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Australia needs fundamental research to build a great country

By Jonathan Borwein

It's taken only 2 months for misgivings about the Abbott government's approach to science policy to be confirmed.

Like many scientists, I was apprehensive in advance about the Abbott government’s approach to science policy. Would it be pragmatic but fact-based or would it be ideological and politically driven?

Sadly it has only taken two months to discover that it is the latter.

As a relatively recent immigrant (2008), who has chaired the precursor to Compute Canada (the national high performance computing organisation), NATO’s Physical Sciences and Engineering Technology Panel, and the National Research Council of Canada information institute (CISTI) I am fairly well placed to make an assessment.

According to Barbara Tuchman, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, folly is error

perceived as counter-productive in its own time.

Here are four striking examples of the current government’s folly. All of them have sorry international precedents and parallels. I do not count the intended repeal of the carbon and the mining taxes, since these were “known knowns.”

Who needs a science minister?

In his address at the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science earlier this month, Tony Abbott defended his decision not to have a science minister by saying:

But let me tell you that the United States does not have a secretary for science and no nation on Earth has been as successful and innovative as the United States. I’d say to all of you please, judge us by our performance, not by our titles.

This is quite disingenuous. The US President’s Science adviser sits in the Executive Office of the President with legislated status and the US National Research Council has a statutory obligation to provide scientific advice on a host of matters. Taking Mr Abbott at his word his performance offers no relief.

I should note that as a Canadian I was impressed by Australia’s seeming progressiveness. Canada got its first and much needed government science adviser only during the previous Liberal administration. The present Harper government immediately down graded the office.

Controlling grants

The suggested intrusion into ARC grant assessment, especially on hot button social issues or airy-fairy artsy-fartsy topics, is depressing for all the obvious reasons.

Meddling in research funding stops discoveries happening. EMSL/Flickr

US Republicans' current meddling with research funding in the United States shows the same troubling desire to steer and control the research and development process.

How long before our university and government scientists have to run their commentary past the government before speaking to the public or even publishing research? This has already happened at NASA and at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

A worrying trend towards denial

Prime Minister Abbott and Environment Minister Hunt’s climate denialist comments on the recent NSW bush fires are concerning.

These have a sad Canadian counterpart. Now former Prime Minister Howard has chosen to reinject himself in the same vein. With the decision to snub the current Warsaw climate talks, there is no denying the denial.

On the environment, no other advanced democracy is behaving in nearly such a retrograde manner - though Canada comes close with Harper’s retroactive withdrawal from Kyoto. By contrast, 25 years ago, the then Tory Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney made an environmental green plan central to his vision.

Unlike Australia, and despite the current obstructionist Republican Congress, the US will meet Kyoto targets.

Sacking the scientists

Finally, there are the proposed 1,400 job cuts at CSIRO.

For Canada and Australia, university research and government laboratories are even more important than in the US or the EU. This is because so little significant research goes on in our branch-plant economies – comprised (outside the resource sector) of companies whose role is often little more than sales and production for foreign owners who do their R&D at home.

In addition to its statutory roles, CSIRO has played a leading role in development of Wi-Fi protocols and much else. Less well-known is that it has great depth in many basic research areas. This includes roughly 200 mathematical scientists who play a vital role in the mathematical research community of Australia. I do not know of a comparable group in any other country.

Simon Yeo

Destruction is easy, building is hard

Stephen J. Gould writing after 9/11 in the New York Times, but informed by a lifetime of studying evolution, observed that:

Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant.

This is as true of the scientific venture as it is of the Great Barrier Reef. It is striking that NASA has been recalling retired Apollo engineers to come and talk to the current generation as virtually all “institutional knowledge” of the space age has been lost within the agency. Do we want that same kind of loss here?

Targeted v fundamental research

Removing funding for general research and putting it into specific, targeted areas has a dismal track record. The “war on cancer”, “US energy independence”? Even the development of successful AIDS treatments or the emerging biotech industry owes more of its success to basic research and curious fundamental scientists than to government proclamation.

The death of the great industrial research laboratories (and Nobel producers such as Bell, Westinghouse, and Xerox Park) has only in part been replaced by research at places like Google.

The great government labs (such as Lawrence Berkeley and Sandia) in the United States are no longer pleasant places to be a researcher. Even world-class researchers in both are subject to quarterly-account analysis and are frequently one contract away from unemployment.

In Engines of Discovery, the 2005 long range plan (LRP) for Canadian advanced computing which I coauthored, we successfully argued for long-term predictable funding. Examples from aerospace, brain science and elsewhere were central to our success in freeing up hundreds of millions for Canadian High Performance Computing.

In Australia, hard future needs are being sacrificed to make easy current savings. But it is not too late for Mr Abbott to reconsider his obligations as steward of a great country.

Jonathan Borwein is Laureate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Newcastle. This article was originally published at The Conversation.