Globally, science is at a crossroads.
In the USA, a protectionist stance from policymakers and an increasingly inward focus have resulted in a restive public, giving rise to protest across spheres and sectors. This has sent ripples across the world, including in Australia.
While the practice of scientific inquiry is apolitical, science and technology themselves are a litmus test for a healthy political system. The ability to pursue science and technology freely and without favour serves as a measure of political freedom, and their applications provide the tools to preserve and enhance it.
In providing a universal language that transcends culture, science bridges communities across the globe. Its pursuit is impossible without collaboration and connection, and the benefits it yields serve our species as a whole. Consider transformational technologies such as the internet and smartphones, or the inspirational and pioneering recent discoveries of gravitational waves and liquid water on Mars.
Scientific research also allows countries to work together, and succeed together, in global arenas separate from political interest. It builds common ground and unites us against the common enemies of humankind – disease, hunger, poor sanitation, disadvantage and catastrophic threats to our environment.
Now, though, the international litmus test of policy and political support for scientific and technological advancement internationally is creeping dangerously towards the downside. It is vital that we do not forget the long list of advantages and benefits that come from collaborating internationally, from cooperating across cultures to learn, and from sharing our knowledge with the world – they far outweigh the risks or dangers.
Allowing free movement of researchers, empowering institutions and universities to attract the best and brightest from around the world, and allowing these women and men to conduct their work unimpeded by political machinations will benefit us all.
This isn’t the stuff of ivory towers. The potential for science to improve our health, wellbeing, and environment are recognised and supported by the average Australian voter. This week a poll conducted by the College of Arts and Social Science at the Australian National University showed that 82% of Australians want science to play a greater role in politics, and more than two-thirds say government funding is the best mechanism for this to occur.
On 22 April 2017, hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of people will take to the streets globally to March for Science. Whether they march or not, Australians should ask themselves if they will stand strong in the future to defend and support the positive impact science and technology has had in their lives. Science is not just for scientists.
If decision makers understand the value we place on science and technology, and the gifts we reap from their discoveries and applications, we can look forward to an exciting and productive future.
We’re standing at the crossroads, and science can’t be alone in taking the first step in defence of creating and applying knowledge. The Australian people must also step out and stand up for science, so that together we can forge a strong path towards a healthier, safer, more empowered future for our species and our planet.
This article was coauthored by Kylie Walker, chief executive of Science & Technology Australia