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Ending kneejerk science policy

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 7 May 2007

Considering that science and technology underpin half, or more than half, of Australia’s national economic growth, it is always a little surprising and unsettling to find they receive such marginal treatment in the Federal Budget.

With a General Election in prospect and considering that scientists do not account even for a single per cent of the votes in any electorate, the potential for neglect of the national ideas powerhouse is redoubled. The usual squeaky wheels will receive all the necessary fiscal lubricant while science continues to starve in the dark.

The importance of science is not something that has to be explained to American, British, Finnish, Singaporean or Korean politicians - or even Chinese politicians, for that matter. Australian pollies - with a handful of exceptions - simply do not get it. Maybe they were bitten by a science teacher when they were young. Maybe they just think wealth grows on trees.


The Coalition is already campaigning on its record for delivering economic growth and prosperity over the last decade. An objective appraisal would find that it was science and technology which actually enabled the growth within a general setting of policies that allowed it to happen. It follows that greater investment in S&T will create more opportunities for economic growth, not to mention social and environmental gains.

Traditionally science budgets tend to carve up the dismally small cake among three main sectors - the universities, the government science agencies, and the Co-operative Research Centres and Rural Research and Development - each receiving an extra helping once every three years or so to partially offset previous losses. This has the political advantage of keeping all three sectors paranoid and docile, the two years in which their funding stagnates serving to remind them who has the whip hand.

It is from this practice that much criticism about the censorship of science, and politics seeking to control scientific output, arises. In their anxiety to prove they are “loyal” to government policy - as opposed to pursuing the best science - research organisations self-censor, terminate politically unpopular lines of research and bend strategic science to the poll-driven dictates of policy.

Thus the situation arises where, for two decades, energy science is cut to ribbons - including closing the Energy R&D Corporation - and now there is panic among politicians of all stripes and a downpour of short-term greenhouse-related energy funding.

One could make the same point about water research funding which was neglected for decades and with the worsening of the drought became flavour of the month - presumably only to dry up again when it rains. Likewise agricultural research, which generates $25-30 billion in exports every year, will continue to be slashed - until the global famine arrives.

The point is that the opinion polls, however sensitive they make politicians appear to the whims of the electorate in the short run, are a meaningless - even cretinous - basis for planning science policy or developing long-range problem-solving research. Yet, let’s face it, the polls are what mainly drives science priorities, federal and state, at the moment and will underpin the current budget.


An effect of the long-running Australian science drought is that research bodies spend less time doing science and more time chasing cash. As the Productivity Commission notes: “the pursuit of commercialisation for financial gain by universities … should not be to the detriment of maximising the broader returns from the productive use of university research.”

For a decade governments have assumed this short-term top-up of cash delivers economically-valuable outcomes while sparing them the necessity to fund science properly. However there is very little evidence at all of this. It’s the old case of the false assumption driving the misguided policy. If the government wants more commercialisation, it should subsidise commercialisation, not straitjacket science.

The science which built Australia’s current prosperity, largely through the $136 billion mining and agriculture export sectors, delivered knowledge free to thousands of enterprises, without need for IP lawyers and other middlemen. It paid off handsomely. It isn’t clear why Australia has abandoned this winning formula in favour of one which is, at best unproven and, at worst, likely to lower national returns from R&D.

It is time for Australia, as a maturing country living in the 21st century, to pull away from the principle of knee-jerk science funding based on whatever is hot or cold politically at the time the budget is cooked up. It should:

  • put all Federal science funding on a predictable 10-year basis;
  • remove the requirement for research funding to be linked to commercialisation;
  • replace the funding eroded in the last 10-20 years;
  • base future public science appropriation directly on a percentage of GDP, increasing over time;
  • mandate an end to science job insecurity (the main reason for the disastrous fall in young Australians entering science); and
  • commit to keeping public science independent of political influence.

These would do much to banish the impression that science and knowledge, the engines which other countries’ politicians know to be the builders of their future economy and society, are a mere Australian budgetary afterthought.

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First published in The Canberra Times on April 30, 2007.

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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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