.
“It would be of great public benefit for all parliamentarians to have access to independent and impartial scientific data, analyses, and advice as they go about developing positions on public policy and debating legislation.
“This is especially so in areas of prior controversy – and misinformation – such as climate change, public health, and the environment.”
The Australian Academy of Science has also advocated for the idea, arguing that having a trusted source of scientific and technology advice for parliamentarians was more important than ever, given the rise of misinformation and disinformation in politics.
Dr Doig also urged Minister Husic to commit to boosting investment in research and development at Australian research institutions.
“Our research institutions should be – and we would argue, can be – world leaders in scientific and technological breakthroughs. We must stop and reverse the ‘brain drain’ of our best and brightest, and enable our universities to attract world-class researchers,” she said.
In the new term of parliament, the RSA will be pushing for policies that boost scientific research and innovation, and the place of science in society.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigl[email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Image: Ed Husic MP
Letter to Ed Husic, Minister for Industry and Science, 9 June 2022
Dear Minister Husic,
I’m writing to you on behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), Australia’s oldest freethought organisation, promoting reason and evidence-based policy since 1906.
Firstly, congratulations on your appointment as Minister for Industry and Science in the Albanese government.
It’s great to see Science back in cabinet, where it ought to be! And it’s great to see the passion you displayed for science in your speech to the Science and Technology Australia Gala Dinner earlier this month.
Science and the scientific method are among the most valuable developments in human history and they should be returned to a place of recognition, respect, and esteem.
A new Parliamentary Science Office
We believe a good place to start would be to establish a Parliamentary Science Office to offer well-grounded and impartial advice to MPs and senators, as does the existing Parliamentary Budget Office.
At the RSA, we believe public policy should be made on the basis of evidence and the application of disinterested reason. It would be of great public benefit for all parliamentarians to have access to independent and impartial scientific data, analyses, and advice as they go about developing positions on public policy and debating legislation. This is especially so in areas of prior controversy – and misinformation – such as climate change, public health, and the environment.
Parliaments in comparable countries have the equivalent of a Parliamentary Science Office. In 2021, a Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry into ‘Nationhood, national identity and democracy’ recommended the following:
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes a Parliamentary Office of Science, modelled on the United Kingdom Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, to provide independent, impartial scientific advice, evidence and data to the parliament, and all Members and Senators. (Recommendation 14)
This idea is supported by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), which says a trusted source of scientific and technology advice is more important than ever for parliamentarians:
Instant expertise from web searches rather than decades of diligent study, conspiracy theories and the spreading of doubt through multiple channels can lead to confusion and delay to the point of stasis. The world is more complicated than ever, and more dependent on science and science-based evidence than ever. The provision of trusted and independent expert advice is more critical than ever.
While the executive branch of government has multiple sources of scientific advice available to it, the AAS noted that MPs and senators rarely have direct access to such expertise.
Combatting misinformation and disinformation
Without a dedicated body providing the best available scientific advice, parliamentary processes remain vulnerable to misinformation or deliberate disinformation, poorly verified data, and data analyses based on opinion rather than corroborated conclusions based on sound scientific methods.
Rebuilding Australian R&D
We would also urge your government to value science by committing to boost investment in research and development at Australian research institutions, and by ensuring government funding of basic and applied research remains as independent as possible, not subject to the personal whims of ministers.
Our research institutions should be – and we would argue, can be – world leaders in scientific and technological breakthroughs. We must stop and reverse the ‘brain drain’ of our best and brightest, and enable our universities to attract world-class researchers. But this will only happen if our universities are once again appreciated for the value they can add to our economy, our culture and our society.
We look forward to your progress over the next few years and assure you that we are supportive of any initiative to return Australian science and technology to its rightful place at the centre of public policy development.
President, Rationalist Society of Australia