Politics of science: 'John Howard, the scientists' friend'

The winner of this year's Prime Minister’s Prize for Science has some views on prime ministers.

Hawke? "He was interested", the scientist who has interacted with every prime minister since Malcolm Fraser said. Bob Hawke, Professor Kurt Lambeck said, was particularly interested in the science of nuclear waste and showed that interest to scientists long after he had left office.

Professor Kurt Lambeck at the Australian Academy of Science headquarters in Canberra. Photo: Steve Evans.

Professor Kurt Lambeck at the Australian Academy of Science headquarters in Canberra. Photo: Steve Evans.

But John Howard was the prime minister who showed the most appreciation of science and scientists.

"I had no time for the man's social and international policies, but on science he was good", the professor said, speaking at the Australian National University.

Mr Howard, according to Professor Lambeck, took science and scientists seriously, partly because he felt scientists weren't "going to stab him in the back".

"Howard genuinely seemed to enjoy talking to scientists. The Science Advisory Council was probably at its most effective then. He chaired the meetings," Professor Lambeck said.

"He would say, 'I like talking to you guys. You think long term and you seem to be objective - and you don't stab us in the back'."

Professor Lambeck praises Mr Howard particularly for setting up the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy - a collaboration between government and groups of scientists to drive research, and which is still going strong.

All this emerges as Professor Lambeck talks about what he describes as his "despair" at how he sees the current lack of respect for the benefits of science among current politicians - he thinks the relationship between scientists and politicians has gone downhill since John Howard's day.

He bemoans two things as he reflects in an office at the at the Australian Academy of Science, an august body of which he has been president.

Firstly, he thinks policy, particularly on climate change, is being driven by short-term political considerations instead of by hard scientific thinking.

And, secondly, it seems to be harder for Australian scientists to go abroad and widen their knowledge and abilities and then return to good careers in Australia.

On climate change, he said, "Decisions should reflect the country's long-term needs. Political leaders pay lip service to that but when it comes down to it, they will say things like 'climate change is crap'."

Professor Lambeck has had an international career at some of Europe's best universities as well as at the Australian National University. He switches between the hemispheres, enjoying an eternal summer in Australia and in France, and latterly Italy. His schedule is a matter of the needs of work. He said he actually enjoyed the winters more, particularly in Paris and Canberra.

He fears that there isn't the ability to move abroad and work with the top scientists and then return to a career in Australia. That is a loss for young Australian scientists and for the country itself, he said.

"The younger generation today has a much more difficult prospect", he said.

Part of the problem is that the funds for international exchange programmes for bright young researchers seem to have diminished. "The funding has essentially dried up," he said.

Professor Lambeck won the Prime Minister's Prize for decades of work to reveal how the earth continues to change shape. It's work which, on the grand scale, helped spacecraft to navigate and helps us navigate with our phones and GPS.

He's now focussing on how the sea level has changed over centuries - important work that informs the debate on global warming.

On that biggest of subjects, he is disappointed in politicians but not in utter despair about the fate of the planet. He thinks human ingenuity will see us through - or should do provided we still have a strong base of science and technology.

He said, "I do believe that the human capability and inventiveness will either lead to our destruction or lead to a solution."