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Our science suffers from a national delusion

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The problem facing Australia's scientists is not simply the lack of a science minister, but lack of a vision for the future.

Small glimmer: An artist's impression of the Square Kilometre Array.

Small glimmer: An artist's impression of the Square Kilometre Array. Photo: Supplied

The country's chief scientist rolled out a sports analogy to make his point recently.

If Australian science was a cricket team we would have a few great players, but a pretty average team, Professor Ian Chubb said in Adelaide.

This may come as a surprise to many. Australians are used to being told we're the best. We produce "world-class research" and continually "punch above our weight", or so we say. But we are better than the top 11 European Union nations and the United States in only 16 out of 91 science fields.

"Compared to the rest of the world we're an outlier": Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist.

"Compared to the rest of the world we're an outlier": Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

If those statistics reflected the performance of our national cricket team, Chubb asks, would the selectors, let alone the media, stand for it? Surely not.

Scientists and researchers are outraged by the Treasurer's cuts to its programs and agencies in the budget handed down three weeks ago. The CSIRO, ANSTO, the Australian Research Council, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, the Co-operative Research Centres and a few other agencies lost $420 million between them. The government did announce a generous Medical Research Future Fund, but many worry it will ignore the role basic sciences play in medical discoveries.

This week one of the government's own backbenchers broke ranks to criticise the budget's harsh treatment of science, saying research funding was the bedrock of Australia's future.

"There appears to be a lack of understanding of how science works," says Liberal MP Dennis Jensen.

"Many advances, including in the medical field, are not the result of directed research, but [come] as a matter of more fundamental research that was not directed."

The cuts to science funding also go against the notion that research will underpin an innovation bonanza that replaces the dividends of the minerals boom.

Chubb was also disappointed by the budget cuts, but says they were the symptom of a much bigger problem, a problem no politician has faced up to.

We are a nation without a plan, he says. Nowhere does a policy or a strategy exist that sets out this country's vision for the future, and how science and innovation should help achieve that.

"You don't go out and buy your bricks before you know what kind of house you're going to build," he says.

Chubb believes Australia suffers because of its ''she'll be right'' attitude, which feeds the delusion we are better than we really are.

"We wait for something good to come along because it always has," he says.

As a consequence of not having a plan, it is easy for ministers to announce a program one year only to have the next government dismantle it. And it's easy for treasurers to slash cash from an area of research without acknowledging the consequences for another sector.

Take the government's policy to increase the cost of an agricultural science degree, while at the same time committing the country to export more food as part of international trade agreements. Making PhD students pay for their degrees is hardly going to solve the national shortage of people trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Australia is one of only three countries in the OECD without a science or innovation strategy, says Chubb. The other two are Portugal and Luxembourg.

"Compared to the rest of the world we're an outlier," he says.

And being an outsider increases the risk of being left behind.

CSIRO chairman Simon McKeon says Australia's problem is that it doesn't aspire to be a clever nation.

"I travel around the country and I don't see our desire to be smart, I see us aspire to have the world's largest homes," says the former Australian of the Year.

S

ome people say the government declared its hand on Australian science when it decided not to appoint a dedicated minister for the first time in almost 80 years. Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded by telling the public to judge his government "by our performance, not by our titles".

Come budget night, his performance on this seemed pretty clear.

But Chubb hopes the changes in science funding offer an opportunity. The country should now identify what it needs and what it is good at, and from there develop a comprehensive science policy, he says.

"It will start with education, progress through research, cover international engagement and lead to an adaptive knowledge-based economy that we will need when the resources boom fades."

Les Field, the Australian Academy of Sciences policy adviser, says without a science minister there is no one to take the lead on a national science strategy: "It's the big elephant in the room."

Science, especially projects that have impact, works on a longer time frame than election cycles or forward estimates, says Field. Big research problems take years, even decades. It took more than 15 years, multiple clinical trials and millions of dollars before Ian Frazer's Gardasil vaccine for cervical cancer was injected into a teenage girl's arm.

"You've got to have a long-term vision to build an airport or a highway. How come we can't muster the same sort of long-term vision to support the big research projects that we have?" he asks.

The role of well-funded public science organisations like the CSIRO and universities is to provide the critical mass, scale and infrastructure for the long time frames necessary to transition good ideas into goods and services.

For decades these institutions have invested in innovation where the country's conservative private sector has not, says McKeon.

While Australia invests a lower percentage of gross domestic product on R&D compared to other nations - we spend 2.2 per cent while Japan invests 3.3 per cent and Korea 4.4 per cent - McKeon says what we do with the money is just as important as the total value.

Without a strategy, there's little hope of encouraging private investment. In the meantime, the country wastes resources investing in short-term projects or infrastructure items that are replaced or fall off the radar.

"A program that comes and goes, I would argue is almost not worthwhile," says the Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt.

Take the Australian Synchrotron, a $200 million instrument useful for everything from medical research to particle physics. While the Victorian government provided the capital to build it, there was initially no money to run it. Its stop-gap funding runs out after four years and despite increased demand for time to use it by researchers, it operates below its maximum capacity.

It's like buying a Ferrari and only driving around the block, says Schmidt.

A similar thing could be said of the country's new marine research ship. The former government gave CSIRO $120 million to build the RV Investigator, but no money to run it. The current government gave the organisation funds to take the ship out of the dock, but only enough for 180 days a year, not the planned 300.

Without a plan talented researchers, especially young ones who cannot be sure their research will get funded beyond a three-year grant cycle, leave for countries that can offer better job security.

The new president of the Australian Academy of Science, Andrew Holmes, says our lack of a vision is already having a negative consequence on our collaboration with other countries, a vital part of advancing the frontiers of science.

"Australia contributes 3 per cent of the world's science output," he says.

"But we need access to the other 97 per cent."

The last major funding program to target international collaborations lapsed under the former government.

It was with funds from an international collaboration program that Australia was jointly appointed with South Africa as the host of the Square Kilometre Array. When it is built it will be one of the best telescopes in the world and used to solve fundamental questions about our universe.

Without a small grant to collaborate to use international research facilities, Brian Schmidt would not have won his Nobel prize in 2011 for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe was speeding up.

"It was a tiny amount of money, about $10,000, that won the Nobel prize from Australia's point of view," says Schmidt.

Nobel prizes aside, Holmes says international collaboration is important for the fertilisation of ideas. He worries that without proper investment in local science and international collaborations, Australia won't be challenged by outside views, dooming the country to becoming a backwater.

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