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Edition 36

Some Provocations

A necessary marriage

EARLY IN 1959, the British novelist and physicist CP Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture The Two Cultures at the University of Cambridge. In it, he attended to the widening separation between the cultures of science and the humanities which he believed had overtaken Western intellectual life since World War II. As a physicist and novelist with a foot in each camp, he told his audience: ‘I felt I was moving among two groups – comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not vastly different in social origin…but who had almost ceased to communicate with each other’.[1] His lecture was republished in America and extracted in a number of foreign languages, from Russian to Japanese, while his telling phrase ‘the two cultures’ passed into our vernacular – and with it, his belief that at a time when science was increasingly determining much of our destiny, it was ‘dangerous to have two cultures which can’t and don’t communicate’.

Snow’s message found instant resonance in Australia. During 1959, prime minister Menzies, addressing the theme of university education, took the occasion to make a strong argument for the place of the humanities in the national domain. ‘We live dangerously in the world of ideas just as we do in the world of international conflict,’ he declared. ‘If we are to escape this modern barbarism, humane studies must come back into their own, not as the enemies of science, but as its guides and philosophic friends.’[2]


FEAR OF THE Cold War together with the bloom of liberal democratic tendencies in Australia opened new opportunities for the humanities during the 1960s, when enrolments in Arts faculties outstripped those in science.[3] Yet nationally, science was in the ascendant. The Australian Academy of Science was founded in 1954, both tax-free and financially well resourced by government; Australia’s major scientific institutions – the CSIRO, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Bureau of Mineral Resources – grew as influential statutory bodies. A separate Department of Science was established in 1974 under the Whitlam government, while three years later, under the Fraser government, the advent of an advisory Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC), with a strong membership of Academy of Science Fellows, signalled the rising prominence of science in the national polity. The impression was confirmed in 1989 by the creation of the Prime Minister’s Science Council as ‘the principal source of independent advice to government on issues in science and technology’.

The social sciences, by contrast, fared less favourably in the national domain. The Academy of the Social Sciences of Australia (ASSA), established in 1971, was taxed by government for several years and has been conspicuously less well-funded than its scientific sibling. The social sciences also were not mission-based and, except for a brief interlude of policy connection during the 70s, they lacked advocacy skills and failed to find an authoritative place in policy development.

Writing in his book The Poor Relation: A History of Social Sciences in Australia (MUP, 2010), Stuart McIntyre, a former ASSA president, suggests that social scientists believed they were ‘undervalued’, were envious of their more prosperous colleagues and ‘had a readiness to take offence’. If called on by scientists to help implement their discoveries, they ‘were loath to serve in subordinate roles’.[4]

Given this scenario, it is hardly surprising that a strong belief has grown up in society that it is by turning to science and technology that we will solve the nation’s most critical problems regarding the environment, population, conservation, sustainability, health, ageing, security, nanotechnology and the man-made influence of climate change. All now fall into that basket so pertinently described by Julianne Schultz in Griffith REVIEW 32 as ‘wicked problems that resist simple linear solutions’.


SO WHERE DO we go from here? As long ago as the 1920s, that great scientific populariser, Jacob Bronowski, was informing us of what we in Australia now know to be a fundamental truth in floods and fires – ‘Nature is more deeply influenced by human history than we once thought: it shifts under our gaze, it interacts with us and the knowledge that it yields has to be interpreted by us.’

The interpretation requires manifold inputs. In a 1990 keynote address to the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Art historian Professor Margaret Manion was at pains to stress that ‘the scholarly and interpretative role of the Humanities and the arts is essential to ensure that we implement policies with both hindsight and wisdom, and that we direct concerted energies to this task’. There was cause for hope, she believed, that Australia would play a special role in the world response to the environment through its people’s ‘awareness of and alertness to the variegated web of values to be protected or rescued’.[5]

Addressing the topic of an ‘Environmentally Sustainable Australia’ on behalf of the same Academy in 2003, Tom Griffiths, Professor of Environmental History at the Australian National University, went further. Problems in the relationship between nature and culture which had once been seen as purely scientific or material or environmental, he contended, are now more readily understood as ‘fundamentally social and humanist’. And here Australia, with her confrontingly different and unique ecology, had a distinctive competitive edge. Echoing Bronowski, Griffith wrote that in such a continent, ‘we can never blithely assume the dominance of culture over nature, nor can we believe in the infinite resilience of the land’. In his view, an environmentally sustainable Australia would depend on our knowledge of ecosystems and resources, ‘but even more on our ability to initiate, advocate and absorb radical shifts in desired life style, values and technology’.[6]

Griffiths judged that the sciences were increasingly looking to the humanities and social sciences for their prized insights of ‘holism, synthesis and connectivity’. But there are many counter indications. Indeed in general the cultures of science and the social sciences continue to exhibit signs of being both spiritually and methodologically divided. Scientists cling to the concept of the so-called renowned ‘authority of science’, and contend that the social sciences lack the analytical rigour and standards of proof of their scientific counterparts. In turn social scientists maintain their strong commitment to their disciplinary modes and expect recognition of their particular knowledge in many science-related fields. Above all they resist the role of playing as ‘extras’ in a theatre where scientists define the problem, produce the solution, and ask social scientists to effect the necessary behavioural change.

