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Science rot began before Libs

By Julian Cribb - posted Thursday, 13 December 2007

Science Minister Kim Carr set the Rudd Government’s performance benchmark on science and technology when he stated during the election campaign that Australia now ranked 22 in the world for innovation, behind countries like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Drop below that, and it’s an automatic fail.

What he omitted to note is that the rot started well before Howard, in the Hawke-Keating era which was equally ignorant and neglectful of the main enabling force for a 21st century economy. No Australian Federal Government in quarter of a century has managed to get this one right and it will be interesting to see if the Rudd team “discovers” science, or remains in blithe unawareness of it until the penny finally drops - as it always eventually does - towards the end of their sojourn, when it is too late to make a difference.

Science is more like an oil tanker than a motor bike. You can’t just kick-start it and speed off. It requires the patient accumulation of deep knowledge, talent, data and infrastructure. Overhauling smarter countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy. They have seen the future - much more clearly than Australians, it would appear. (With the signal exception of Peter Beattie’s Queensland.)


Hence the need for something more potent and dynamic than the innovation statement which Labor issued before the poll. As a manifesto for the future, it falls well short and neglects the fountainhead, knowledge generation. Amid the shower of electoral gold for worthy causes, there was little for science - unless one counts industry subsidies for cars, energy and connecting enterprises, which is hardly going to crack Nature.

Someone needs to take Kevin, Julia and Kim aside, quite soon, and explain that education alone can’t deliver in a world moving as fast as ours, unless you also acquire new knowledge to educate people with. Garbage in, garbage out, as the IT people have it.

Among the positives is Labor’s pledge to break the mathematics drought by chopping fees. But a similar crisis looms in the training of agricultural scientists - urgently needed to shore up global food supplies under climate change - and of earth scientists, equally urgently needed to extend the minerals bonanza. Then there is taxonomy, the almost-extinct science that informs us what actually lives in Australia. One could go on - but suffice to say young Australians are still turning away from science in droves. This remains one of the most perilous issues we face into the future.

Another is the tawdry condition of the nation’s scientific infrastructure, for which Labor unpromisingly promised hubs and spokes, rather than capital. One can’t help suspecting they’ve figured out how much money is involved, after quarter of a century of neglect.

A small positive was the offer of a full-time Chief Scientist, like the Brits. (And who better than our own Bob May as inaugural candidate?) Alas, the Chief Scientist role has of late evolved into AVUT (Advocate for Very Unpopular Technologies) and needs to resume a more impartial posture, while receiving greater latitude and clout to define good policy.

The pledge to double the number of postgraduate researchers was in the right direction - but does Australia really need that many new taxi drivers? Until we face the fact that we are ditching as many scientists as we recruit through the purblind short-term contract system there seems little point. Better to keep the good ‘uns that we’ve got a bit longer.


Kim promises a “reinvigorated CSIRO” and to end its binge on “short-term commercialisation”. This will be interesting to watch, as it is hard to imagine how he is going to achieve it without a general decapitation at board, management and senior scientific levels which is, of course, exactly what the agency has just endured under Howard. However, he and Penny Wong know best where to start, from their many inquisitorial hours spent in Senate Estimates.

So what should Labor really be doing with science and technology policy, the engine of our tomorrows? Journalistic advice is as welcome as a condom in a beer glass, but here goes:

  • place core science funding on a predictable 10-year basis;
  • link science appropriations directly to GDP, rising as a percentage over time, to ensure new knowledge grows faster than the economy (so the economy may grow faster in future);
  • regenerate science infrastructure eroded in the last 25 years;
  • mandate an end to short-term contracts to retain talent;
  • halve fees on all tertiary science courses to encourage bright recruits;
  • remove the requirement linking research to short-term commercialisation, allowing inquiry to flourish;
  • significantly increase direct subsidies to commercialisation of new S&T, to offset risk (the main obstacle); and
  • commit to keeping public science free of political influence and fads.

And finally, hope like hell the Malaysians, Taiwanese and Singaporeans get governments as science literate as our last six - or we’ll still be eating their dust come the 2010 election.

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First published in The Australian on December 5, 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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