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Science funding is a national investment – not an expense

As a relatively small and young country, by population if not by landmass, Australia has played a noticeable role on the world stage when it comes to science. Contributions to new technologies, from Wi-Fi…

The Coalition government seems to take a very keen interest in medical science, but what about the other fields? AAP/Dan Peled

As a relatively small and young country, by population if not by landmass, Australia has played a noticeable role on the world stage when it comes to science.

Contributions to new technologies, from Wi-Fi to vaccines, are well known, as is the growing role Australia has played in more fundamental areas such as astronomy.

Nevertheless, by comparison with many first world countries, Australia is not known for its support of research and development. On a per capita basis, the country falls well below a number of Asian countries, and in terms of government support of fundamental and applied research, it falls short of the US.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Resource-rich, with great demand coming from nearby China, Australia has managed to ride out many of the economic tsunamis experienced elsewhere by easily exploiting its natural resource base.

But this attitude cannot continue to be successful much further into the 21st century.

We already know what works

The “haves” will diverge from the “have-nots” in the rest of this century in proportion to their ability to innovate to meet global challenges.

This means that Australia must be prepared to increase, not decrease, government support of science and technology R&D. This should be thought of as an investment rather than an expense.

Some 50-85% of the current gross national product today in first world countries such as Australia and the US is due to R&D investments made a generation ago. Indeed, the economic “return” on R&D investment, dollar per dollar, has been calculated to be as large as 20%.

Penicillium chrysogenum conidia (asexual spores) on conidiophores (stalks). Engineering at Cambridge/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

This does not mean supporting only applied research with clear and immediate technological or economic goals, though. Support for curiosity-driven research is essential.

History abounds with stories of incredibly important unexpected technological and economic bounties, from the serendipitous discovery of penicillin, to the invention of the transistor which revolutionised computing, to the creation of the World Wide Web at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN).

There is another reason to support fundamental research. Such research is “sexy”, and attracts the best young people in the world.

Some of these young people will go on to make profound and deep discoveries, establishing a research tradition that will attract new researchers. Others will go on to use the skills they learn in this research to create companies that can change the world (such as Google).

Strategy is key

A country of Australia’s size cannot afford to compete in every area of science.

The country needs to look for strategic advantages: areas where due to accidents of geography or tradition, there are unique strengths, or the possibility of building them. Areas such as marine and environmental science, biomedical technology, astronomy and quantum optics, to name a few, are areas where Australia has become a leader or can become one.

In my own area of cosmology, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA; see video below) provides a unique opportunity for Australia to take the lead in a global Big Science project, with the consequent developments in technology that accompany it.

Similarly, while deficits and financial setbacks may constrain government support of science, any cutbacks in government support should also be strategic, not wholesale.

From my current vantage point, which I admit may be limited, I cannot see the logic in the arbitrary proposed cutbacks in successful research institutions such as CSIRO. Along with the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council (ARC), such institutions will be the backbone on which an economically and intellectually prosperous Australia will be supported.

Get friendly with neighbours to the north

At the same time Australia must expand and exploit strategic scientific partnerships with its neighbouring countries, many of which are committed to new massive scientific endeavours.

In this way you can leverage significant scientific spending in Japan, China, Korea and Singapore, and help train Australians at their new research facilities too.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see much of the future of science in Australia in such Asian partnerships, even if traditional scientific ties in this country have often been to Europe and the US.

Byoung Wook - Toughkid Kim 김병욱/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Finally, the future of Australia will depend upon the intellectual capital of its people. My own best physics students have been Australian, but Australia cannot afford to make the export of talent its major export.

Neither can it afford to isolate itself from talent elsewhere. From my own experience in particle physics and cosmology Australia is not known a “destination place”. Of course in large part this may be a consequence of being remote in geography, but this geographic constraint can be overcome by ensuring an attractive research environment.

Scientists will go where good science is supported and where famous mentors reside, and recruiting the best and brightest is a tried and true way of remaining on top.

This has been the secret of the success in the US. American pre-eminence in research today is largely possible because we were able attract and retain a fraction of the smartest young people from across the globe going into science today.

Opening up new opportunities and enticements for visitors, early and mid-career long term researchers and foreign graduate students will be an investment that will pay this country back handsomely well into the future.

