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Science funding is a national investment – not an expense

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

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 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.