Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Bushfire Research Burnt

By Ian Lowe

The discontinuance of funding for the Bushfire CRC is a prime example of bureaucratic myopia.

The early announcement of a date for the Australian election should allow time for reasoned debate of important policy issues. In the normal 6 weeks of frenetic campaigning, politicians might be forgiven for concentrating on economic trivia and personalities.

With more than 6 months until voters go into the polling booths, there is no such excuse. We are entitled to expect those competing for our vote to be spelling out their vision for the future – including the crucial role of science and innovation.

In most recent elections there has effectively been bi­partisan agreement to ignore long-term issues. As a result, funding of science and innovation has stagnated. Public funds are used to try to buy votes through blatant pork-barrelling of marginal electorates and desperate attempts to prop up faltering economic activities. Government continues to provide huge subsidies for the supply and use of fossil fuels when the urgency of climate change demands a different approach.

Even if climate change were not an issue, new economic analyses show there is little future in fossil fuels. A recent study by respected financial analysts Bloomberg concluded that wind power is already cheaper than coal or gas in Australia, with solar PV also likely to be cheaper by 2020 even at the expected low levels of charging for carbon dioxide released.

The continuing support of the local car industry to build large and inefficient cars is justified by the fear that jobs would be lost without government hand-outs. But jobs will certainly be lost if local manufacturers keep building vehicles that don’t meet modern standards. Even the USA under Obama now has serious fuel efficiency standards for its car industry.

The most important issue for Australia’s economic future is the capacity to innovate and develop goods and services that will be competitive. It is hard to believe there is even an economic future in aiming to be a low-price quarry, selling unprocessed raw materials at bargain prices. Manufacturing has been systematically undermined by the high Australian dollar, largely a result of the continuing generous support of the minerals industry, and the failure of governments to prefer local products.

At the very least, we are entitled to expect a discussion of these serious issues in the next 6 months.

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A prime example of bureaucratic inflexibility is the announcement that the successful Bushfire CRC will lose its Commonwealth funding this year. The government has a rule limiting the time for support of CRCs. The underlying principle makes sense in areas where a research centre is aiming to develop goods and services for a commercial market. If the centre has not succeeded in developing products that are commercially viable, there is a case for discontinuing public support.

But the CRC program was also originally intended to support research that has a public interest, rather than being aimed at the market. Bushfire research is a classic example.

The Australian landscape has been subject to an increasing risk of devastating fires since Europeans changed the land management practices. Climate change, bringing hotter and often drier conditions, is loading the dice. Extreme events that might have been expected once per century will now occur much more frequently.

Catastrophic fires strike randomly, so we can’t predict which settlements are most at risk. While particular towns are worst hit by events like the 2009 Victorian fires, the whole community bears the cost of these events. So it makes sense for the community to fund research that makes us better prepared and more able to cope with these events.

Tony Peacock, who heads the CRC Association, has criticised the inflexibility of the government’s approach. He likened it to telling a successful Olympic competitor who had won gold on two occasions that they could not compete at a third Games. He accepts that there needs to be a process for giving new proposals a fair opportunity to compete with established centres.

Gary Morgan, CEO of the Bushfire CRC, makes the telling point that the research now being done on this summer’s Tasmanian fires is transferable to the mainland and therefore benefits the whole community. While $5 million is a serious research budget, it is trivial compared with the cost of bushfires.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.