A tough year for Australian science

Yesterday marked a year since Australia’s conservative Liberal-National Coalition were swept to victory in the country’s federal election. For Australian scientists, it’s been a tough 12 months.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott started by announcing a cabinet that, for the first time since 1931, did not include a dedicated Science Minister. Speaking to Fairfax Media at the time, astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt said that symbolically the move was “pretty disconcerting”, but ultimately, government action was more important than job titles. His view was echoed by Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, a former neuroscientist. So far, those actions have not been encouraging.

BUDGET CUTS

slew of cuts to science funding in this year’s budget totalled A$450 million (£250 million). Cuts included a A$111.4 million loss for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), spread over the next four years. Other organisations hit with significant cuts included the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, the Australian Research Council and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.

Redundancies at the CSIRO resulting from the cuts – that come on the back of other, pre-budget job losses – are expected to total around 10% of the organisation’s work force. Astronomy and Space Science – whose predecessor, the Division of Radiophysics, pioneered Wi-Fi – is already suffering. Money is being cut from existing facilities including the Parkes Radio Telescope, ‘The Dish’, to ensure adequate funding for the CSIRO’s work on the landmark Square Kilometre Array project and its two Australian precursor telescopes. Lewis Ball, Director of Astronomy and Space Science, has said that CSIRO funding for the Mopra Telescope near Coonabarrabran will end in about a year. Parkes and the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri could also close within two years “without substantial, long-term external investment”, says Ball.

While the government did announce plans for a ‘medical research future fund’, fundamental physics research of the kind that has previously spawned valuable medical applications – think PET and MRI scanners – will not benefit. The government is also seeking to cut state contributions to undergraduate tuition fees by 20%, increase interest rates on student loans and introduce fees to postgraduate research students, prompting concern from the academic community. In fairness though, the problems go deeper than this year’s budget.

DEEPER PROBLEMS

In schools, enrolments in science at Year 12 level steadily declined between 1992 and 2010, and, in a 2011 study, most Year 11/12 students not studying science said that science was not especially relevant or useful to their lives. At undergraduate level, Australia also has low enrolments in STEM subjects compared to other OECD countries as of 2010.

Further along the pipeline, the top tier of Australian researchers produces some of the world’s most highly cited science. In physics, researchers in quantum computing and particle physics, as well as astrophysics, have made valuable contributions to their respective fields, to name but three areas. But for an aspiring “clever country” – a phrase coined by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke – average citation rates for the country’s research are so-so. They are above the European average in only five out of 18 subject areas, compared to the UK, that is above average in all 18 areas. And on the innovation front, patenting rates and collaborations between Australian research institutions and companies are among the lowest in the OECD.

The lack of a bipartisan approach has been a key way in which policy has not been supportive of research. Regular policy changes with the three year federal election cycle have created an unpredictable environment for researchers. The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy funds major infrastructure to support world-class research including the Australian Synchrotron and the SKA. Until May this year, it teetered on the edge of a fiscal cliff, with only 14 months of funding secured. There was a reprieve in the budget, with money allocated through to mid-2016, but the short-term approach still prevents the long-term commitment needed for many projects. International telescope use, for example, is run on five-year agreements.

FIXING THE PROBLEMS

In light of all this, it would make sense then, to have a long term strategy for Australian science. For over a year now, Prof. Chubb has been telling this to anyone that will listen. “Australia is now the only OECD country that does not have a contemporary national science and technology, or innovation strategy,” he said at a lecture in Sydney in August. His plea isn’t new: Jim Peacock, a biologist who went on to become Chief Scientist, was asking for this back in 2000.

Chubb has, however, put together a set of strategic recommendations for the Australian government that were released last week in Canberra, on which he has taken advice from both the scientific and business community. The recommendations are wide ranging. They span education and training, research and international engagement of Australia’s STEM community. They also include measures to maximise the competitiveness of Australia’s economy – something which should in particular appeal to a conservative government.

Several organisations – including Universities Australia, the Australian Academy of Science, Science and Technology Australia, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and ICT body, the Australian Information Industry Association – have made supportive noises. So surely the government will take up the recommendations?

“This is a government which is dedicated to science, which is devoted to research,” said Prime Minister Tony Abbott, reassuringly one might think, the week before Chubb’s strategy announcement. But in some quarters, his comments were met with scepticism, as many already view the current government as anti-evidence and anti-science.

Five years ago, Abbott labelled the science that demonstrates anthropogenic climate change as “absolute crap”, and evidence of a shift from that position is debatable, despite his protestations. Several of his party and advisors, including Maurice Newman, chairman of Abbott’s Business Advisory Council would seem to share the view. Newman, an economist, recently wrote an opinion piece in The Australian where he attributed changes in climate to variations in solar activity and warned of ‘global cooling’.

Since taking power, Abbott’s government have abolished the independent advisory Climate Commission and repealed the carbon tax. Australia’s modest Renewable Energy Target may also be cut back significantly, following a government-commissioned review headed by businessman Dick Warburton. Warburton describes himself as “a sceptic that man-made carbon dioxide is creating global warming”.

On top of this, Ian Chubb revealed the government hadn’t consulted him on this year’s budget cuts. And after a year of government, the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, a group of scientists, politicians and civil servants, including Chubb, that provides independent advice to the government, has not met.

The Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane, who is responsible for science in the absence of a dedicated minister, did attend the launch of Chubb’s recommendations. His speech was heavily focussed on innovation and commercialisation, as one might expect of a Minister of Industry. Blue sky research did get a mention, though perhaps tellingly, it was mainly to say how some of the government did not appreciate its value. “We need to explain why blue sky research is important,” said Macfarlane.

So what happens next? “I’m going to make sure that I talk to people from as many places as I can get to, to persuade them that Australia’s future depends on a well-integrated, a well-resourced, but a coherent approach to support for science,” said Chubb on ABC radio that evening. Australia’s STEM community will continue to watch with interest.

Image: The radio telescope at Parkes Observatory, New South Wales, Australia. Money is being cut from the dish to fund the new Square Kilometre Array. Credit: Ian Sutton.

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