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Australia needs fundamental research to build a great country

Like many scientists, I was apprehensive in advance about the Abbott government’s approach to science policy. Would it be pragmatic but fact-based or would it be ideological and politically driven? Sadly…

Fundamental, wide-ranging and curious research is the basis of a country’s development. Cuts to CSIRO won’t help. CarbonNYC/Flickr

Like many scientists, I was apprehensive in advance about the Abbott government’s approach to science policy. Would it be pragmatic but fact-based or would it be ideological and politically driven?

Sadly it has only taken two months to discover that it is the latter.

As a relatively recent immigrant (2008), who has chaired the precursor to Compute Canada (the national high performance computing organisation), NATO’s Physical Sciences and Engineering Technology Panel, and the National Research Council of Canada information institute (CISTI) I am fairly well placed to make an assessment.

According to Barbara Tuchman, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, folly is error

perceived as counter-productive in its own time.

Here are four striking examples of the current government’s folly. All of them have sorry international precedents and parallels. I do not count the intended repeal of the carbon and the mining taxes, since these were “known knowns.”

Who needs a science minister?

In his address at the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science earlier this month, Tony Abbott defended his decision not to have a science minister by saying:

But let me tell you that the United States does not have a secretary for science and no nation on Earth has been as successful and innovative as the United States. I’d say to all of you please, judge us by our performance, not by our titles.

This is quite disingenuous. The US President’s Science adviser sits in the Executive Office of the President with legislated status and the US National Research Council has a statutory obligation to provide scientific advice on a host of matters. Taking Mr Abbott at his word his performance offers no relief.

I should note that as a Canadian I was impressed by Australia’s seeming progressiveness. Canada got its first and much needed government science adviser only during the previous Liberal administration. The present Harper government immediately down graded the office.

Controlling grants

The suggested intrusion into ARC grant assessment, especially on hot button social issues or airy-fairy artsy-fartsy topics, is depressing for all the obvious reasons.

Meddling in research funding stops discoveries happening. EMSL/Flickr

US Republicans' current meddling with research funding in the United States shows the same troubling desire to steer and control the research and development process.

How long before our university and government scientists have to run their commentary past the government before speaking to the public or even publishing research? This has already happened at NASA and at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

A worrying trend towards denial

Prime Minister Abbott and Environment Minister Hunt’s climate denialist comments on the recent NSW bush fires are concerning.

These have a sad Canadian counterpart. Now former Prime Minister Howard has chosen to reinject himself in the same vein. With the decision to snub the current Warsaw climate talks, there is no denying the denial.

On the environment, no other advanced democracy is behaving in nearly such a retrograde manner - though Canada comes close with Harper’s retroactive withdrawal from Kyoto. By contrast, 25 years ago, the then Tory Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney made an environmental green plan central to his vision.

Unlike Australia, and despite the current obstructionist Republican Congress, the US will meet Kyoto targets.

Sacking the scientists

Finally, there are the proposed 1,400 job cuts at CSIRO.

For Canada and Australia, university research and government laboratories are even more important than in the US or the EU. This is because so little significant research goes on in our branch-plant economies – comprised (outside the resource sector) of companies whose role is often little more than sales and production for foreign owners who do their R&D at home.

In addition to its statutory roles, CSIRO has played a leading role in development of Wi-Fi protocols and much else. Less well-known is that it has great depth in many basic research areas. This includes roughly 200 mathematical scientists who play a vital role in the mathematical research community of Australia. I do not know of a comparable group in any other country.

Simon Yeo

Destruction is easy, building is hard

Stephen J. Gould writing after 9/11 in the New York Times, but informed by a lifetime of studying evolution, observed that:

Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant.

This is as true of the scientific venture as it is of the Great Barrier Reef. It is striking that NASA has been recalling retired Apollo engineers to come and talk to the current generation as virtually all “institutional knowledge” of the space age has been lost within the agency. Do we want that same kind of loss here?

Targeted v fundamental research

Removing funding for general research and putting it into specific, targeted areas has a dismal track record. The “war on cancer”, “US energy independence”? Even the development of successful AIDS treatments or the emerging biotech industry owes more of its success to basic research and curious fundamental scientists than to government proclamation.

The death of the great industrial research laboratories (and Nobel producers such as Bell, Westinghouse, and Xerox Park) has only in part been replaced by research at places like Google.

The great government labs (such as Lawrence Berkeley and Sandia) in the United States are no longer pleasant places to be a researcher. Even world-class researchers in both are subject to quarterly-account analysis and are frequently one contract away from unemployment.

In Engines of Discovery, the 2005 long range plan (LRP) for Canadian advanced computing which I coauthored, we successfully argued for long-term predictable funding. Examples from aerospace, brain science and elsewhere were central to our success in freeing up hundreds of millions for Canadian High Performance Computing.

In Australia, hard future needs are being sacrificed to make easy current savings. But it is not too late for Mr Abbott to reconsider his obligations as steward of a great country.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Writer

    An anti-science agenda has, sadly, become an article of faith in the far Right, and the decisions the Coalition are making here are, to them, a win-win.

    They "save money and reduce the deficit" by defunding science, plus they silence the publicly-funded voices of reason who can produce evidence to support their advice on things like climate change - all without any potential controversy over "gagging" laws that the Canadian Harper government has enacted.

    What's a bet that when Abbott chatted…

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      Speaking of such anti science agendas, the authors take on duck shooting is one. I bet he wants it all banned among other activities, sustainability of said activities probably wouldn't change his attitude either?

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    2. Scott Clark
      Scott Clark is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Accounting Manager

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      G'day Ben

      You bet there are moderates who have a problem with this and other worrying signs but there are too few of us left. I hung in as long as possible but I could no longer in good conscience remain a paying member of a party that way as well put the words Arbeit Macht Frei above its Queensland prisons.

