Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Jobs, Growth and... Science

By Guy Nolch

Early next month Australians will head to the election polls, and for once scientific issues have bubbled to the surface.

Both the Coalition and Labor have had their hands on the nation’s steering wheel recently enough to give a feel for how much each values science, but in the 25 years I’ve been covering science policy that value could have been likened to a Mother’s Day gift that’s been rewrapped and regifted on Father’s Day. That may well prove the case again, but for now CSIRO has been a bellwether.

“Jobs and growth” was the mantra of early Coalition campaigning, but this didn’t apply to jobs and growth at CSIRO, which earlier this year axed hundreds of jobs in areas devoted to climate change monitoring. The uproar over this led to the messy notion that some of CSIRO’s scientists could be transferred to the Bureau of Meteorology even though this would still create a net loss of scientific capacity and a budgetary black hole for the BoM.

In the meantime we’ve witnessed record temperatures, unprecedented bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and dieback of coastal mangroves. By the time you read this, the climate monitoring facility at Cape Grim will have recorded baseline atmospheric CO2 levels above 400 ppm for the first time – up from 330 ppm when Cape Grim was established in 1976. This is hardly the time to reduce our capacity in climate research, and the CSIRO decision was roundly criticised by scientists around the world.

CSIRO has also served to symbolise the view that the Coalition sees science as a loss-making venture that increasingly needs to pay its way rather than as an investment in future prosperity. The appointment of entrepreneur Dr Larry Marshall as CSIRO’s CEO gave fresh impetus to a long-term requirement of CSIRO to generate immediate revenue through contract research for industry at the expense of “blue sky” research that has unquantifiable long-term returns for which today’s politicians won’t receive credit.

The government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, worth $1.1 billion over 4 years, continues this philosophy. It is pitched at suits rather than lab coats, with tax breaks for “businesses that take risks and innovate” and criteria to ensure that “more university funding is allocated to research that is done in partnership with industry”.

There’s nothing wrong with these goals. Prof Paul Mulvaney writes that chemistry contributes “$11.6 billion annually to Australia’s GDP” and “offers Australia sustainable economic prosperity”, but warns that “long-term strategies and a national focus are required... on several fronts,” including more investment by industry in R&D, better university linkages and government support.

But such efforts shouldn’t be made at the expense of public good research into our land, oceans and water. A true “ideas boom” requires investment in higher education and training, support for pure and applied research, and inducements for businesses to translate that research into jobs and growth.

While it’s easy to criticise an incumbent government, it’s worth noting that Labor hasn’t made any firm promises about restoring funding cuts to science since they lost office. The Coalition and Labor have been given the opportunity to present their vision for science in this edition of Australasian Science, while a statement from the Greens is available here.

Guy Nolch is Editor/Publisher of Australasian Science.