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41 Comments sorted by

  1. Brett Carter

    Postdoctoral Researcher in Space Weather and Ionospheric Physics at RMIT University

    Great article Prof Krauss! As an early career scientist, you are certainly preaching to the choir! In my temporary assignment in the US, I have been gob-smacked at the number of Aussies I find abroad who want to come back home, but are too concerned about the funding support for fundamental sciences in Australia. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that decisions to cut fundamental research funding have the long-term benefits in mind.

    Thanks again!

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    1. Malcolm Nearn

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Brett Carter

      Write to your MPs, particularly if you are in a Liberal or National held seat

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Brett Carter

      Given that Australia is a pretty nice place to live, and the old tyranny of distance ain't what it used to be, it seems strange that we should have trouble attracting good people here, rather than the other way round...

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  2. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    "I cannot see the logic in the arbitrary proposed cutbacks..."

    I agree, and I have spent some time studying Australia's National Innovation System. What appears to be missed by the author is that the current government is bent to an idealogical proposition, which I basically understand to be this: science establishes policy predispositions, which often conflict with party ideology, for example income through resource exploitation like coal or fossil fuels. (A lot of party donors are miners.) Where science and policy conflict, science should move for the party ideology. That means policies should destabilise science, or mute it. I don't think it is an 'error of policy' or a 'particular policy stance': the party was intentionally sidelining science, based upon ideology/significant party interests. I suggest science consolidates and waits for fairer policy winds...

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    1. Joy RIngrose

      Retired Maths/Science teacher

      In reply to Craig Myatt

      Unfortunately, while science waits for 'fairer policy winds', the intended gross underfunding of science in Australia will not only see an exodus of scientists, it will also see a rapid decline of our science institutions. The momentum lost will be difficult to regain. The proposed attack on science education will be a great disincentive for students who wish to study science, along with the prospect that there will be no jobs for them when they graduate.
      The lack of vision of the current government is staggering.

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    2. Craig Myatt

      Industrial Designer / R&D

      In reply to Joy RIngrose

      True. What I think is really lacking is the story or narrative about the value and benefits of science. It is not well known that there is a strong link between National Innovation System/science funding and wealth creation in countries. That is a core message which should be put into the public domain. To me, it is underfunded partly because we are seeking resource royalties, and these can be fickle, and we should be upping our science funding to proactively develop innovation in Australia…

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  3. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    To quote Professor Peter Brain of 2001,
    “The standard approach to industry development policy in Western Europe and North Asia is straight-forward and heavily public sector driven [then, at least]. Governments decide what emerging industries are likely to be strategic for their economies. Public sector budget allocations then fund:
    - research institutions with mission statements to become world best practice knowledge centres in the targeted technology;
    - educational and training programmes…

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    1. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Georgina Byrne

      Well, yes, they are wisdom-challenged. Though we should not overlook the powerful role of the mainstream media (primarily but not only Citizen Murdock’s Australian), which is using its power and political bias to work hard to support both an arrogant Noalition and Brutal Austerity - while persuading us not to notice.

      What we could do with is a groups like the Greens/ACF/Greenpeace simply keeping a daily record of the voting and particularly appalling speeches of each member of national and state parliaments, for daily dissemination to dissidents in their electorates for unkind feedback.

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  4. Phil Dolan

    Viticulturist

    I have forwarded this to my local (Liberal) MP and urge others to do likewise.

    Good article.

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  5. Jennifer Donovan

    Lecturer in Education at University of Southern Queensland

    Completely agree with the article. I was shocked to hear of the cutbacks to CSIRO, they do great work. I do not oppose medical research but promises of "cures for cancer" espoused by our Treasurer only demonstrate an abysmal lack of understanding of health science. Cancer is not one disease and there cannot be one cure. There is so much more science that we should be funding, including via CRCs and the ARC.
    I do sense that it is a political strategy to silence the knowers, and incredibly poor vision for Australia. Our Chief Scientist has said we should be putting more money into science education from primary schools upwards to meet the future need for scientists. This miserable budget does not encourage existing scientists to stay here, let alone others to do the hard slog to join them. We will be auditioning for dumb and dumber soon!

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  6. Marcus Wigan

    Adjunct Professor Insititute of Social Inquiry ICT (Swinburne) at University of Melbourne

    Im already finding prospective Doctorates asking me about overseas institutions, and more pointedly NOT asking me about local ones any more,with a key ground being "my PhD study builds my networks and my prospects for a future job- this seems to be something that Australia no longer wants (has?) to offer.

