Opinion- 31 July 2008

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Big Bigger Biggest  


pdf file-available from Australasian Science

Homer: We are plagued by pissants!

Marge: Your face is beginning to turn red. You're having an attack of the grumps. That means politics.

Homer: Better a grump than a pissant.

Marge: Better get it over. Go ahead and grump.

As Homer was saying, we are gripped by pissant minds trying to deal with a big -- nay, a huge challenge.

Climate change, of course. And energy dilemmas as well.

Rising petrol and diesel prices set the ball rolling. Oil companies were relentless so voices were raised to say the gummint orta (the government ought to) do something. But the gummint was too busy with reviews and reports and analyses. So Opposition Leader Nelson stepped up with a truly pissant proposal -- the gummint orta cut 5 cents out of fuel excise. As if the customers would notice a nickel out of $1.50, but it sounded good to the unthinking. PM Rudd lost no time in taking up the trivial pursuit -- he promised a Fuel Watch. Never mind that it might save drivers 2 cents a litre, if anything at all. Both leaders were thinking small.

Climate change really got the ants scurrying. Was it real? Was it a mirage? Brendan Nelson decided it was a real mirage and plumped for the line that the time to do anything was a couple of years away and then to do as little as possible until China and India did a little bit on their own. This was thinking micro. As for the Rudd party, they knew it was so real and so big that it called for a festival of inquiry and planning. First they waited for the Garnaut Report which the demos declined to read.

Then came a Green Paper which said Emission Reduction was very likely the way to go with tradeable permits to help things along. Voters became weary and signalled a green light. "Not good enough," said Kevin's clique. "We have more stumbling blocks in train for you." First would come a Treasury report on what the final thing might cost . and then . and then ..a White Paper . and then at last a Bill which might or might not get through the Senate.

Small minds everywhere were delighted. Out of so much 'activity' would come little . If anything, it seemed the government was hell bent on complicating every issue so that it might arrive at the most difficult solution. Ockham's Razor would not do.

Homer was beside himself: "Pissants!"

Truly it has been a season of paltry notions and weak wills. Anything prevented bold directions from the government.

On pump prices he could have said: "We cannot control the price of oil. You can make savings. Buy smaller cars, drive slower, keep your engines in tune, keep your tyres inflated correctly. You'll save a bundle."

On oil supply: "We are already working on incentives to discover more in our own territories. We are looking closely at gas-into-liquid conversion. We have tons of gas. Five years ago it appeared that gas-into-liquid would become economically feasible when oil reached $36 a barrel. Now it's $130 and rising. We are pushing and shoving that possibility."

On climate and carbon: "Let's hear no more sceptics. Science has proved that carbon compounds can be mortal enemies, or at the very least that the risks in ignoring them are too great. We know enough without waiting for more reviews. The time is now. We are not going to dither with emission permits. We are going to impose a carbon tax on all emitters. As this will descend onto everyone, the proceeds of the tax will be used, in part, to compensate low income households."

On transport: "We will continue to build highways but we are about to put more money into rail systems to do what they do best -- haul heavy loads over long distances."

Overall: "Our directions and decisions may not be the absolute best of all possibles, but they look good and they can be done. We'll do them."

Homer: "Now that's more like it. Marge, we're heading for the sunny side of the street again. Pissants are on the run. Big thinking is on the way."

Marge: "Why Homer, you are losing your grumpiness. Your face is almost back to its normal Caucasian again. Glory be!"

The times are out of joint and they call for big intellects and big hearts. In a different sense the Ed-Sci community faces big challenges. Not pissants here, rather too much old fashioned decency. The previous government starved universities of money and acted the skinflint toward research. The new government is more generous in intention but is also beset by demands from other sectors of the nation. Ed-Sci can no longer afford the old fashioned decencies. Ed-Sci needs to hire an attack dog to push its case.

Suppose it does, what should be the spearhead of strategy?

The bigness of tertiary education. Where did we learn of climate change, the big challenge to life? From academe, from university educated minds. Where, for that matter, did we get the structure of DNA? From two academics. Who mapped the human genome? Academics. Whence came the wonder of carbon fibre for lighter aircraft? Research and development by uni graduates.

One could write a million words about the big outcomes of science but there's no need to gild the lily here. Ed-Sci's attack dog propagandist has a Big Bertha of an argument in the big, truly big benefits of investing in tertiary education. Education must be a direct line from pre-school to HSC. Every link in the chain is vital (and enjoyable) but the big dividends burst out of the top end, the uni campuses and laboratories.

Homer: "What a carry-on!'

Marge: "But what if he is right?"

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.