An often-told Barry Jones anecdote is the story of a ministerial colleague (one of the few allowed to remain anonymous in the retelling) who convinced the then-science minister to visit a constituent with an unusual device: a perpetual motion machine.
Afterwards the colleague – who later was given the science portfolio – enthusiastically queried whether Jones also believed it was wonderful?
“I said, no, it was a load of crap. Firstly, it’s in breach of the second law of thermodynamics,” Jones told Cosmos Weekly.
“And he said, well then we’ll repeal it.”
It’s a story that’s illustrative of Jones’ political career: either trying to awaken colleagues’ interest in the sciences, or disappointed when their understanding proved sub-par.
The CliffsNotes of Jones’ long life – he’s almost 91 – is of an outrageously clever mind who sought out and consorted with the likes of Francis Crick, famous for his now somewhat controversial role in deciphering DNA’s double helix, and information theory founder Claude Shannon. Teacher, quiz champion, anti-death penalty campaigner, academic, author, and a National Trust ‘living treasure’.
But in his light-filled kitchen in Brunswick, Melbourne, a possibly-Turner painting looming over one shoulder and a 8 year old’s precocious interpretation of Jones-in-the-style-of-Picasso over the other, I attempted to steer the conversation towards his 26-year political career. Specifically, the bits between 1983 and 1990 when he was Australia’s longest serving science minister.
A tenure lengthened partly, he says, because no one else wanted the job.
It was a career marked by groundbreaking success, but also regrets as he racked up antagonists.
“I suppose really, I’d perhaps [have] compromised my policies and done a bit more sucking up to people,” Jones says.
“I should perhaps have tried very hard to win over Bob Hawke, but … There’s something about me that really got up Hawke’s nose.
“My “celebrity” won me a lot of support in the community as a whole. But I think ultimately the reaction to it was antipathetic or negative [among my colleagues].”
Saving CSIRO but losing the climate
His successes are legacies today.
Jones secured funding for the Bureau of Meteorology in 1988, partly to monitor atmospheric changes caused by climate change. He pushed Australia into preserving Antarctica for science over mining, saved CSIRO from being broken up into individual units tending only to existing industry needs, and set up the Australia Prize, Questacon and the Commission for the Future.
Jones also became aware of the risk of the greenhouse gas effect and took up the cause in 1984 – one of the first politicians in the world to do so.
But despite being in a government that led action on the growing ozone hole over Antarctica, one of Jones’ biggest failures was that he could not convince his colleagues of the need to act on the greenhouse gas effect as well.
Part of the Commission for the Future’s most valuable work was setting up a series of conferences on the issue in 1988 and delivering the Personal Action Guide for the Earth paper in 1989.
But the Australian government, when faced with the opportunity in 1990 to adopt an emissions reduction scheme of 20 percent by 2005 from 1988 levels, chose instead to hide behind its small global share of pollution and cite the risk to industry.
Jones is furious that the same conversations he was starting in the 1980s, are the same Australia is grappling with today.
“I’m deeply pissed off. I’m completely enraged by it. I mean, it’s just awful, awful,” he says.
What Australia could have been
Jones became science and technology minister in 1983, when Hawke’s Labor Party beat Malcolm Fraser’s Liberals in a landslide. It was a time of flux for the academic sciences: funding for non-medical sciences had been cut dramatically in 1977 and the new government was about to uncover an unexpected hole in its budget.
Jones’ promise, which he was able to get Labor to initially commit to, was that by picking and funding 16 “sunrise” industries where the country had an existing scientific and competitive advantage, such as computers, chip manufacturing and hydrogen production, Australia could become wealthy from value-added industries rather than simply extractive ones.
By 1984, technology had been stripped from his portfolio and critics were mobilising: academics when the government didn’t follow through on funding promises; politicians who wanted markets, not government, to pick winners; and segments of industry which feared the flip side of “sunrise” was “sunset”, and therefore equated to an ignominious death for traditional industries.
“I felt really very isolated because you got to a stage where although the universities were increasing in number, you had very few people who you’d regard as first class leaders,” he says.
“One of the most disturbing things for me was at the time the people who were [in charge] had a very narrow economic focus [and] said ‘How many jobs is it going to create next year? How many seats will we pick up because we do something about genetic engineering?'”
Jones’ vision of a technology-led economic utopia for Australia, with new industries kick-started by government funding, was hindered by the shift from subsidised industries and by the country’s weird ability to fall upwards into a literal goldmine just when economic renewal is most urgent.
Australia’s lasting discomfort with the idea that wealth can come from “the exercise of the intellect” also didn’t help.
“The [government] had taken on a commitment to move away from protectionism and towards an open economy,” he says.
“When Hawke came in, he was very serious about it. You had a lot of industries who were moaning. A tremendous number of people employed in Hawke’s electorate were making clothes and only survived because of tariff protection. He said in the short term you’ll lose a lot of jobs, but we’ll look after you and we’ll make sure you’re protected in other ways.”
When Jones claimed science was a special case, the response was ‘so says every interest group’.
The non-interventionists won.
In 1998 Jones told the AFR: “They said… if the market wants to get into biotechology, the market will do it; if the market wants to get into electronics, then the market will do it. My point was that the accumulated knowledge we had in and around government – in the CSIRO, research outfits and universities – was more expert than the market.”
The market approach was to attempt to break up CSIRO into industry-optimised parts – Jones fought and won the battle against – and to launch the Research and Development tax concession, the forerunner of the incentive available today, as a way to get industry to start spending on science.
Jones says it sent a mixed message.
“The argument was that if we cut back on what the government was doing, there’ll be a tremendous expansion in the private sector,” he says.
“The mixed message was to say, we don’t really care all that much about blue sky scientific development, but we hope you will.
“The [industry] reaction was ‘if you aren’t very interested in it, why should we be?'”
In 2022-23, the federal government expects industry to claim $3.2 billion in R&D tax incentives, and yet academics are pleading with it to return to directly funded research.
Last year, University of Sydney deputy vice-chancellor of research Emma Johnston said tax incentives don’t support basic research and gear all research around what will make money for industry – which was precisely the outcome that ‘let the market decide’ advocates successfully used to torch Jones’ arguments for more government funding for the sciences.
The anointed successor
Before and after Jones, science and technology portfolios have usually been hardship postings or snubs – Jones’ Labor predecessor in the role, Clyde Cameron, was famously angry about a demotion to science – and it’s also been a place to put people who are on the nose, such as Christian Porter following a rape allegation.
Jones says only the latest, Ed Husic, is taking the job seriously.
“I put him in a different category. Very soon after he was appointed, he said I’m coming to Melbourne, I’m very keen to meet you. We had a really wonderful meeting, but what impressed me was that he brought a collection of my books which… I could see that they were heavily annotated.
“He’s probably taken more serious interest in science than virtually any minister I can think of.”
That role, in his eyes requires knowledge, passion for the subject, and the ability to relate to experts in a discipline then convince others that their contribution can be useful.
“It’s a matter of challenging individuals to recognise the intellectual challenge and the intellectual excitement involved in research.”