Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Climate Policy in Limbo

By Ian Lowe

The abolition of the carbon tax has stifled investment in renewable energy.

The balance of the new Senate has dramatically curbed the Abbott Government’s attempts to wind back Australia’s response to climate change. While the interim fixed price on greenhouse gas emissions – the so-called “carbon tax” – was symbolically important, economic studies show it was much too small to have a measurable impact on new investment. It did affect the operating of existing electricity generating capacity, providing an incentive to minimise the use of coal-fired power stations.

The Senate’s passing of the law to repeal the fixed price has already seen the Queensland operator Stanwell decide to re-start a mothballed coal-fired station at Tarong. To show that these decisions are never simple, the change was also driven by the inflation of gas prices resulting from the expansion of export sales. So Stanwell now has a financial incentive to sell overseas at a large profit the gas it is committed to buy, scaling back gas-fired generation and replacing it with coal. This means the change has already committed the Australian electricity system to reverse some of the gains made in recent years.

The Palmer group in the Senate appears unstable and unpredictable, but at the time of writing those senators were refusing to support other targets of the government’s attack on climate change mitigation measures: the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Renewable Energy Target, the Climate Change Authority and the renewable energy agency.

There is still uncertainty among investors. The renewable energy industry says that investment has slowed significantly since the change of government. With one government senator actually wearing an “Australians for Coal” advertising garment in Parliament, the nervousness in the clean energy community is understandable.

The Climate Change Authority recently reported on the latest science and international moves to speed up mitigation measures, arguing that Australia should be aiming to reduce its emissions by 19% rather than the current 2020 target of 5%. That report makes it clear why the Authority is an embarrassment to the Government. Being publicly funded to report on the science and the international moves leading up to the 2015 Paris conference on climate change, it constitutes a demonstration that the government’s approach is not even defensible in narrow economic terms.

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Getting value for money from public investment in research has been a contentious issue for decades. It was the subject of vigorous debate when I returned to Australia in 1980 to take up the reins of Griffith University’s Science Policy Research Centre. At the time, nuclear magnetic resonance was an area of basic research in physics and chemistry but a few entrepreneurial scientists were predicting it might have a commercial application for medical imaging. Today, MRI – nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, with the dirty word “nuclear” abandoned – is standard practice in hospitals and radiology practices.

Two problems remain regarding the assessment of research proposals. One concerns the likelihood that it will contribute to advances in the basic science itself, our understanding of the processes and our capacity to develop new knowledge. The second, of more interest to governments, is the probability that the research will lead to tangible economic or social outcomes. The desire of decision-makers to see concrete results has seen a steady shift of public funds from basic science to applied areas, especially medical research but also such programs as the Cooperative Research Centres, which were designed to bring together researchers and those likely to apply the findings.

Recent discussion has considered the arbitrary nature of the evaluation process and the inefficient use of top researchers’ time in assessing competing grant proposals.

Clearly the nub of the problem is the low level of funding for basic research, meaning that the overwhelming majority of these elaborate and time-consuming applications are rejected. We encourage the nation’s best researchers to apply for research grants but then we reject 80% of them.

A serious suggestion is to screen the applications into three groups: the very good, to be funded; the relatively poor, to be rejected; and a middle group whose chances of funding would be determined by a random lottery. It is an idea worth considering.

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