We blunt Australia's research capacity at our peril

There is a famous story about Michael Faraday, inventor of the electric dynamo and the greatest experimental scientist of the 19th century.

As the tale goes, he showed his invention to the British Prime Minister of the time, Benjamin Disraeli, who asked: "What use is it?" Faraday replied, "As much use as a newborn baby. But one day the baby will grow up, and then, sir, you may tax it".

CSIRO technicians working on optical equipment used to detect gravitational waves.
CSIRO technicians working on optical equipment used to detect gravitational waves. Photo: CSIRO

Some historians think the story is apocryphal, but whether the conversation happened as reported doesn't really matter. The point, of course, is that politicians too often think only of short-term results. It is a habit of thought that can get in the way of profoundly important discoveries.

Faraday's dynamo was useless when he demonstrated it to Disraeli, but since then the technology he pioneered has transformed industrial civilisation, enhancing billions of lives.

Without Faraday's basic research into electricity, the application of electricity to power generation would not have happened.

The relationship between basic research and transformative technology that the Faraday story illustrates is also evident in what may be the greatest scientific discovery of our own time – the detection of gravitational waves, 100 years after Einstein predicted their existence.

Six Australian universities, together with the CSIRO, contributed to the work of LIGO, the two US-based laser observatories that recorded the gravitational waves.

At the Australian announcement of their discovery, the chairman of the Australian Research Council, Professor Aidan Byrne, spoke of the complexities of that relationship.

"We're talking about something that was suggested 100 years ago that has been verified in this measurement that we're announcing today," Professor Byrne said.

"That's a sobering thought to think about as the ARC launches into an exercise in engagement and impact. …This is arguably the most impactful discovery in science in the century, it is really quite extraordinary.

"But it is more than that. The ARC supports basic research, and excellent basic research. But behind it is a technology that, even as a physicist, I find quite spectacular.

"The technology answers questions about basic science, but then it informs other things that are of much more direct and immediate importance to society as a whole."

Professor Byrne did not elaborate on the nature of the technology he was talking about, or how it might "inform other things". His audience consisted of people who knew what he meant, because they had helped to create the technology.

ANU scientists developed a lock acquisition system for the mirrors on the interferometer, the double laser used to detect the gravitational waves, and they also created 30 small steering mirrors for routing the signal around the interferometer and into the detectors.

For some of the mirrors, CSIRO scientists provided optical and thermal coatings that, according to the science director of the agency's manufacturing division, Dr Cathy Foley, are considered to be among the most precise in the world.

All of this work, and the combined efforts of nearly 1000 scientists in 15 countries that are part of the LIGO consortium, was brought together to support basic research – research that will hugely expand our understanding of our universe.

It comes at a price, of course. The decades of work that culminated in LIGO's discovery is estimated to have cost $1.4 billion, about the same as the human genome project.

But the technology developed to do that work is already having spin-off benefits that will eventually outweigh the costs.

Technology developed to detect gravitational waves is being applied to mineral exploration, pollution monitors, quantum computing, precisions sensors and radar, and time standards.

The lesson for policy-makers remains that which Faraday tried to teach Disraeli: if we do not invest in basic research because we don't see an immediate pay-off, we will blunt our capacity to do applied research, too.

In Australia today, the Turnbull Government, like the Abbott Government before it, seems oblivious to that lesson. Mr Turnbull likes to talk about innovation, but he has done little to restore the $3 billion cut from science, research and innovation programs when he was a mere cabinet minister. 

These cuts have severely curtailed the ability of the CSIRO to do the kind of research that has made it globally renowned.

The agency's budget was cut by $115 million in the 2014 Budget, leading to the biggest job losses in its history.

Budgetary constraints resulted in the decision earlier this month by CSIRO's CEO, Dr Larry Marshall, to cut more staff, effectively shutting down the agency's basic research into climate change.

Dr Marshall has tried to justify the decision by arguing that this research is no longer needed; that it is now better to concentrate on addressing the effects of the changing climate this research confirmed is part of our future.

Many CSIRO scientists, together with their colleagues in Australia and around the world, have responded that separating basic and applied research in this way will be self-defeating.

The history of science is on their side.

Senator Kim Carr is shadow minister for higher education, research, Innovation and Industry.