Comment: Science in Australia – a bleak future?Australia ‘risks being left behind,’ chief scientist says
It’s breakthroughs like the recent detection of primordial gravity waves that really set scientists hearts a-flutter.
These kinds of discoveries can lead to big advancements in the understanding of how the physics of our universe works. But without the support of governments, this kind of research – which requires large scale equipment and years if not decades of work – would fall flat, causing technological advancement to decrease and eventually stop.
To combat this risk in Australia, there has been a recent swell of support and advocacy from scientists and some politicians to develop a long term federal funding strategy for science.
For example, at the 2014 Science Meets Parliament (SMP) event (a two day meeting run by Science and Technology Australia to allow the engagement of politicians with scientists from around Australia), the Chief Scientist of Australia, Ian Chubb, addressed the National Press Club in a talk which highlighted the need for long term strategy in science within Australia.
A number of senior politicians also attended the meeting and gave talks, including Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who has previously acknowledged the need to develop a sustainable and strategic long-term plan for supporting research in Australia. Together with Labor Senator Kim Carr, who formerly served as Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, they discussed the critical role of science in government and policy, and announced they hope to establish a wide-ranging Senate inquiry into science and research in Australia.
Alongside this, Greens MP Adam Bandt expressed concern about cuts to science in the upcoming budget. Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he cannot guarantee science will be immune from budget reductions at a meeting with scientists at SMP. In response, Mr Bandt discussed the recent launch of the ‘Respect Research’ campaign designed to counter the cuts.
Reinforcing these concerns was the organiser of the event itself, Catriona Jackson, CEO of Science and Technology Australia, who recently stated that Australia is a country of great research, and if it wishes to continue this legacy, long-term planning is necessary. The common thread throughout these varied perspectives is an understanding that a robust science program requires long term funding and support from the Australian Government.
In contrast, the current government seem to be placing focus on using science as a tool for industry. Ian Macfarlane, Minister for Industry (under which the Science portfolio is kept), also presented a talk at SMP in which he outlined that the bonds between industry and the research community should be strengthened to secure Australia’s economy: “Science and research are at the front of my mind in addressing a major challenge confronting us – how to enhance our productivity and unsure a strong future for Australian Industry.”
While it is true that the collaboration between industry and research should be bolstered, the funding that researchers receive should not be dependent on their work’s potential to make a profit. Not all worthwhile research has a direct financial benefit, but it is necessary that the government still invest time and money in this research for the health of the public, the development of technology and the sustainability of society.
As highlighted by Brian Schmidt, one of Australia’s Nobel Prize Laureates in Physics, the political boom and bust nature of funding that occurs in Australia has great impact on the functioning and costs associated with research. It is far more effective to provide steady, long term support and funding for science, in order to secure the quality of research being produced and the quality of the researchers well into the future, rather than having support be driven by the policies of the government that is in power.
With the idea of long term strategy being supported by the Opposition, the Greens and the science community as a whole, hopefully the upcoming budget will contain funding that will support, sustain and grow Australia’s scientific future.
Catriona Wimberley is studying a PhD in Medical Physics.