Distorted economics, coupled with ideologically driven decision making, is threatening Australia’s best efforts to preserve its natural heritage.
While the 2007 budget contained some good initiatives, the past decade has largely been one of neglect and lost opportunities for environmental research. In particular, the dominance of short-term commercial objectives in setting the national research agenda has been a disaster for environmental science, and has left many of the scientific groups focused on public good and the environment scrabbling for support.
Within the Cooperative Research Centre Programme, for instance, the Rainforest CRC, the Reef CRC, the Tropical Savannas CRC and the Weeds CRC have all been casualties, forced to shut down or find other ways to continue aspects of their work. Even the Bushfire CRC, possibly the world’s leading research body in this area and vital to Australia as the climate dries out, had considered not reapplying for funding, worried that its non-commercial focus could rule it out of consideration.
Julian Cribb in On Line Opinion on June 5 pointed to the short-sightedness in the 1990s that wound back public investment in energy research and the geosciences in Australia, and which led to their widespread decline. Mathematics was another casualty. To those I would add an inadequate investment in insect and plant taxonomy over the decade, as well as in weed science.
Despite the National Heritage Trust investment, research that underpins and benefits the environment has been largely sidelined. For example, the $5.4 million over four years for research and development in the federal government’s Defeating the Weed Menace program has been valuable, but pales into insignificance compared to the size of the problem. Weeds cost the agricultural sector alone more than $4 billion a year - that is in the same league as the total national export income from refined gold ($6 billion in 2004-05), or from exports of liquefied natural gas (A$4.4 billion in 2005-06). One in seven dollars of farm income is spent trying to control weeds.
The most frustrating thing for researchers in this field is the knowledge that the country could save billions of dollars in the long term by investing in better ways of weed management. Over 100 years of data, for example, shows that investing in the biological control of weeds alone delivers a benefit of $23 for every $1 spent. This is data from a well conducted economic analysis. The Weeds CRC also showed that the nation’s farmers could save $2 billion over 25 years by investing a further $30 million in weed science over the next seven years.
However, governments seem to view the saving of money in this way as irrelevant. Costs avoided do not seem to count - rather it has to be cash made from products and services marketed. This approach is made even less appropriate by the fact that returns from the biological control of weeds, for example, can take ten years or more to be fully delivered, even though once delivered the benefits can be spectacular and permanent.
This kind of thinking fails to make common economic sense, let alone serve the interests of the country’s long-term scientific and agricultural development. Savings attributed to better weed control should be counted as an outcome, and not dismissed as irrelevant.
If it is hard to get support for the agricultural sector in its struggle with weeds, it is even more difficult to secure investment for research into weed problems that impact on the natural environment. New reports show that biodiversity is indeed threatened by the spread of invasive plants, both at the local and national scale. Indeed, we now know that invasive plants and animals together represent the principal immediate threat to Australia’s biodiversity.
Yet many concerned scientists are effectively being forced to ignore this evidence when applying for funds to support their work, as they know that only the commercial aspects will be considered relevant.
The Productivity Commission is correct to call for the original objectives of the CRC program to be reinstated - namely, the translation of research outputs into economic, social and environmental benefits.
We badly need new priorities to emerge. It is not good enough for bright young researchers to have to continually set aside the environmental benefits of their research in order to work as scientists within the government system in this country. As they turn away from fields with shrinking career opportunities, we are creating a legacy of inadequate information and capacity that will return to haunt us.
The Weeds CRC was advised in November 2006 that its funding will not be renewed, and that it will wind up in June 2008. A media statement and updates about the situation are available here.
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