Why has science stalled in Australia?

by | Feb 10, 2016 | Rest of the World

By Elliot Scanes:

The retraction of scientific investment in Australia has been a slow processes, solidified in the minds of many young Australians during the Abbot Government’s now notorious federal budget of 2014. This budget saw the withdrawal of millions of dollars of funding from the nation’s flagship scientific institution, the CSIRO. Although it was this moment that drew the attention of the wider public, it was just a part of an ongoing trend of declining investment in government scientific bodies at both the state and federal levels.

Recently, I had the opportunity to undertake part of my PhD research at a government funded research facility in Norway for 3 months. Working in a country that actually values scientific knowledge really drove home how dire the situation of scientific investment is in Australia. Norway, like Australia, is a country that has gained immense wealth recently from the extraction of its natural resources. Unlike Australia, however, Norway is willing to reinvest this money into understanding the impacts of resource extraction and its effect on their unique environment.

While I was away, I learnt of Malcom Turnbull’s now infamous “Innovation” speech, where he used the term “innovation” quite liberally. I must admit, after hearing this news I felt optimistic that we might see some tangible outcomes in scientific funding following these “innovation” declarations. Unfortunately, it’s been over 3 months since Turnbull’s speech and no tangible outcomes are to be seen. Furthermore, this week it was revealed that the CSIRO was restructuring its climate science department, resulting in the loss of approximately 100 jobs. This has drawn condemnation from scientific organisations around the globe. One cannot help but wonder if the government was serious about climate action it would provide sufficient resources to understand the problem. The argument that climate change has been proven and no longer requires investigation is beyond ludicrous. Imagine if we had stopped studying physics when Newton’s theory of gravity was confirmed. It would seem to this author, that the confirmation of climate change would warrant more, rather than less, investigation into its multifaceted causes.

As state and federal investment into public scientific organisations dwindles, the university sector is expected to pick up the slack in research and not only fill the knowledge gap, but become the primary sources of scientific research. If the universities are now to carry the flag for scientific research, it would be expected that they will be provided with the money to do so? Unfortunately not. The ill-fated deregulation of universities was expected to provide the extra funds (at the expense of students). The slipping standards of university admissions are a side-effect of cash strapped universities needing to increase their revenue to make research and other operations possible.

But what about Turnbull’s “innovation” plan? This plan centres around market driven scientific research, funded predominantly by private organisations. That is, research with perceivable economic gains. In essence, the findings of the research can be used to make back the money originally invested and hopefully create a profit on top. This is an inherently flawed way to view research. Corporations and likely investors are under pressure to deliver results to stakeholders on a quarterly basis. This drives short-sightedness, and instant success at the expense of potential greater long term gains. Human induced climate change and the subsequent resistance against any action to nullify carbon emissions is an example of governments and corporations who are more concerned about the finances of the present than they are about the future.

So where does this leave scientific investment in Australia? Unfortunately it leaves us in a difficult position, stuck between institutions lacking the required funding, and a government not willing to commit the money. We need significant investment into government institutions to restore their flagship capabilities, and further funding to universities so their research can play a supporting role. Without this, Australia is destined to fall even further behind our global neighbours. Furthermore, young scientists like myself are increasingly looking abroad for opportunities for us to ply our trade, and will likely settle in those places where our hard work is rewarded with job security, rather than redundancies. I fear the coming years will result in a scientific void in Australia, as a result of the current imperceptive policies. Knowledge like any asset, will cost more to retrieve than to retain.



(images: Jonathan Brennan, Jonathan Potts and David Clarke)

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