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Australian science is no better off after the 2015 budget

Who’ll use the equipment if funding for researchers is cut back? Flickr/Steven Lilley, CC BY-SA

Australian science is no better off after the 2015 budget

Who’ll use the equipment if funding for researchers is cut back? Flickr/Steven Lilley, CC BY-SA

For science, the 2015 federal budget is merely a continuation of 2014. The damage that was done has not been undone.

The same threats and uncertainty continue. Behind all the hollow words of support, there is no substantial recognition of the value of science for the knowledge that it brings, for its role as a driving force of economic growth and innovation, or for the empowerment that it gives to individuals to understand and shape a 21st-century future for themselves.

As Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, has pointed out, almost every OECD country has a plan for the strategic growth of its scientific enterprise and to facilitate its translation into technology, innovation and economic development. Every country, that is, except Australia and Portugal.

Australia, instead, will bank the nation’s long-term prosperity on a boost to small business spending on items under A$20,000 encouraged by some tax breaks.

The wrangles around the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (NCRIS) – the A$2 billion system of national research facilities – is symptomatic of the gaps in the government’s understanding of science, how it works, and the impact of decisions on it.

Prior to the 2015 budget, it took a concerted public campaign to bring home the level of destruction that the government was about to unleash by apparently regarding NCRIS funding as a tool for brinkmanship.

All very Yes Minister

Following the budget, the price of a mere two-year extension of funding was revealed as a A$300 million cut to university research block grants. This is a version of the Yes Minister comedy in which the hospital is built but no patients admitted. We have saved our research infrastructure by cutting the funds that support its use, in a form of budget cannibalism.

And does the government really think that the highly skilled staff on which NCRIS relies, having been roused by the spectre of a near-death experience, will stick around to see what will happen in two years time? The global mobility of expertise is a hallmark of the 21st-century global economy. Some prompt action will be required following the NCRIS review to avert this new form of brain drain.

The past two budgets seem to be channelling a commonly held but misguided view that basic science research is a luxury that can be cut back in hard times. But what about the translation of science research into innovation and economic growth? For most developed countries this is an imperative. For Australia, with the collapse of its mining income, you would have thought it even more critical.

The government, through its minister for science, claims that the 2015 budget reflects a strategic aim to “create stronger connections between research and industry and maximise Australia’s competitiveness”.

This is an extraordinary statement from a government that has not only slashed funding to the CSIRO over the past two years, but cut its key university-industry program, the Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) program, by A$80 million in 2014 – or around 20% – and then a further A$27 million in 2015.

One is tempted to ask what the government knows about the forthcoming CRC review that we don’t. Will it really be saying that 25% of what the CRCs were doing was not needed? That would be a brave call, indeed one might say a “courageous” call.

The need for engagement

Australia is recognised, on all available comparative data, to have one of the worst levels of engagement in the world between science research and industry.

Given the need to transform the economy following the collapse in mining, if there were any efficiencies available you’d imagine that a strategic government would invest them in facilitating this engagement. The CRC program certainly isn’t the only avenue available for that. It’s just that the 2014/15 and 2015/16 budgets reduced funding to all the other schemes as well.

In politics, scientists are urged to be statesperson-like, play the game and talk to such positives as can be found in the latest two budgets. Indeed there are those who have risen to that call, praising small mercies through clenched teeth.

But the message for science from these budgets has to be that we’re on our own. Both the budgets and budget replies show the paucity of understanding and strategic thinking in regard to science.

The public and the politicians don’t get a very strategic view of science. It is a bionic eye, a cure for cancer, a new exoplanet, quantum computers, nanomaterials etc. Science doesn’t make such a big thing about its synergies with engineering and IT, with the social sciences or with business and innovation. It somewhat takes these connections for granted.

The Chief Scientist, in his discussion papers and allied initiatives, gives these connections a central place. He focuses on the broader role of STEM and its relationship with and benefits for Australian society, its education system and the economy.

It is this kind of vision, rather than particular areas of research, that will build priority for science in the minds of the public and politicians. Perhaps these last two budgets will be an inspiration for scientists to put more energy into this task. Clearly no-one else will do it for us.