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What about science in the Commission of Audit report?

The chair of the Commission of Audit, Tony Shepherd, on the release of the report today. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

What about science in the Commission of Audit report?

The message from the federal government’s Commission of Audit is loud and clear: science, research and education are expenses to be trimmed rather than investments to be nurtured.

Yes, there are few big surprises for such sectors in the recommendations in the report. But not being surprised is not the same as being pleased.

And even though the hand picked commissioners might be directly channelling Abbott government thinking, perhaps we can still hope that the government will not act on the recommendations.

In theory the Audit acts as a relatively safe way of running ideas up the flag poll to see who salutes, rather than a commitment by government to act.

So in that spirit, we scanned the phase one recommendations relating to science to see if any of those salutes should be done with the middle finger.

The good and the bad

There are a number of recommendations in here that should be given such a salute: they are not only dangerous for those in the higher education and research sectors, but dangerous for society as a whole.

Recommendation 34 focuses on government funding of Research and Development.

Some of these recommendations appear as sensible policy proscriptions – in particular, aligning the Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant processes.

Though this isn’t likely to save us a Joint Strike Fighter load of money, it makes sense to make the grant application process that little bit more straightforward for working scientists.

But other suggestions in Recommendation 34 are a little more ambiguous. For example, unclear assertions about “streamlining the current system of research block grants” or “consolidating existing research programmes aimed at fostering collaboration” could mean many things if put in motion.

Yet two of the R&D recommendations do represent concerning steps:

[…] more government oversight of the work of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to ensure that resources are being directed to areas of greatest priority.

This potentially licenses the government to arbitrarily prioritise non-scientific, often short term political goals above the practicalities of public good scientific endeavours.

Similarly, it is very disappointing to see the call to abolish the Cooperative Research Centres program, particularly when this program has done so much to get science more closely connected with industry.

Though the auditors have recommended rolling the funding for this program into the ARC Linkage grants system, the loss of the longer term funding represented by the CRC system is another retrograde step.

It’s up to government

Democratically elected governments, of course, have the right to set national priorities. Yet this call for resources to be directed to areas of “greatest priority” must be understood in light of other government work and other recommendations of the Commission of Audit.

In particular, the report recommends abolishing seven bodies, of which at least three are directly climate focused:

Is this concerning? Yes. It demonstrates the ongoing less-than-impressive attitude toward actual action on climate change that is sadly coming to characterise Australia as a political entity.

Directing CSIRO to more closely follow government priorities is a concern if those priorities don’t appear to follow scientific fact.

But is this surprising? Not remotely.

Recommendation 53 suggests consolidating health portfolio bodies and agencies which would undoubtedly have an affect on medical research in Australia.

On the face of it, consolidation is easy to argue as being reasonable and rational: efficiency is one of those very good things.

But as always, the proof of that pudding comes in the eating. Or more precisely, in the way it is sliced, who gets what piece, how big that piece is and, most critical of all, who plays “mother”.

Harder for university students

Recommendation 30 addresses higher education arrangements. As is so unfortunately common, the underlying attitude here appears to be of education as expense, rather than investment.

Competition? Up. User pays? Up. Government support? Down.

Here it’s disheartening to see suggestions that the interest rate applied to the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) should be raised above the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

The HELP scheme allows students to defer the payment of university fees until after they have graduated and start earning a wage. In limiting interest increases to CPI, the government is making an investment in a student’s education.

Beyond this, it’s positively depressing to read a call for the threshold salary at which people would start repaying that loan to be lowered from A$51,309 a year to A$32,354 (albeit with a lower repayment rate of 2.5%).

Apparently the post-university benefits of a tertiary education begin once you receive the minimum wage.

Overall, we suspect very few in the R&D or higher education sectors would raise their eyebrows in shock at the Audit report. But many of us may end up raising them in disgust come May 13 when the actual federal budget is handed down.

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