Superman Squared?

Today is the day “Superman” is available for the masses in Australia (as opposed to yesterday, when it was open to everyone with time to queue). And while I’m a big fan of the original movie and Henry Cavill as Christopher Reeve’s true successor, there is another contender for the title, albeit not filling the suit in a Cavill-ish way.

The position of Australia’s Chief Scientist has been filled by some remarkable people since its inception, but it’s questionable whether one has ever been more suited to their time than Professor Ian Chubb AC. At the outset, I freely admit I have never had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman personally, nor do I or would I pretend to be qualified to comment on his abilities as a scientist, researcher or educator. That he is accomplished in all of these fields is probably necessary to even be considered for Chief Scientist, but it’s not really what the position, in my humble little opinion, is really about.

We all know the sciences – in their broadest, most classically encompassing sense of the word – are essential for increased productivity, good citizenship, and all those other wonderfully comforting words that get trotted out in media releases and policy forwards.  We know that innovation is good, stagnation is bad, and our kids are more capable than some countries and less than others, depending on whether the media/Minister in question is wanting to frighten us or applaud themselves at the time. But nothing ever seems to happen.  Sure we print some flyers, write some discussion papers, call a talkfest – sometimes we even participate rather than just sitting back nodding (or blogging), but what actually changes? What action results? What do you, or I, actually take responsibility for doing?

I was involved in the Queensland Smart State Initiative and, while I’m not commenting on the what/when/how/why/who of it, it was one of the most fulfilling times of my career. Not because we got it right – who can say what “right” is – but because policy makers, scientists, industry, idea creators and the public were all getting together and making things happen. For better or worse, people were prepared to try new ways of partnering, new ways of supporting industry, new ways of encourage employment and developing answers.

I’m not saying the whole Smart State initiative was some utopian experience – that’s the *last* thing I would say, politically or Politically or in any other way – but if we are going to continue to write merely position papers and print flyers or worse, leverage the discussion to better our own hobby horse be it in a public forum or as a consulting opportunity, we take hypocrisy to whole new levels and create an irony in our discussing “innovation” that could well disrupt the space time continuum.

Which is where our alternate, slightly shorter Superman comes in. Professor Chubb could, like many “political” appointees” could have contented himself to a program of consultation with the regular faces, drafting a broad motherhood-type strategy and then spending the rest of his term spruiking the importance of ideas to multiple lunches and dinners in paragraphs that are barely shuffled but warmly received.

Instead, Professor Chubb dares to challenge our complacency – he even uses the word. He points out the uncomfortable – the staggering number of departments with responsibility for science-related issues, just at a federal level; the reality that as a nation, as funders, we can’t do all things for all people; that what people want to study as post-graduate and doctoral levels as a matter of purely personal choice is in no way an indication of the areas in which Australia and it’s employers actually need advanced knowledge.

Make no mistake, he is no radical; it’s just that his common sense, delivered with the certainty that comes from actually listening rather than hearing what supports a pre-determined decision, is so unlike what we have become accustomed to hearing that it takes one by surprise. It may not be what one wants to hear, and the reaction may be to get defensive of one’s own patch of turf, but someone has to point out that not only has the Emperor got no clothes, he’s got a lot of the department store stocking his namesake range. 

That we can’t all have what we want is never a popular message. Nor is it comforting to hear that competition is not only real, but important in surviving and thriving. That is as true for science, science-related funding and innovation as it is for the viewers of nature documentaries and, yes, superhero films. Afterall, you never see Superman sitting down with the villian du jour saying, “I tell you what, you tried hard: I’ll give you this side of Metropolis, but I’m keeping the rest and Lois Lane – don’t tell Batman”.

Choices and Priorities. They are real, and they are definite, and there is no point having them if you’re not going to play by them. By all means, let’s have a process of discussing around setting them that is extensive and participatory, but not everything can be on the “A” List. 

And keep an eye out for the silver-haired superhero in the dark-navy suit. He may not have a cape – he may not need one – and sure, there may be some property damage along the way, but he may just be the man to save the day.

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The Discussion Paper launched by the Chief Scientist as part of the development of a overarching strategy for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Australia is available on-line as a pdf.  For more information on the Chief Scientist’s statements, please see the website of Australia’s Chief Scientist or the article in The Australian today titled Chief Scientist Ian Chubb blasts complacency