Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Australian Space Science Conference 2011: are we really all "nerds, carpetbaggers, enthusiasts and nutters"?

The week before last I was at the Australian Space Science Conference in Canberra, the annual gathering for space scientists of all kinds: astrophysics, astronomy, planetary science, astrobiology, robotics, satellite development, propulsion systems, education, policy, history, heritage and a whole heap more. (I gave a paper about why Skylab is remembered while Wresat 1 is forgotten, and what this means for the kinds of stories we want to tell about Australian space). A highlight of the conference was the opening address by Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Among many other things, he said that:
Combined, the Australian space industry involves around 630 organisations employing 8,400 people and generating revenues of up to $1.6 billion.  I cannot overstate the importance of the products and services these businesses provide. Today in Australia, there are some 30 separate federal government programs that depend on space industry infrastructure  ....
We need to secure our future in space, to ensure our prosperity in Australia. We have made significant progress towards that goal over the past four years. I have every faith in the exceptional talent represented here today.
Thanks, Kim! After this vote of confidence, it might seem a little surprising that Brett Biddington (Chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia and member of the Space Industry Innovation Council) should give a presentation where he said politicians viewed us as
 ... a very odd mix of people: nerds, carpetbaggers, enthusiasts and nutters .... typically long on assertion and exceptionally thin on evidence ....
An account of his talk was was written up by SBS World News Australia. Now, Brett is one of us, of course; and I interpreted his conference presentation as a bit of a pep talk, delivered with a measure of affection to his community, but aimed, perhaps, at jolting us out of our silos and thinking a bit more about the importance of good communication with both the public and politicians. (I have to confess that I don't know what a carpetbagger is, apart from the title of a trashy novel by Harold Robbins, which I hasten to add I have never read). When I saw the special coverage on the SBS website, I was actually a little shocked at how harsh the printed words seemed in comparison to his delivery. With so many things happening in Australian space, it's not a good time to feel undermined by one of our own!

To me, it was clear that his talk was not intended as a public statement, although there is of course no reason why it should not be reported. And he's right too: clear communication is a key factor, especially at this critical time when political attitudes towards space are on the upturn. However, reflecting about this characterisation of the space community (and wondering which one of the four I might be - I can see I'm going to have to google carpetbagger before I finish writing this; if it involves snakes, which I feel it might, I'll take it), it occurs to me that it probably required a level of nuttiness and enthusiasm to keep dreams, and more importantly, specialist knowledge, alive through lean times when there was no support, funding or recognition of how space underpins late industrial states and all the things that we now take for granted, like global navigation and telecommunications. So while politicians may see these as bad things, we don't have to feel ashamed of our own nerdiness. It can be a good thing, too (leading, possibly, even to Nobel prizes!)

Brett's point is simply that times have changed, and we need to learn some new skills, to be more politically savvy. I like to think I do my bit for science communication in the space realm. 

OK: now for the denouement.

(Wait while I look up carpetbagger)

Lordy!  It turns out to be a very complex term with lots of history, generally meaning a bit dodgy, and no snake involvement at all. I'll stick with nerdiness for the time being.

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