Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Future Research Stars Are Born in Every Town

By Senator Kim Carr

Labor believes that “Australia cannot be an innovation nation unless we are an education nation – and a science and research nation”.

Australian scientists were entitled to feel relieved when the Liberal Party changed its leader last September. After all, in the 2014 Budget Tony Abbott’s government stripped $3 billion from public funding for science, research and innovation programs, and sought to take $12 billion over 10 years from university research programs. These policies, along with cuts to university budgets and unfair fee hikes that would lumber university students with $100,000 degrees, were carried through in the 2015 Budget.

But for scientists, like most Australians, Malcolm Turnbull has turned out to be a bitter disappointment. A partial reversal of those massive cuts to science in his overhyped National Innovation and Science Agenda comes nowhere near restoring the resources and the confidence of the Australian research sector. The radical Americanisation of our university system remains government policy under Mr Turnbull, hidden behind the in­adequate fig leaf of a discussion paper. The simple truth is that most of this government’s anti-science, anti- innovation policies remain intact.

There is no doubt about it, Mr Turnbull has an impressive vocabulary, schooled in the jargon of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. But his words are a distraction – we must look at his deeds to see what the future holds for an Australian science sector under a returned Turnbull Liberal government. Behind the buzz words is an inescapable fact. This is a government of innovation frauds: they say one thing and do another.

The Liberals cut the CSIRO budget, encourage the dangerous impoverishment of the agency’s public good mission and facilitate the derision of fundamental research, then stand back and affect innocence when management undermines its internationally renowned climate research capability. Job cuts are being rolled out right now – up to 275 jobs across the board, including as many as 75 climate scientists – and the Minister does nothing even though he has the power to act.

Labor is firmly opposed to these job cuts, and I repeat my plea to the Minister to halt this process. The urgency goes well beyond politics – our national research capacity, our international scientific reputation and our ability to predict and accommodate our environmental future all depend on it.

But unfortunately I do not hold out much hope. This government did not even have a Science Minister for much of the last Parliament. The present incumbent, Christopher Pyne, is the same man who so casually threatened our national research infrastructure and held hostage 1700 scientists’ jobs to ram through university fee deregulation.

Despite the lofty innovation rhetoric, this government holds an attitude of sheer expediency towards Australia’s science and research enterprise. After all, every science agency has had its budget cut.

Labor has a very different attitude. We have different priorities. As Bill Shorten said in his Budget reply speech, we understand that “Australia cannot be an innovation nation unless we are an education nation” – and a science and research nation. Labor would not permit the CSIRO to proceed with its savage and destructive job cuts. Labor will never hold scientists and our national research future ransom for political gain. Labor will restore and celebrate the public good mission of the CSIRO and our other publicly funded research agencies, as well as schemes such as the Cooperative Research Centres program.

Labor will ensure our best and brightest have the means to realise their talents for the good of the economy and the community. Labor will not shackle students with a lifetime of debt just to gain access to a university education. Labor will legislate a funding guarantee to give universities certainty, institute a commission to oversee the management of the higher education system, and introduce measures to ensure quality and access.

Labor will work to end the gender divide in science that sees women constitute more than half of all PhD graduates and early career researchers, yet make up only 17% of senior academics. Labor believes that no Australian should be denied access to higher education or to a research future in the field of their choice because of their means, their gender or their origin.

Only Labor understands that future research stars are born in every town and in every circumstance. It is government’s role to help them achieve their potential. Providing a high quality education and a secure research environment for our scientists and researchers is not only fair, it is also smart.

Senator Kim Carr is Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry, and Shadow Minister assisting the Leader for Science.