Science took some heavy hits in the federal budget. Photo: Penny Stephens
Science took some heavy hits in the federal budget but the real cost of these won’t be felt for a decade or so. But the biggest hidden cost to the economy is in the scientific illiteracy of our politicians on all sides – and that will be felt right away.
Take the $20 billion fund to come up with new disease "cures". Sounds great, doesn’t it? Lull all those nasty fears about cancer, heart disease and diabetes by promising people chemical cures years down the track. But in reality the promise to cure people is about as reliable as the promise not to introduce new taxes.
In an earlier article I pointed out that 75-80 per cent of our bloating health budget is already spent in largely futile attempts to fix the epidemic of chronic and diet-related disease which is killing 96,000 Aussies a year and making millions more sick.
The irony is that several policies pursued by the Abbott government (and its predecessors) will tend to increase that toll:
- The encouragement of coal, oil, gas and other fossil fuels, which are the primary source of toxicity in society and the discouragement of clean alternative energy.
- The encouragement of an unhealthy chemicalised food industry at the expense of farmers and producers of fresh, healthy, safe produce.
- The encouragement of a philosophy of "attempted cure" rather than disease prevention in the healthcare industry.
- Charging more for access to healthcare, which will prevent early detection of chronic conditions in thousands of cases, hugely increasing the cost to the state of failed attempts to treat advanced cancers, heart disease, diabetes and mental disease.
Around the world a mountain of scientific evidence is piling up that the diseases of modern society are in no small part due to the growing body-burden of toxic chemicals we all carry – the rising incidence of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer's, depression, ‘stress’, allergies and other ailments are linked in literally thousands of scientific research reports to the toxic soup in which the whole of society, and indeed the entire planet, now swims. This is documented in Poisoned Planet (Allen & Unwin 2014).
To put it in perspective: there are 143,000 man-made chemicals plus an equally vast number of unintentional chemicals liberated by mining, burning fossil fuels, waste disposal etc. Total human chemical emissions from all sources are of the order of 150 billion tonnes (including 35 billion tonnes of climate-destroying carbon) a year. These blanket the planet, pole to pole and stratosphere to deep ocean. They are in air, water, soil, food, consumer goods, homes, workplaces, trade, vehicles, wildlife, us and our genes. No individual can escape them.
Unlike earlier generations, we are saturated in man-made chemicals from the moment of conception to the moment of departure. We now pass genetic damage caused by these substances to our kids. The global toll from this toxic effusion in all probability now exceeds the annual death toll in World War II. Yet steps to prevent it are few or, in Australia’s case, virtually absent. So far as our politicians are concerned, it isn’t happening.
To spend taxpayers’ money on discovering new cures sounds noble, but will fail – partly because most of the "cures" will be made from the exact same things that poisoned us in the first place: coal, oil, gas and the rest.
Sure, a $20 billion medical fund will deliver some exciting new treatments, because Aussie medical researchers are very good, if not actually brilliant, at what they do. But it is a poorly understood fact that promising new drugs discovered in Australia usually go straight to line the pockets of European and American pharmaceutical houses. We have hardly any home-grown manufacturers capable of advanced drug-development. When they return, years later, it is usually at a vastly increased price, which taxpayers again have to subsidise to the benefit of the big foreign pharmaceutical companies.
So, be in no doubt: like the cancelled mining tax, the prodigious new medical research fund is really a hidden welfare payment to some of the richest foreign companies on earth. It will keep some Aussie scientists in work, which is good, but only in one sector of the economy, while all the others experience reduced public support of the kind that has just decimated the CSIRO, the Australian Research Council, the Co-operative Research Centres program and the rest.
Driving all this is a scientifically illiterate body politic that is either caught up in the monotonous market dogma of the 18th century or the equally monotonous redistributional dogma of the 19th century. This is the 21st century, and the vast challenges that now confront humanity call for entirely new solutions. Solutions Australia’s present crop of politicians simply do not have, or mostly even comprehend.
They do not understand that increasing the output of poisons into the community increases the general incidence of ill health, and in particular brain damage in children. In a recent issue of The Lancet, Harvard professors Philippe Grandjean and Philip Landrigan warn of a global epidemic of neurotoxicity damaging the brains and minds of the world’s children. Only prevention can overcome this – not "cures".
Our leaders do not understand the basic truth that in this century, science drives economic growth more than any factor – it is the foundation of the economic performances of nations as diverse as the US, Britain, China, India, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Scandinavia and Singapore, all of which outspend Australia in science. The mining boom, and now the so-called "dining boom", both depend on leading-edge science and technology to make their industries competitive. No science, no export boom.
A good many politicians clearly do not understand climate science, probably because they are too lazy to read any and instead rely for their opinions on vested interests and ignoramuses who donate big political funds. It is a form of national lobotomy by greed.
Like the decision to increase toxicity, the decision to reduce science investment will have a lethal impact on future national economic growth. It will drive more local industries offshore, reduce value-adding of minerals and food, curb high-value knowledge-based industries, stifle innovation and put more Australians on welfare.
All because Australian politicians, evidently, do not know how the modern world works.
Julian Cribb is a Canberra science writer and author of Poisoned Planet (Allen & Unwin 2014), on the toxification of the Earth and all its people.