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How Malcolm Turnbull got a standing ovation from the nation’s top scientists

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Andrew Meares Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb. Photo: Andrew Meares
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Malcolm Turnbull is well-versed in the art of cocktail party banter. But he had a tough job ahead of him at the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science ceremony on Wednesday night.

Australian scientists had been badly bruised, alienated even, by his predecessor Tony Abbott’s deep cuts to research funding, which had brought the country’s investment in research and development to a 30-year low.

Mr Abbott had only received what he himself jokingly called “desultory applause” at the same event a year earlier.

In the early days of his leadership Mr Turnbull quickly set about changing the conversation, appointing Christopher Pyne as the new Science Minister and and mentioning several times that science and innovation were vital to Australia’s future in the 21st century.

But in his first major public address to the scientific community, how would he credibly change – without damaging – the story of a government whose former leader once called climate science “crap”?

He started by praising two Ians. The first was Ian MacFarlane, the former science minister he persuaded to move to the backbench in his first week as Prime Minister. Mr MacFarlane was a “remarkable leader”, he said who had shown “fantastic judgment” in his appointments to the CSIRO.

Next up was Australia’s “champion of science”, chief scientist Ian Chubb, who is due to retire at the end of his five-year term in December.

“Even when science has been under attack, you have never flinched and you have always stood up for science and its central importance in Australia both today and in our future,” Mr Turnbull said.

“The best accolade I can give Ian Chubb is to assure him that we’re working to put into effect the very ambitious agenda he set us. We have to be and we will be a country that invests in science and puts it right at the centre of our national agenda.”

Mr Turnbull styled himself as a friend at the centre, not the fringes, of the industry, heaping heartfelt praise on the science community at large.

The compliments soared to dizzying heights. At one point he told the largely academic audience that teachers not only changed lives, they were “at the very fulcrum of destiny”.

In a rallying cry for both science and Australia, he said the government would take a leaf out of scientists’ books in embracing the opportunities of the fast-paced global economy.

“We have to recognise that the disruption, the pace of which is unprecedented in human history is an opportunity, not a threat,” he said. “We have to be courageous, not fearful. We have to recognise the central role of science and the work of scientists and people who follow the scientific method.”

Scientists, he insisted, were key to Australia’s goal to remain a “high-wage, generous social welfare net, first-world economy”. Science literacy was vitally needed not only in universities, but in primary and secondary schools.

“If we are to be more aware of the challenges of the world around us and prepared to engage and investigate them in an honest, rigorous way, then we need great teachers not just at universities, not just doctoral students – in primary and secondary schools.”

He had to pause at this point, interrupted by applause.

Mr Turnbull did not announce, as may have been hoped, any plans to restore more than $400 million cut from research institutes, but used the language of science to remind them nothing was off the table. A “scientific method” should be used by politicians too, “re-calibrating and adjusting our policies as we achieve greater information”.

“We have to fund targeted programs with a clear policy rationale,” he said. “If a program like the R&D tax incentive successful should continue to be funded but we always have to test it’s meeting its objective. You could say that we’ve always got to be operating in beta.”

He concluded by acknowledging the honour he felt “not just to be Prime Minister but to be your Prime Minister”, leading the crowd to rise.

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