Dr Katherine Woodthorpe AO is one of Australia’s most influential people in innovation, and the Chair of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Association, recently renamed Cooperative Research Australia.
Woodthorpe spoke at the Ralph Slatyer Address on Science & Society at the National Press Club, Oct 20, marking the 30th anniversary of the CRC Program, a hugely successful university and industry partnership program that was begun by Ralph Slatyer, Australia’s inaugural Chief Scientist.
Woodthorpe emphasised the value of the long-running CRC program before going on to warn of the threats misinformation and conspiracy pose to science today.
CRCs deliver high value from collaborative research
“Whether the CRCs have been very commercially focussed or totally researching issues in the public good, they have all had to demonstrate how they will deliver impact in their sector. The combination of user driven research programs and embedded translation programs have led to substantial benefits to Australia, its people and indeed the world,” she said.
These benefits include improvements in the Cochlear Implant for profoundly deaf children, bushfire and natural hazards research and climate students in the Antarctic, to name just a few. Current CRCs in operation include the Future Battery Industries CRC and Digital Health CRC.
“Other great outcomes from CRCs include the 30 day long-wear contact lenses developed in the Vision CRC and sold worldwide; the protective toothpaste sold as “tooth mousse” that you’ve probably seen at your dentist, developed by Oral Health CRC,” she said.
Scientist facing threats from cyber bullies, misinformation and conspiracy
Woodthorpe used the speech to warn of an increase in derision and suspicion towards science.
“For example, a recent survey showed one in five Australian scientists who have spoken to the media on COVID-19, has subsequently experienced death threats and threats of violence,” she said.
“When the internet became accessible to all, it opened a floodgate of armchair self-defined “researchers” who thought that random anonymous postings on Facebook and Reddit had more credibility than a scientist with years of training and peer-reviewed research; and a loud set of voices started to question the validity of science outcomes.
“Coupled with that, the rise of the lobbyist, often under cover of being an independent research organisation, deliberately set out to undermine the credibility of science and scientists, producing spurious “facts” and figures,” Woodthorpe continued.
“Most scientists eschew the spotlight and really just want to get on with their research, but the world has changed and all of those who know that a better understanding of science can only help and not hinder us need to step up and communicate the value of what we are doing,” she said.
Her message to reporters was: “Don’t amplify the denigrators and conspiracy theorists.
“Balance is not one climate denier vs one climate scientist. It’s 2000 scientists before the denier gets their chance,” she added.
“The angry mob’s loudest voices have a huge pull and even seemingly sensible people have been sucked down their conspiracy black holes. And the effort it takes to refute any one of their articles, tweets or other postings takes an order of magnitude more that it took the conspiracy theorists and their trolls and bots to invent it and disseminate it.”