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Chopping forest research: does NSW Government care about science?

Shutting down research during National Science Week is a little jarring. same indifference/Flickr

You really have to wonder what kind of message the New South Wales Government is trying to send about its attitude to science.

Was the announcement of funding cuts to research during Science Week just a case of really unfortunate timing? Or is science so far off the radar in politics that the irony wasn’t even apparent?

Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner opened National Science Week by praising the wide-reaching economic and social benefits of research and innovation. Then only days later, in the middle of Science Week, his government announced significant cuts to the NSW Forest Science Centre.

Imagine the government announcing the closure of a third of the Institute of Sport during the Olympic Games.

Scientists at the Forest Science Centre, part of the Department of Primary Industries, perform world-class research into biodiversity, response to climate change, biosecurity, carbon sequestration and salinity. I don’t need to point out the importance and relevance of these topics. It remains to be seen which of these research programs will survive the budget cuts.

The work these researchers are doing directly supports the growth and sustainability of the timber industry in NSW. It has flow-on benefits to other agricultural sectors.

There are less tangible, but just as important benefits of the research done at the centre, like understanding the effects of fire and forestry on threatened species.

Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson said the decision was made by benchmarking Forests NSW against similar forestry companies. But there is no immediate commercial drive for private companies to perform research into things like biodiversity and biosecurity. These areas deserve, and rely on, government support.

Successive state governments in NSW have slowly eroded the once significant research base of former departments like Agriculture and Fisheries. Both of these have now joined Forests NSW in a merged entity with Primary Industries.

The coalition specifically ruled out cutting research staff in the Department of Primary Industries before the election. But scientists working on food security, disease control, and fisheries management in other research centres around the state must now be looking over their shoulders.

As others have pointed out, science has long had an uncomfortable relationship with Australian politicians.

The relatively new coalition government in New South Wales has already made quite an impression on the state’s scientists. Upper house whip, Peter Phelps, raised the hackles of many with a wide-ranging attack, likening scientists to Nazis. Premier Barry O’Farrell refused to comment.

Further changes to the scientific landscape in New South Wales are on the horizon.

The government earlier announced an independent scientific audit of NSW marine parks, following transfer of their management to Primary Industries. The chair of the review, Professor Robert Beeton, has vowed to stick to the science and ignore politics. But with the government relying on the Shooters and Fishers Party to pass bills in the upper house it’s a politically charged issue.

Recently, the government announced the appointment of Peter Wills to lead a strategic review into health and medical research in NSW. This is a welcome development and was met with optimism from the sector. NSW has long been the poor cousin of Victoria and more recently Queensland in the chase for research funding.

So why it is that the government can get away with cutting a chunk of the state’s research capacity during Science week, barely rating a mention?

The scientists we are about to lose do high quality, important research with wide-ranging impact. It does not reflect well that most people don’t even know this work is being done.

Part of the responsibility has to lie with the scientists themselves. All of us receiving public research funding have a responsibility to engage the public and educate them about our research.

Otherwise, we risk sliding down the road of policy being made in the absence of science. If we vacate the space, the lowest common denominator forum of squawking shock jocks and vested corporate interests will gain even greater influence.

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