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Gambling with science policy

By Julian Cribb - posted Wednesday, 27 December 2006

The Productivity Commission has voiced the thing which thousands of scientists have long known but few have dared to speak: current Australian science policy is not a success.

The belief that forcing more researchers to enter commercial arrangements will lead to greater economic gains is a bit like weapons of mass destruction - more wishful thinking than evidenced fact. It certainly isn’t supported by historical experience, either in Australia or any other country. The mystery is how and why we ever came to adopt it.

History says Australia today earns $120 billion a year from mining and agriculture because it did some darned good publicly-funded science in its universities, CSIRO and so on, and passed it to thousands of farmers and miners so they could turn it into dollars and jobs. Which they proceeded to do, very effectively.


Current policy obliges the public dollar to flow, via the scientist, to a limited number of usually rather small companies, often exclusively, and with a good chance of never emerging as a significant product - at least to compare with wheat, coal, beef, wine or aluminium.

This is all done, presumably, in the hope that one of these small companies - if it, successfully commercialises the science, survives its growing pangs and isn’t devoured by predators - might emerge as a Nokia, an Ericsson, or a Microsoft. In reality, most of our “winners” soon fly offshore.

In other words current science policy is a lottery in which your one ticket in a zillion might pay off big-time, but meantime much good money and science goes down the tubes. The issue which the Productivity Commission has shone the spotlight on (though in words rather more circumspect) is: is private gambling a fit use for public money?

In a sense all science funding is a gamble. But surely the bet has a fairer chance of repaying the investment if the resulting knowledge is freely available to thousands of enterprises and individuals, than if a handful have exclusive access?

The Commission, in effect, has said: if companies want to gamble on science let them do so at their own expense. Why should the taxpayer finance their punt via the Australian Research Council, CSIRO or the Cooperative Research Centres? Why should science policy be used to remedy a defect of industry policy - the lack of commercialisation?

The Commission judges that science is a good public investment typically returning 8.5 to 1 or better. But it is clearly uneasy about the way science funds are being used to support a narrow part of the private sector. And it is also worried that forcing research bodies to subsidise industry has unintended impacts on science.


In my view, one of these is churn - the fast-growing trend in science to sack skilled researchers when their two or three-year contract is up. Usually this has little to do with their research skills and much to do with whether or not they can scrape commercial support from the market. Thousands of Australian scientists now live on “sudden death” contracts - a disgraceful squandering of the nation’s intellectual capital and educational investment. Why are we surprised that our children shun science courses?

Another is the decline in public good research, epitomised in the Cooperative Research Centres Program, which switched emphasis from “economic, social and environmental benefits” to the commercialisation of industrial research - a trend the Commission says should be reversed. A similar trend in ARC, agency and even university funding appears to have escaped its recommendation.

It is hard for any science body to keep its eyes on long-term national goals and scientific excellence if it is groveling around for short-term private dollars.

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First published in The Australian on December 13, 2006.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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