Scientists forced to rely on pseudo-science

Nic Crowther
Thu 02 Apr

It's a shame that scientists have to stoop so low.

Australia's well-regarded Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, released a report last week that was soaked in good intentions.

It was called "The Importance of Advanced Physical and Mathematical Sciences to the Australian Economy", and it estimated how much Australia's economy has benefited from the past two decades of scientific research.

It was the first time anyone has attempted to do such a thing in Australia. It showed "advanced sciences" contribute more than $145 billion directly to the economy each year, or roughly 11 per cent of GDP, and employ more than 760,000 people. It said its conclusions were probably conservative. I wrote a story about it last week because Professor Chubb is someone of distinction who put some resources into the effort, and it was a dual-project with the Australian Academy of Science, which is the country's leading scientific academy. They both obviously felt that certain governments in Australia, and their talkback radio mates, have forgotten the real value of science and needed reminding. Fair enough. I agree with them about that. But their report should make people uncomfortable. It shows lofty science has started to behave like less noble lobby groups. 

They have hired for the first time an economic consultancy firm to put a dollar value on science's contribution to the economy because they obviously understand that they need to put a price tag on things – the environment, the planet, human life, science itself – to get taken more seriously in Canberra.

It's a sorry sight. The economics firm they hired developed an economic model to show how many jobs are created by science in Australia, and how much science contributes to our GDP.It is a favourite tactic of groups like the Minerals Council, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Housing Industry Association. And how did the economics firm pull it off? To its credit, it took the job seriously.It held a two-day workshop with top scientists from maths, physics, statistics, and nuclear and earth sciences, and asked them to think seriously about the last two decades of scientific research and how that research has become "embodied" in economic inputs (labour, capital and systems).

(The workshop was lots of fun apparently. The mathematicians claimed they were responsible for everything).

After the workshop, the firm then talked to various industries to find out what kind of contribution they felt advanced science made to their daily working lives.Then, using the ABS's 2006 ANZSIC industry classification system that divides the Australian economy into 506 industry classes, it identified 158 industry classes that are "science-based".That list of industries includes oil and gas extraction, general insurance, iron ore mining, wired telecommunications, pathology and diagnostic services, banking, fossil fuel electricity generation.Then the firm developed a computerised general equilibrium (CGE) model, based on the publicly available MMRF-NRA model that was developed by the Productivity Commission, which is an impossibly complicated model to use.

It provides a detailed account of investment, imports, exports, changes in prices, employment, industry activity, and household sending and savings; it accounts for differing economic fundamentals in every state and territory; it can produce results on employment and "valued added" at the regional level, and it can be run in static or dynamic mode, with the dynamic version tracing impacts over time as the economy adjusts to changes in policy and activity.

Feel your head whirring? You're not alone. 

I like to think of the model as a big rig of pulley wheels and ropes. If you pull on one rope the whole apparatus will hiss steam, and starts lifting different weights and buckets into the air, all at different levels.It has hundreds of thousands of different combinations, and buckets can fly every which way.But for the model to actually work, the economics firm had to figure out how each scientific discipline contributes to every industry.And that's where the main problem comes in.

That process was largely a normative one – scientists and industry types would basically have to guess when they assigned a proportion or percentage to each discipline.So, when it comes to beer manufacturing, say, how much do you think science contributes? Well, the model reckons science accounts for 10 per cent of the industry's gross value added, with maths (0.3) and chemistry (0.7) sharing that 10 per cent load unevenly. And those proportions were largely guesswork.

Now repeat that process hundreds of times as you go through every industry.That's how Professor Chubb's headline figures were created: "Advanced sciences" contribute more than $145 billion directly to the economy each year, or roughly 11 per cent of GDP. Sound believeable?

Despite its honest and worthy intentions, it's sad that the Academy of Science felt that it had to play a magician's game, like every other lobby group, to get Canberra to take them more seriously and stop cutting funding. It's also dispiriting to think that it had to rely on pseudo-science to remind policymakers not to take real science for granted. How have things come to this in Australia?