    Having spent a great deal of my (voluntary) time in assisting postgrads in Australia, this is a straw in the wind as to the way these very bright people are responding as they appear now to be seeing their prospects wither....

    We can afford to lose them en masse, the cycle from basic research to products is now shrinking to barely longer that a Phd candidature in many areas...

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    1. Georgina Byrne
      Georgina Byrne is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer at Farming

      In reply to Marcus Wigan

      It is difficult to find any rational decision in the nation's interest in the current budget let alone the pronouncements made by the current front benches at both Federal and State levels. Science, R&D, higher education are all under attack from a variety of fronts. It is rapidly becoming a state of war between the wealthy few against the majority of our population. As a strategy, simultaneous attack on so many fronts seems to be working well...one can only wonder at the long term goal of all of this....if of course there is one.

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  7. Peter Morero

    Rural Doctor

    Absolutely agree with the points made by Prof Krauss and other contributors. Another example of this ideologically driven government making decisions which will end up costing the country more than they "save". The government's approach also seems to be based on the erroneous notion that "science" or "research" is driven by predetermined goals. This is the case in some circumstances, but many of the major advances in technology - such as penicillin, have been made as incidental findings in the course of undirected pure research. Also, the much vaunted "billion dollar medical research fund" should, if it is intended to achieve quality health outcomes, direct most of its activity toward how we practise medicine and deliver health care, rather than looking for pharmaceutical magic bullets. Not at all what the Treasurer implied with his comments - "cures for cancer/dementia/etc.." - laughable in its ignorance, but tragic in the fact that these are our decision makers.

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    1. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Peter Morero

      Brutal Austerity is the whole idea. In Europe and the U.S. the filthy rich – the 0.1% - have done very very well from brutal Austerity; to plunder similarly here, they need to inflict similar pain. Therefore, as representative of the filthy rich and of transnational capitalism Abbott's agenda (equally driven by Hockey the Hatchet-man) is in fact quite open, quite simple, and quite brutal – to wreck the economy so as to indirectly force the massive cuts in wages and income transfers that that stratum has so far been unable to inflict directly.

      It is as simple as that.

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    2. Peter Morero

      Rural Doctor

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      I don't see this as a very sensible comment. I don't think Abbot & co intend to wreck the economy at all. Its certainly the case that their policies favour the wealthy and big business, but I'm sure they believe or have rationalised to themselves that what they are doing is right.

      The problem I see is the lack of insight and attention to evidence that they display. Their agenda is heavily driven by ideology and is ignorant of what we know from research and evidence in both scientific and economic…

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    3. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Peter Morero

      Well, indeed. Objectivity is also a matter of opinion, unless the issue can be entirely converted into technical issues.

      Many appear in denial about the real nature of an Abbott government. Note journalists’ careful avoidance of looking to Europe, to an English-speaking country like the U.K., to see what Abbott's Austerity does!

      Hockey's Austerity policy is a repeatedly proven failure in Europe - a point not one mainstream media commentator has mentioned. It does not decrease the public debt:GDP…

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    4. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Stefan Gorski

      Definitely something worth investigating - though in India, for instance, the village moneylender is said to tell them how to vote. In italian elections it was at least once the case, that the detail of the results could be used to indicate how individuals had voted. Most may not have either compulsory or preferential voting.

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  8. David Pearn

    Follower

    This trend to supporting medical research aimed at increasing the population base of the planet is simply a continuation of the religious war against the other sciences that have the temerity to produce inconvenient warnings NOT supported by religious dogma.
    The first true dark age is upon us.

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    1. Malcolm Nearn

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to David Pearn

      I do not think it helps to couch your objections in these terms. Our arguments need to be supported by facts and logic, not by emotional words about religious dogma. We won't change opinion that way.

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    2. David Pearn

      Follower

      In reply to Malcolm Nearn

      My objection is entirely on the basis of scientific facts which is the problem with religious 'belief' which is ALL ABOUT emotion.
      It truly is THE subject which holds us back because it involves an inconsistency of reasoning.
      But that's ok?

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  9. Toss Gascoigne

    Science communicator

    Putting money into research is part of the solution, but there are other aspects of the system that need to be addressed:

    1. Business investment in R&D is painfully low by international standards (while expenditure by Government is reasonably high). Which makes one wonder why the Government cut funding to the CRC Program.