      The problem, in my humble opinion, goes far deeper than simply blaming conservatives. Whether people like to admit it or not if the public didn't want this garbage they wouldn't get it…

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    3. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to Scott Clark

      God help us - we are little but an "Ocker Nation" of people who deride education, science, arts, music. There are not enough citizens of Oz to turn around the downward slide into a second USA standard. Personally I blame the Television and its cacophony of American sitcoms and violence. We are deliberately educating our offspring to be dull and witless. And when they get old enough to vote?

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    4. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Scott Clark

      Thanks Scott, you make some good points. I don't want to bash conservatives, btw - I think we're split roughly fifty-fifty Left and Right for functional reasons, to balance out the social contracts we all keep.

      I can't help pointing a finger at Murdoch's instransigence on the sciences however - recent studies show how consistent his media empire is on deriding climate science, and that has an effect on the way people think and behave.

      Oh, and totally agree with your last para.

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    5. Scott Clark
      Scott Clark is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Accounting Manager

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      G'day Ben

      You're probably right we probably are balanced ouat at about fifty-fifty let's hope that the last few years can be put behind us and that our leaders can try and have the centre right and centre left can get together to make meaningful progress on complicated issues and then we can leave behind the rabid right and the lunatic left while the rest of us progress into a much better future by taking the sensible centre.

      All the bestt

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  2. Tim Pitman

    Senior Lecturer at Curtin University

    Thanks for this 'outsider' analysis, Jon. I would add to your section on 'Controlling Grants' the fact that in the US, Obama has just ended a 17-year ban on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducting research into gun violence. So that's a positive step.

    As for those researchers whose work doesn't fit into a national research priority: in the ARC Discovery Round just annouced they certainly receievd the least amount of funding, as a group ($22 million) but they enjoyed the highest success rate (23.8%). Every cloud, as they say...

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  3. Chris Owens

    Professional

    "In Australia, hard future needs are being sacrificed to make easy current savings". Sadly I think the savings have very little to do with it. Like the demonisation of teachers, the conservatives despise (perceived leftist) intellectuals including scientists and pulling the pin on funding is part of their ideological war.

    As Warren Buffett said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Chris, I think you know full well that lefties are just as ideological. There calls to ban just about about every activity they don't like a case in point.

      The war on everything sustainable or not, pseudo evidence or not!

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    2. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Conservatives are pretty good on wars as well. War on terror, on drugs, on nature, women, refugees, public schools, equity, et al.

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    3. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Yes those lefties against remembering those who fought in WW1 are so grateful for what they have today. Spare me your cognitive rigidity.

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  4. Wade Macdonald

    Technician

    I don't why scientists believe they must be represented inside the prime minister's office?

    Delusions of grandure abound it appears?

    I much prefer to see scientists out in the field and working in labs rather than entering political debates, making bs predictions from computer models and trying to distort the image of any activity they don't like.

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    1. David Bentley

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      So you're not in favour of evidence based policy then? And if you are, then who do you think is responsible for collecting and interpreting the evidence?

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    2. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Rob Brooks

      Science can be well represented by not constantly pissing in the ear of the PM like delusional activists.

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    3. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to David Bentley

      All for science but too many scientists want to run the country. Look at some on this forum.....judge, jury, executioners in their own lunchboxes.

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    4. Grant Periott

      Foofighter

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Wade is clearly a troll or an LNP stooge. Not really a lot of quality coming from him - lots of accusations and generalisations. I guess this kind of obfuscation needs to be opposed but what a time waster.

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    5. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Grant Periott

      Time wasting, that would be scientists who want to control politics instead of doing research. You know, what they went and studied at uni for the betterment of our understanding.

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  5. Peter Anderson-Stewart
    Peter Anderson-Stewart is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Medical scientist

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would think the outcome could, or indeed would be any different than what has been revealed.

    Over the years, each successive tory government has managed to decimate scientific research into any number of areas (except where it will clash with their coalition partners and indeed, will go out of their way to strip funding from other areas to fund their partners in crime favourite woo).

    But hey, the general public is not that interested in what science does past the "big" science stuff and regard the bulk of the jobbing scientists as being on the make to line their own pockets. So, they will happily vote for the current bunch of clowns that came down in the last shower that are an outright embarrassment to not only Australia but to humanity in general.

    Pathetic ...

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  6. Suzy Gneist
    Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

    Thanks for voicing my own concerns so much better articulated and with credibility added. I would have thought that the role of scientific tradition and the resource that the CSIRO represents for the nation were so obvious and beneficial that no one in their right mind would think of curtailing them, rather improve this potential future resource - but it seems the influential people are n't in their right mind...

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  7. Neville Mattick
    Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    This needs much more ventilation Jon - thank you for this read.

    I am particularly disturbed about the disappearance of Science from our media - the ABC has a shadow of its former self in Broadcasting factual material compared to recent years.

    The annoying ignorance of all this is that what we affluent Australians take for granted is in most part derivative of Science - yet the electorate can be conned into what their pocket needs to make them feel better and a handful of pointless gimmicks to play with.

    An old saying that beats around the bush where most voted in the LNP; "Coal will fill your wallet, but not your stomach" - we want to remember that as the Wind blows through the turbine free ranges here, but it is an ill wind devoid of the nourishing rain we used to remember.

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  8. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Excellent story Jonathon, however I wouldn't hold your breath with the sad lot of politicos who have been running Australia for years. They think in windows of time related to their short terms of office - Nothing more. The other thing that is very concerning, is they only speak of jobs, and job creation - never do they speak of industries, services, and innovations to create those jobs - Whereas the US has a long tradition fostering innovative minds who create the environment to start up brand…

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