Some prominent social scientists have searched for ‘a collaboration of equals’. Political scientist Professor John H Howard of the University of Canberra has argued directly for a policy of integration and greater commitment to interdisciplinary research working at the boundaries of disciplines through what he terms ‘a scholarship of integration’ . He sees this as ‘the ability to synthesise knowledge from disparate disciplines to resolve pressing problems in the natural environment, energy, health, transport, emerging industries and innovation,’ and argues that only through this broad-based approach is it possible and feasible to develop options and actions that address national problems and produce national benefits.[7]

Kindred recommendations have come from the University of Adelaide’s 2010 Australian Institute for Social Research report Connecting Ideas – Collaborative Innovation in a Complex World, which reiterates the need to value the contribution of the humanities, arts and the social sciences and harness them for ‘sophisticated collaboration’ with the physical and natural sciences, technology and engineering. And notably, writing in her article ‘More than human, more than nature’ in Griffith Review 31: Ways of Seeing, Dr Lesley Head, director of the Australian Centre for Cultural Environment Research at the University of Wollongong, has plunged to the heart of the two culture question: ‘Framing an opposition between the sciences and the humanities…wastes time and effort. This is not to deny profound differences in how they go about things, nor the significant differences within what we call science and the arts… They are not facing each other across the divide; they are both facing the same direction, albeit equipped with different tools.’ Hence she concludes, ‘To undo the destructive practices of modernity, and reconstitute them into something better, we will need everything in the Enlightenment toolbox, science and arts included. But they will be most effective plunging into the river together, rather than attempting to bridge it.’[8]


SO THEN – AS Nicholas Gill of the University of Wollongong’s interdisciplinary School of Earth and Environmental Sciences asks in his article of the same name – ‘What is the problem?’ (Australian Geographer, 2006). His answer returns again to the central need, true for all the social sciences, to explore the most useful way to make their disciplinary research relevant to policy makers and to close the ‘research gap’ between the researcher and the ‘user’.[9] In an ideal world social scientists believe that they could improve policy if only they were given the chance to apply their insights. Politicians and policy makers In turn have difficulty in understanding the nuanced research of social scientists and find their advice impractical, out of kilter with political datelines, and at times misinformed. There is now a whole field of discourse in public administration and political science journals bearing on these themes.


THERE IS, HOWEVER, a real hunger for community consultation and people involvement in the solving of these ‘wicked problems’. There is, too, a keen appetite for greater public communication of science. A 2011 poll conducted by the ANU Centre for Public Awareness of Science showed an overwhelming interest among the public in scientific issues – notably health, environmental and new scientific discoveries – but offered clear evidence that half the survey’s respondents did not feel very well informed about science. ‘What these figures suggest,’ according to poll co-ordinator Will J Grant, ‘is that society is tired of the message that a magic bullet might be provided by some new scientific discovery. To solve the really big problems, society wants its scientists to be engaged, realistic and integrated, working alongside and with the other committed actors of society.’[10]

IT IS A view that Australia’s independent-minded Nobel Laureate, Peter Doherty, is eager to support. While CP Snow asserts that ‘scientists believe that they have the future in their bones’, Doherty, in The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize (MUP, 2005) observes that ‘scientists are really no better at guessing the future than anyone else… Most specialists can speculate about the long term consequences of established trends, but novelty and radical change can take anyone by surprise.’ In a period when anthropogenic climate change presents humanity with a greater problem than it has ever faced, Doherty affirms that it is desirable ‘to move science from its remoteness and embed it much more in normal human experience’.

Against this backdrop of shifting perspectives, in February 2010 Senator Kim Carr, then minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, released the report Inspiring Australia: a national strategy for engagement with the sciences. Based on an edifice of leading science groups including the CSIRO, Questacon, Science Technology Australia (STA) and the ABC, its aim was to increase community knowledge and understanding of science and facilitate informed citizen participation in decision making and science policy. Importantly the statement included the social sciences and humanities as ‘critical to the interface between science and society’ and ‘especially relevant to discussion of public engagement with the sciences’.

Well-funded by the Commonwealth government to the tune of $21 million from 2010 for three years, the Inspiring Australia strategy has already initiated communication conferences and a multidisciplinary workshop for discussion and exchange between a broad range of communicators, opening up dialogues between academic disciplines, between academics and policy makers, and between policymakers and the public. Subsequently, under the lee of this strategy, the Department has committed five million dollars from its ‘Impact’ purse to ‘grants to humanities research’ (ranging from $5,000 to $500,000) that will promote a link between what government continues to call the enabling sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics) and the social sciences, humanities and engineering.

