Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

On Feeling Precious

By Simon Grose

The Minister responsible for Science has described scientists as “precious petals”. Crunch the numbers and he may be right.

It’s a given that Australian scientists are intelligent and well-educated, but that doesn’t protect them from being sensitive and insecure.

The Federal Minister with responsibility for Science, Ian Macfarlane, dobbed them in September when he told a business gathering in Brisbane that he was fed up with “some of the precious petals in the science fraternity” who couldn’t get over not having their own Minister.

“I’m just not going to accept that crap,” he said. “It really does annoy me, because there is no one, no one, more passionate about science than I am… and I give science more than their share of my time.”

This provoked muted outrage from this “fraternity” – muted because they are too insecure to get aggro.

Greens MP Adam Bandt went aggro in their place: “It is unacceptable for Ian MacFarlane to insult the country’s science establishment … the Minister should not only apologise, he should increase science and research funding”.

For Bandt, science is an “establishment”. No wonder they were insulted. But for Macfarlane’s predecessor (plus one, Scott Emerson) it was just “science”: “Sometimes there’s a sense that science is separate, and if only we understood science the rest would all be all right,” Chris Evans told a Science Meets Parliament dinner in 2012. “The world is far more complex… science has to compete in the mix, we need to understand that and not be precious about it.”

There’s that word again.

The other problem the science set has with the current government is the latest Budget. That was an uncreative fiscal rescue plan, appallingly sold. But it was struggling to deal with the mess left by the previous Labor government, which projected a surplus of around $1 billion when it was announced but within 3 months was admitting a deficit north of $30 billion. Good riddance, Wayne Swan.

The fiscal and political cycles demanded rectitude and science had to bear its share.

According to peak body Science & Technology Australia, those cuts amounted to $420 million over 4 years. Bandt said this meant that science was “heavily defunded”.

Check the percentage. According to Chief Scientist Ian Chubb’s recently proposed national research strategy, total federal funding in 2012–13 was “approximately $8.6 billion”. Divide $420 million by four and you get $105 million. As a percentage of almost $8.6 billion that’s a tad over 1%.

Drill to the detail. CSIRO’s total annual revenue of more than $1.7 billion received an annual appropriation cut under the Budget of about $28 million. As a percentage that’s a tad over 1%.

Phew! The science sector did OK at “competing in the mix”. Shame on Macfarlane, Treasurer Hockey et al for not selling that message to the fraternity/establishment.

As for the Science Minister symbolism, Chubb’s strategy pointed out that science funding is channeled through 13 portfolios. No Science Minister has ever had a handle on more than a few bits of that.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (canberraiq.com.au)