Science funding and policy

May 2012

  • Paul Willis

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to read the minds of government when it comes to their policy and support for science and science education.

While comments have been made recently by Federal politicians that appear to affirm their backing for science and support for the scientists of this nation, it’s where the rubber hits the road that really counts. So how did science and science education fare in the recent Federal Budget and what does this say about the future of Australian science?

I think an honest assessment for science in the Federal Budget would be that it was a mixed bag of good measures coupled with a lack of support or recognition of some wider issues for science in this county. In the context of a tough Federal Budget, science has gotten off lightly but does the very public support of some initiatives herald the beginning of a change in heart?

The science measure in the budget that got all the attention was $54 million to support science, mathematics and engineering education. This is at least in part addressing an issue that the Chief Scientist has been talking about for some time: why are kids not doing science at high school and university and what can we do to reverse this trend? Now while I’m not going to knock back $54 million for science, maths and engineering education, I would question if throwing money at this problem in this way is actually going to have the desired effect. I think there is a much more complicated problem here. Students can see that there are very few opportunities for careers in science, those careers are poorly structured and even more poorly remunerated and the course work is seen as too difficult to warrant such poor returns. We need to develop a respect for science and back that with funding support so that science can be seen as a worthwhile career choice. And that is where other budgetary measures either fail or are not even funded at all. 

For example, the CSIRO received a 2.6 percent funding increase over 2011 levels, which might sound good but it also has to implement a $23 million efficiency dividend. That is going to mean job losses and the net effect will leave the CSIRO standing right where it is or maybe going backwards a little bit. There are no provisions in the budget for a strategic program to support Australian science internationally, and there is a cloud of uncertainty over funding for important science infrastructure such as the Melbourne Synchrotron, the network of telescopes across the country or other big pieces of
modern technology.

Both the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) maintained funding in the budget, but this funding was not indexed against inflation. These are the two main granting bodies for Australian science and medical research which are already struggling with trying to match a small pot of cash to a rich and diverse nation of research opportunities.

And let’s not forget that the $54 million funding for science education ought to be read in the light of a doubling of HECS fees on science courses implemented in last year’s mini-budget.

So while the budget provided a big boost in one area of science and science education, other areas were left in the doldrums, and some issues were ignored completely. However, I am hopeful that this is the beginning of a meaningful engagement of the Federal Government with the Australian science community as it comes off the back of a lot of talk about heading down the path of supporting science and science education, so that is also an encouraging sign. 

But this is a long way from addressing all the issues that confront science and science education in Australia today. We need increased funding to our science institutions and granting bodies above and beyond inflation and CPI. We must support and encourage our scientists to collaborate with their colleagues around the world to keep abreast of the best in science and make a meaningful contribution to that science. We need a comprehensive scheme that invests in science infrastructure; the telescopes, synchrotrons, microscopes and spectrometers and the host of other expensive equipment that is essential to conduct world-class science. 

Above all we need leadership. We need community leaders who are conversant with science and not frightened to speak about it. We need leaders who will stand up for our scientists when they are attacked and their work is denigrated. We need leaders who make decisions based on good evidence and clearly structured logic. We need leaders to demonstrate that a life in science is a worthwhile, interesting and rewarding career. And we need leaders to simply say that the science is good, the science holds promise for our future and the science must be supported and respected.

The irony is that questions of leadership are perhaps the cheapest items in the desired inventory of Australian science. Until we have the clear enunciation of a science and innovation policy and its unambiguous implementation, the way ahead for Australian science will remain clouded.

Director, RiAus (Royal Institution of Australia)

 

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