21/04/2011 - 00:00

Science funds cuts indicate a wider malaise

21/04/2011 - 00:00

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It’s worth taking note when scientists buck-up against a Labor government.

WHY are our scientists in revolt?

Last week’s protest by medical researchers in Perth are part of a growing groundswell by the science community against the federal government’s funding record.

Another example has been recent industrial unrest at the CSIRO.

I find this extraordinary. Scientists in Australia are perceived to be part of the natural constituency of Labor.

Firstly, as a big generalisation, scientists are often doing their work for the love of it. As a result, they are among the passionate yet poorly paid sectors of the economy. Typically, such sectors look to the left side of politics to assert the value of what they do for the community.

As a result, Australian science is heavily reliant on government funding and grants to conduct its work. It may be something of a catch-22 situation, but those that rely on government funding tend to favour the left side of politics.

In my view, when such a natural constituency bucks up against a government from the side of politics they expect to be sympathetic to its cause, it shows that its tolerance of current policy has been stretched beyond breaking. It’s like the business community taking on the Liberal Party; when it happens it’s worth taking note.

The areas creating the most noise are also intriguing.

When you have a Nobel Prize winner, Barry Marshall, and an Australian of the Year, Fiona Stanley, prepared to front such a protest and expend political capital built up over decades, you realise there must be a big problem.

Western Australian Institute for Medical Research led a campaign protesting about proposed federal government cuts to the budget of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which distributes the majority of funding for medical research.

Medical research represents about 50 per cent of every R&D dollar funded directly by government in this country, so it is a major voice in the publically funded scientific sector.

Partly that is because of our state-funded health system, which makes it in all governments’ interest to solve medical problems. As heartless as that may sound, that is the case, or at least it was.

These days, new cures are a lot like finding new sources of oil – it’s a lot more expensive to make a breakthrough. Furthermore, most discoveries impact less and less on the health budget because there are few breakthroughs that solve major issues overnight.

Even worse, state-funded medical research often results in new drugs or devices that the state-funded health system has to pay full whack for.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of the medical research sector and believe the industry has punched above its weight in WA. It does attract smart people to this state.

But it says a lot to me when a Labor government starts to trim the funding for that.

Even more intriguing to me is the battle that’s taking place at the CSIRO. That august scientific body has been front-and-centre of the climate change debate, a key ally for Labor’s muddled attempts to have us lead the world on policy implementation.

Yet, there has been a stand-off over pay at the organisation.

CSIRO staff association secretary Sam Popovski was quoted a couple of weeks ago in The Australian newspaper about this stand-off.

“If the government wants scientists in the CSIRO to provide the best advice on climate change and continue to deliver solutions for the community on energy and water, then it has to do better,” Mr Popovski reportedly said.

“Their increasingly top-down, bureaucratic management approach has led to poor decisions being made on science and research directions, without sufficient input from staff.”

There are several inferences you could draw from these comments regarding getting the advice you pay for, but to me alarm bells sound when an insider at a source of major influence of government policy is suggesting bad decisions have been made on science and research.

I sought Mr Popovski’s clarification on whether any of the poor decisions he was referring to were in the field of climate change but, to date, I have not had a response.

I do have to say, it’s not all a one-way political street. The resignation of business leaders Charlie Morgan and John Poynton from WA’s Technology and Industry Advisory Council highlights just how far the WA conservative government has to go in this area. However, I would argue that while those business people are natural constituents of the Liberal Party, the body they resigned from was not.

Scientific stimuli

THE drama of funding cuts to science is a real issue to researchers.

As the tertiary end of our knowledge economy, many of our scientists rely heavily on accessing government funding for their livelihoods. I would argue they probably spend too much time nestling up to government in the hope of squeezing a little more money out of them, but that is the way the system works.

It is a pity that we didn’t hear them protest when the federal government squandered $43 billion on a stimulus package to keep the populace in electronic goods and construction industry busy.

While I have long held the view that the federal government spent too much too quickly to head off an expected recession, if money was going to be spent it could have been done a lot more wisely.

For example, the hugely expensive Building the Education Revolution could have provided more than just new classrooms. It also could have involved guaranteeing long-term research in all manner of important research projects by bringing forward future spending and locking it in.

Such a move would have provided confidence in the scientific sector via employment (which is what stimulus is meant to do) with the benefit of having a long-term pay off.

A smart government would have tied an increase in long-term guaranteed funding to some form of payback in lower health costs in the future.

Such a medium to long-term approach would have worked in this sector. Scientists are used to working with funding that comes with an end date; that is the nature of their work.

A flush of four-year funding would have underwritten multiple projects at a time when the rest of the world was struggling in recession, creating the potential for a reverse brain drain, as scientists came to Australia to their work at a time when funding was tight elsewhere.

What a lost opportunity.

Instead, two years later, that money is gone, leaving a vast number of wastefully expensive classrooms (including science labs) across the country and more and more builders going broke because the stimulus package was too much, too soon and created the wrong sort of confidence in the market.

A cleverly devised stimulus package would have helped build the research base in Australia, so that the kids using those science labs might actually see a future when they graduated.

• markpownall@wabn.com.au

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