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Science left to count cost

By Julian Cribb - posted Tuesday, 5 June 2007

One measure of an advanced and advancing country is what it puts into its science, and by that yardstick Australia continues to fall short. In the wake of all the institutional forelock-tugging over the 2007 budget, a cooler appraisal would be that it didn't do much for science.

The $6.5 billion in federal spending on science reflects a declining share of total government spending as well as gross domestic product.

The glamorous centrepiece of the budget, the Higher Education Endowment Fund, might yield about $1 million a year for each science faculty, which nowadays would scarcely buy a new piece of equipment, let alone refurbish a rundown science or engineering building.


This raises the question of whether it would have been smarter simply to give every university $125 million for capital works, of which the science faculties might expect to obtain $20 million to $30 million, rather than dribbling it out in the form of an endowment.

Such an injection would constitute a huge, urgently needed boost to get science back on track, though it might lack the headline-grabbing flavour of a fund.

However, there are more and better ways to invest in the future than with money alone, knowledge being the most valuable, as it is the element that drives half of world economic growth. So why not put the whole sum, not just the interest, into knowledge?

Another eye-catching element of the budget was the extra $60 million a year plus four-year budget predictability for the CSIRO. It looks quite reasonable until one remembers how the CSIRO resources have been allowed to run down over the past 20 years by both sides of politics.

Traditionally, science budgets carve up the limited cake among the main sectors - the universities, the science agencies, medical research and the co-operative research centres - with each receiving a larger helping every three years or so to partially offset previous losses. This has the political advantage of keeping all sectors paranoid and docile during the years in which their funding stagnates, serving to remind them who has the whip hand.

It is from this practice that concerns arise about the censorship of science and political control over scientific output. In their anxiety to prove they are supportive of 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 politics. Running science based on the knee-jerk response to opinion polls is at best foolish and unlikely to deliver good results for the nation.


An example of this is the budget category energy and environment, where funding has grown from $9 million a year to $143 million over the past 10 years. At the behest of the coal industry and thinking nobody would care, the Government axed the Energy R&D Corporation in 1997. Now that polls say energy and the environment are important issues to most Australians, it is falling over itself to repair the damage, far too late and having lost enormous scientific ground in the meantime.

Another example is geosciences. Although Australia is enjoying the biggest, longest resources boom in its history, its schools of geosciences are falling apart. Ten have either been closed or downsized in the past decade. What kind of planning for the future does this indicate?

The same is true of the parlous state of Australian mathematics, about which 110 international mathematical leaders recently wrote to the Prime Minister in protest.

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First published in The Australian on May 23, 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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