Yesterday’s stunning declarations by Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, withdrawing his support for the Australian government’s Intergenerational Report (IGR), is an act of self-immolation on a level rarely seen in Australian public discourse.  For readers unfamiliar with the story so far, here is a brief summary.

1. Aiming to communicate the rationalisation behind proposed (but not yet passed) budgetary cuts revealed in the 2014 budget, and expected to again be central to the 2015 budget due in May, Treasury released the IGR on March 5.  The IGR featured costed analyses of the Australian economy in 2055 predicated on three scenarios: (1) a continuation of budgetary expenditure at the levels supported by the Labor government when it left office in 2013; (2) the passing of new policies proposed in the 2014 budget (i.e. those which remain locked in the Australian Senate); and (3) a sort of Goldilocks scenario which assumes the passing of some of the 2014 budget measures but not all, presumably designed to set the stage for next month’s 2015 budget which will be framed as the compromise we have to have.

2. The three scenarios presented in the IGR were widely criticised as unrealistic as each one assumed uninterrupted continuance for 40 years.  For example, scenario #1 suggests the massive cost blowouts which would occur under Labor’s 2013 expenditures would be allowed to continue until 2055 despite the obvious threat to the economy such an approach would pose each and every year until 2055.  Likewise, for scenario #2 to become reality the Australian public would be expected to live through 40 years of the severe budget measures proposed in 2014, presumably so our grandchildren can enjoy the benefits of a massive surplus in 2055.  That surplus is predicated only on revenues which we can forecast today, an assumption which suggests our economy will create no additional growth drivers for 40 years!

3. With such fuzzy logic it is little wonder the IGR generated so much criticism.  Enter the PR spin doctors.  Asked to cultivate reasoned public discourse about the future of the Australian economy a coalition of PR, research and advertising firms created a campaign using well-known science guru Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki as spokesperson.

The research firm involved conducted focus groups and polling of 1200 people to aid the strategy development behind the campaign.  One suspects the selection of Dr. Karl came as a result of that polling for it would come as no surprise if focus group research found Dr. Karl to be considered intelligent, rationale, non-partisan, trusted, etc.  A scientific voice to push through the politics.

Where the strategy failed and where Dr. Karl has failed the strategy, is that the IGR has no credibility as a scientific document as the summary above explains.  Paying a scientist to speak in favour of the IGR will not convince the public that the IGR has credibility as a work of scientific research, a fact Dr. Karl is now beginning to realise.  His stunning admission that he only participated in the campaign for the money and that he failed to do his own scientific due diligence in analysing the IGR before publicly supporting it has destroyed his credibility whilst further damaging the credibility of the IGR and the government.

A much bigger issue lies at the core of the Dr. Karl fiasco – the credibility of science and academia.  The purchasing of ‘scientific endorsement’ is not new to an increasingly informed and interconnected public.  We’ve seen it in the climate skepticism strategy financed by big oil.  We’ve seen it in the disgraced academia who failed to declare conflicts of interest when providing their own version of ‘cash for comment’ as voices of academic/ scientific reason and impartiality when they publicly supported key economic regulatory reforms favorable to large US financial institutions prior to the Global Financial Crisis.

The founder of a global food and beverage company and self-made millionaire once told me that money is trust.  I wonder how much Dr. Karl believed his trust to be worth before he agreed to support assertions arrived at without proper scientific diligence.  I suspect he will be forming the view that trust should remain priceless.


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