    2. The employment system for researchers is inefficient and perverse. Too many short-term contracts, and competition for grants and jobs is very high - perhaps too high…

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  10. Anthony Gallas

    Student, University of Life

    I've just read Tony Abbott's academic transcript from Oxford University. Not surprisingly, there as no science subject there! I no longer need to wonder about the low priority given to science funding by this Government.
    That being said, previous administrations haven't been all that generous either.

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  11. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    I fully agree with the tone of this article, but feel it is (not surprisingly, given the author’s background) slanted heavily towards the physical sciences. One could argue that in these, as in the health sciences, the principles are universal, and experience and knowledge can be readily transported across borders, meaning that we in Australia could get away with playing lazy, and letting others do the “heavy lifting” (to coin a phrase) for us.
    However, there are areas where our interests and…

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  12. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Good article, though its content would fall on deaf ears with the sad lot of Zombies we have in Canberra these days. .. If however, scientific endeavors could translate to $$$ within a given election term - well science would be viewed in a different light

    No $$$ revenue on the horizon - No funding. That about sums up the LNP philosophy - Indeed, commoditise everything

    This said, a recent policy initiative was to create a $20b medical research fund - Or so they said. More to the point, $20b of revenue was expected to flow through the Treasury doors, making for a terrific slush fund - with Med research living off some of the scraps

    What's next .... a national brain drain article might be in order. Researchers heading off to better climes, leaving a note saying - Would the last one out, please turn off the lights

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  13. Joseph Phillips

    Self employed

    Although Prof Krauss' comments may fall on deaf years as far as the Government is concerned, we should continue to support them and push for change. The Government's redirection of resources away from education and general scientific research into Chaplaincy is a strange move. It's concentration on medical research is putting all our eggs in one basket.

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    1. Joseph Phillips

      Self employed

      In reply to David Pearn

      I meant strange in the sense of it being bizarre, grotesque or totally out of proportion in relation to the cost and benefit to society of investing in Chaplaincy instead of Education and Science.

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Joseph Phillips

      Chaplins over education and science - introduced to you by the Labor party

      "Jun 28, 2011 - A TAXPAYER-funded program which allegedly puts unqualified chaplains in public schools is putting children at risk"

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    3. Joseph Phillips

      Self employed

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Yes, but how much is being cut from education and general research and how much is being allocated to chaplaincy? It seems to be grossly disproportionate.

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    4. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Joseph Phillips

      I agree, I thought it was grossly disproportionate to begin with

      Why did Labor do this? Why did labor fund CSIRO to the tune of 780Mil but fund Manus Island to the tune of about 700Mil

      "In August 2012 the Australian Government controversially announced it would resume offshore processing; in November 2012 the relocation of asylum-seekers to Manus Island resumed"

      Notice how this is just a continuation of Labor and how you try to ignore it

      I'm no fan of the coalition but I think one of the great things about them being in power is that we don't have left wing sheeple constantly defending the terrible things the government are doing.

      Seems throwing people in a hole in Manus Island was fine under labor, a big problem under the coalition

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    5. Malcolm Nearn

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Michael Shand

      We seem to be side-tracked by arguing about the various things that both sides of politics have done wrong - and I am not singling out Michael Shand here.

      We are all preaching to the converted in abhorring the cuts to research and R&D funding. May I suggest that we work together positively to produce a set of arguments to persuade our MPs and the general public why the cutbacks to science funding will be costly to everyone.

      Here is a start:

      1) Basic research has produced so many innovations…

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    6. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Malcolm Nearn

      Thank you Malcom, you are comletely correct.

      Unfortunately you can't reason with someone who hides their reasoning from you. That is, Arguing with Abbott about the effectiveness of direct action is pointless, he knows it's not effective, so even if you present concrete arguments.....your really arguing nothign, he already agree's with you, the real argument is about protecting vested interests.

      I think they all understand the basic reasons why research is important, here's the secret....they…

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    7. Joseph Phillips

      Self employed

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Malcolm, it is not reasonable to label anyone a left wing sheepie if you really do not know what their stand is pn asylum seekers.
      Both Labor and the LNP do not have satisfactory policies on this matter.
      But you are right in saying that the Government will not listen because it does not care enough to support educationand research.

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    8. David Pearn

      Follower

      In reply to Malcolm Nearn

      Sadly there are more votes in law and order expenditure than the CSIRO frinstance and negative votes for reducing prison crowding or conditions in general.
      Banging on about the length of time an employed person work to support the unemployed is just another dog whistle ......they just can't help themselves.

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