Clearly the essence of this forward thinking stems from Senator Carr. A one-time teacher-historian-turned politician, he has expressly joined the natural and social sciences in his inclusive term the sciences, using the word science in its wider European sense as the ‘systematic accrual of knowledge’. His sense of the broad church of science and of its overarching contribution to the future of homo sapiens and planet Earth, marked a distinctive contribution to Australia’s political thinking.


THIS YEAR BROUGHT a new player, Senator Chris Evans, renamed Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Science and Research, to this promising inheritance. In April 2012, Senator Evans allocated $10 million over three years to the Australian Council of Learned Academies (embracing Science, Technology, Humanities and Social Sciences) to enable leading researchers to conduct research to assist the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) to address the complex and diverse challenges that will shape Australia’s economy and society in the future. Australia’s management of science policy is lodged with the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, functioning under the aegis of the Chief Scientist and conducted with the aid of relevant ministers and a panel of six experts representing CSIRO, Materials Science, Engineering, Medical Research, Genetics and cultural and social fields meeting three times a year. But within this ambit the hard sciences – the enabling sciences – prevail.


HERE THE BRITISH Government offers an instructive, alternative approach. In the past decade it has been active in attempting to address the management and balance of science and the social sciences in national policy. While a Chief Scientist has been in place in Britain since 1964 and, in recent years, ten individual Chief Scientists (wearing special hats) have been scattered through each department to fuel interdepartmental exchange on science, in 2002 a Chief Government Social Science Researcher, serviced by an Office of the Chief Social Science Researcher was established in Treasury, with responsibility for professionalising the role of social science researchers working across government and promoting evidence-based policy.

The appointee, Susan Duncan, an eminent civil servant with connections in academic, commercial and public sectors, served for three lively years, and departing pinpointed some of the thorny difficulties that face government and academics in closing the research gap. These touched the nature of social science knowledge, incomplete knowledge and inconclusive findings, the disjunction between academic research timetables and political timetables, and the problem of connecting public opinion with evaluation studies.[11] They have a familiar ring. But Duncan’s advice to the social science community was bracing: ‘Nowadays, it is not enough to be good at research; you have to be good at communicating, negotiating, challenging, all those things’.


EVEN SO, THERE had been substantial gains in creative development and review between policy makers and social scientists, and qualitative research had become an important part of governmental policy evaluation. Above all, Duncan underlined the need for ‘horizon scanning’ – looking for the problems that are coming up on the horizon – in the exploitation of research and using social research to think about and understand the things that are going to happen in the future. Despite a hiatus caused by the resignation of Duncan’s successor from the post, the House of Lords Sub-Committee on Science and Technology has firmly pressed the government to reactivate the Chief Government Social Science Researcher post and to introduce behavioural scientists into policy arenas to study and influence societal attitudes in confronting major national policy challenges that lie ahead.


AUSTRALIA'S MANAGEMENT OF science policy, and its machinery in a smaller government milieu, differs substantially from the British model, but a persuasive case can be made for the appointment of a Chief Social Scientist in Australia to work alongside the Chief Scientist in sustaining a whole-of-government approach to issues of national policy. Such a step could heighten our understanding of behavioural attitudes involving society’s acceptance or denial of policy approaches, offer insights on social goals and values and directly involve the contributions of the social sciences, the humanities and arts. Speaking ‘knowledge to power’, a distinguished Chief Social Scientist could emerge as a vital knowledge broker across disciplines, sectors and policy.


[1]   The Two Cultures : & A Second Look.CUP.1963] And see From Two Cultures to No Cultures. Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, London, 2009

[2]   Foreword to the Australian Humanities Research Council survey of The Humanities in Australia. Quoted Graeme Davison, ‘Phoenex Rising. The Academy and the Humanities in1969,’ Humanities Australia. P 07.

[3]   Ibid.

[4]   p. 223 and p. 558.

[5]   Margaret Manion,’ The Humanities and the Australian Environment, in D.J. Mulvaney (ed) The Humanities and the Australian Environment. Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1991.

[6]   Tom Griffiths,’ The Humanities and an Environmentally Sustainable Australia. An address to a Conference convened by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training on the subject of a Contribution of the Humanities and Social Sciences to National Research Priorities, Canberra 28 March 2003: DEST 2003, pp. 2-10.

[7]   John H. Howard, CHASS Website Papers, 2008.

[8]   Griffith REVIEW 31: Ways of Seeing, 2011, pp. 74-89

[9]   Nicholas Gill, ‘What is the Problem?’, Australian Geographer, vol 34, 2006

[10]  ANU Reporter, p 9. Autumn 2011

[11]  Judith Burnett and Susan Duncan, ‘Reflections and Observations: An interview with the UK’s first Chief Government Social Researcher’, Critical Social Policy, 2008, 28(3) pp283-298 and Hugh Bochel and Susan Duncan,(eds) Making Policy in Theory and Practice., Bristol Policy Press, 2007

From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review