When Science Gets Sick

If you think you know how to allocate billions of dollars worth of Science and Research funding amongst the different sciences, then read on. Xenia Weber explains the current malaise which science is suffering in Australia under the current Liberal Government. The solution? A National Science Strategy, of course.

Imagine you have $8.6 billion sitting in your bank account. After paying off your university tuition (even accounting for future fee deregulation), purchasing all the recommended overpriced never-to-be-opened mammoth textbooks, binging on coffee before exams and alcohol afterwards and buying round-the-world plane tickets for you and your friends, you still have money left. So, you decide to give it all away….to Science!

To which of the following would you give all that hard-earned cash?

a) Environment: e.g. drilling through 1000 years of ice on James Ross Island, Antarctica

b) Biology: e.g. tracking the movement of grazing sea urchins (Centrostephanus rodgersii) in Tasmania

c) Physics: e.g. continuing the search for exoplanets at Siding Spring Observatory, NSW

d) Engineering: e.g. reducing the flammability of housing materials used in fire-prone areas

e)   Health:  e.g. understanding the role of Tau protein and amyloid in the development of Alzheimer’s

f)  Other: ______________________

 

If you circled a) or e) then you agree with the majority of Australians, according to The Curious Country survey. However, if you circled all or none of the above you may be suffering from the same chronic affliction as the Commonwealth Government right now; No-Plannits. This horrible, debilitating disease means that despite investing around the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average of 2.2% of our gross domestic product on Science Research and Development (R&D), we do so with our eyes shut tight. Australia has decided not to devise any long-term science funding scheme and yet we still expect strong financial returns and valuable project outcomes, so as to prove ourselves as scientific leaders to the rest of the world.

Whilst there is undoubtedly a lot of excellent scientific research being conducted in Australia today and a legacy of fantastic discoveries and innovations that we can no longer imagine living without (think Penicillin, or Wi-Fi), are we ready for the future? Many, including our Chief Scientist and ex-Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian Chubb, argue that we are taking a massive risk by not deciding upon a strategic approach to science funding. The good news is that No-Plannitis has a cure. Apart from committing to a healthy diet rich in good quality science and regular fitness evaluations across the sector, the single most effective remedy is to create our own Science Council responsible for devising a National Science Strategy.

A National Science Strategy should engage with the public about where our values lie as a nation and listen to scientists who are best placed to evaluate promising projects and emerging issues to be researched. It should identify a short and targeted list of key areas which require substantial public funding, explicitly outline the role of private industry and the not-for-profit sector in Science R&D, determine an appropriate ratio between basic and applied research (currently sitting at 1:4), select priority disciplines for science education funding and outline the policy mechanisms we will use both now and over the coming decades to achieve our goals (e.g. competitive Australian Research Council grants and institutions such as the CSIRO).

A long-term, transparent and clear plan will enhance investor confidence, encourage international collaborative R&D projects, allow us as students to identify areas of future growth (and hence career opportunities) and ensure that we really do get the most out of $8.6 billion (total Australian government Science, Research and Innovation support 2013). Funding science without a clear objective is financially and morally irresponsible. So why are we still one of only three OECD countries who are too scared to even attempt creating a Science Strategy? As Chubb commented in his 5th National Press Club address “what sort of Australia do we want? […] I think that we have to take as much control of our destiny as we can”.