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Australia's scientific community is about more than economics

By Mike Brisco - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

An article by Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, appeared in this journal last June, outlining his vision for a vibrant Australian scientific community.

As a full-time researcher in molecular biology for the past 10 years, I have a few comments, which in brief are:

  • The article is mere economic rationalism. It focuses on money and output, and ignores things that people find valuable in other ways.
  • While Australia probably does need to commercialise more, this is not the sole solution. It is basic research that will secure Australia's long term future. This is still grossly neglected and the funding cuts during the last decade have not been restored.
  • To build a strong base of scientists in Australia, the Government has a lot of work to do, in understanding what it is that motivates scientists to give of their best.

The article's lack of compassion, and short-term view, will not provide good long term returns for Australia for money spent on research.

Certainly commercialisation has a role, and Australia could probably do more. However, this is currently being forced on working scientists like myself, in addition to our already heavy workload, and at the expense of basic research. I and most of my colleagues already work 50 hours a week, and it takes us about 30% of our time just to find money to continue work next year. Now we are expected to take the initiative for commercialisation as well. What motivates most scientists - at least the ones I know - are things like intellectual curiosity, a chance to contribute to improving humanity's lot, and perhaps becoming experts in their own area, perhaps public recognition of the work they publish. Not money. That is why they chose, years ago, to do academic research, rather than go into industry. Many scientists resent the way that the switch to commercialisable research is forcing on us an unwelcome culture change, in which the focus is generating money, rather than advancing human knowledge. If the Government is keen on commercialisation, then scientists are going to need more resources, additional training, and the time to do it. And, dare I say it, some additional rewards for the extra effort. The article doesn't mention these.

The neglect of basic research, in favour of commercialisable products, will leave Australia short of the new discoveries which will fuel new industries from 2005-2015. Why is basic research important? The most useful discoveries often come from completely unexpected areas. For Australia to be sure of having a good crop of useful discoveries, Australia needs a large number of scientists working in diverse fields, - not just those which aim at a commercial product.

To take an example: the human genome project relied on a highly automated technique called 'polymerase chain reaction', developed about 16 years ago, to help sequence the genome rapidly. Early versions of the technique around in 1985 and 1986 (1, 2)couldn't be automated, but around 1987 the researchers solved the problem by using enzymes from bacteria that live in hot springs (3). I have a copy of the paper which describes these enzymes and how to purify them from the bacteria. The work was done in 1976, some 10 years before. It was done by three workers in the University of Cincinnati's Department of Biological Sciences, and was funded by the University's research council. According to the paper, the researchers were driven by curiosity to understand how things could live in water so hot it would kill other life forms (4) - in other words, curiosity about a basic biological problem. There was no mention of a marketable invention, although the authors did point out how the new enzyme could overcome a few problems researchers currently faced. The research was done and published, and because the information was publicly available, Saiki and colleagues were in 1987 able to pick it up, use it, and bring about a great advance. I doubt whether anyone in 1976 would have predicted that studying bacteria in hot springs would make seqeuncing the human genome possible. Science has often advanced in these unexpected ways, because it has had an extraordinarily wide range of discoveries and findings to draw on. Batterham's proposals will effectively put an end to that program of discovery - indeed it is already doing so, in favour of developing commercial products. And when those products reach the end of their lifespan, Australia will have nothing to replace them.

The Government's view of funding only 'excellent science' contains nothing to attract students to a career in research. The majority of students we employ as research assistants do very good work, but they won't fall into the top 5% or 10% or whatever "excellent" happens to be. Most, remember, will have put themselves through between 4 and 8 years of higher education in order to pursue this career, and most of the ones I know are wondering why they did this, given the limited prospects and work available. Concentrating on 'excellent science' will certainly lead to Australia doing world-beating research, but if only a few scientists in the entire country will be doing it, Australia will become even more uncompetitive internationally. Australia would be better off with the rewards spread more evenly, so that we have a large number of researchers exploring a large number of areas. By all means reward the nobel laureates, but there needs to be something for the rest of us too, and we form the majority of working scientists.As a major funder of science, this is one area the Government could well do something about.

The article contains one very telling error, that was on the web site on 19 October, and by 25th had not been corrected. Batterham writes:


Science literacy is essential to a society where we are interested in and are able to understand the world around us. Where we can talk a bit of science, where we understand the scientific method so that we can express our scepticism and we can draw evidence based on conclusions to make our own informed decisions.

Drawing evidence based on conclusions? Really? Scientists are taught that evidence always comes first, and conclusions are made to fit the evidence. This makes sure that the conclusions reflect reality accurately, and avoids the error of selectively seeking evidence to back up unfounded prejudices. Australia also benefits from having people trained, as scientists are, to look objectively at all aspects of a problem and come up with an overall conclusion. Australia also benefits as the scientists are trained to do this dispassionately, and to avoid any form of interest in the outcome. By contrast, Batterham would feed us conclusions, and have us take only evidence which fits these conclusions. This is not science, and never has been. It sounds more like what goes on in newspapers, press releases, and law courts, where one side gives only the evidence that supports its own view, in which it often has a considerable vested interest. Heaven help us if this is how a senior government scientist thinks science works. I wonder if the article was written in this unscientific style?

Finally, the article contained lots of what science would be done, but little about what scientists working conditions would be like, except to list more duties and no additional resources. Most of us whose work is ultimately taxpayer-funded have become used to the Government's callousness towards our working conditions, and concentration solely on work output. It is unfortunate that Batterham chose to ignore the low morale amongst scientists and postgraduate students; the fact that many are leaving; and the fact that very few students are interested in studying for a career in research.

What Australia needs is broad funding for science, a long term vision, rather than just the next profit-making product. It needs a national strategy to retain large numbers of good scientists, rather than the current elitist approach. What Batterham offers is uncaring economic rationalism focussed on the fortunate few and on short term profits. Science is one of the few human endeavours that can address big questions like the origin of the Universe, the nature of life, and how to understand continental-scale ecosystems. The public is very interested in it, and they support funding of research strongly. But the Government would have its trained scientists fine-tuning mobile phones and building slightly better mousetraps. There is a role for basic research too, and the cuts to funding in this area over the last decade have not been restored. Australia also needs someone in government who understands science well, and also understands well what it is that drives scientists to give of their best. Only in this way can we have a knowledge base, and a cohort of trained, enthusiastic researchers, able to secure Australia's future as a technologically advanced nation.

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About the Author

Dr Mike Brisco is a full time researcher in molecular biology in South Australia.

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