The rumours circulating that CSIRO is resting on the chopping block should give all Australians pause.
Though many think these cuts affect a small elite working in the research sector, cuts to Australia’s core research capacity will eventually affect us all. CSIRO research directly improves Australia’s social, environmental and economic bottom lines, but at heart, it is our capacity for resilience that the research sector most strongly provides.
Cutting our capacity for research is like putting off going to the doctor to find out about that niggling pain until you’re a little more flush for cash. This seems to be a government only too happy to expose us to such risks in the blithe hope that the world around us will always be the same.
How has CSIRO benefited ordinary Australians? Hundreds of concrete examples have been thrown up by twitter users under the hashtag #thankcsiroforthat: Wi-Fi, solar cells that can be printed like bank notes; ultrasound technology to look at babies before they are born; soft contact lenses; self-healing polymer topcoats for aircraft: inventions you and your family use and rely on, inventions we’ll use in the years to come.
When you look through the history of CSIRO, there is no question Australia has seen a massive economic gain. From the outset, CSIRO operated as a translational research facility, future proofing an isolated and drought-prone continent. We can look at a long list of companies that have emerged from CSIRO to see such benefit.
Only last week we heard about the millions of dollars CSIRO scientists have potentially netted the nation through the development of superfood for the prawn industry.
CSIRO is fundamental to our ability to deal with the conditions of life on our arid island continent. They’ve created biocontrol programs for plant and animal pests that help us here and abroad. They’re tracking biodiversity and the health of our forests and oceans, enabling the ecologically – and economically – sustainable management of fish stocks.
Annually CSIRO invests more than $150 million in health-related research, tackling infectious disease, obesity, early detection of cancer, medical imaging and a raft of others.
Corporations, governments, even non-governmental organisations can judge their success against the triple bottom line – against how they affect the economy, society and environment around them. In all three areas, our scientific sector kicks some impressive goals.
Yet there’s a final bottom line that can’t really be applied to corporations, NGOs and governments, but that should be part of our thinking for the research sectors: providing the nation with a reserve or resilience capacity you hope never to need.
When it comes to the unknown unknowns of Donald Rumsfeld, or the black swan events of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, only a vibrant and varied research sector can help point the way forward. Having a wide diversity of research strengths and expertise, an ability to understand a range of facets of the universe and to invent and use different tools to pull it apart is critical for our ability to face and deal with the problems we don’t yet know about – let alone the problems we do know about.
Research funding cuts starkly highlight the tensions between short and long-term economic outcomes and a failure to consider the long-term consequences of reducing our productive capacity and resilience through cutting scientific research. The talk of CSIRO wiping out their climate flagship couldn’t be a more striking example of such shortsightedness if it eventuates. There is no question that climate change necessitates durable, long-term solutions that transcend election cycles and cash grabs by government clutching for money to balance their budgets.
And pulling and pushing funding might be ideal for buying some cheap votes, but the see-sawing support destroys careers and research planning. You cannot switch science on and off: disband a laboratory and you destroy networks, skills and knowledge bases that take time and money to establish. They are hard to regenerate. It takes up to a decade and thousands of dollars to train a scientist and even more money to produce new technologies that give us a technical and economic edge. It is unlikely that we will be able to match the manufacturing capacity of China, India, or emerging economies in Africa in the future, but we can get a head start in creating these industries and inventions.
Make no mistake: cutting Australia’s research capacity or pushing researchers to focus monolithically on immediately measurable impacts will reduce Australia’s capacity to deal with the threats we don’t yet know about, or embrace opportunities over the horizon. Given the vast global economic and economic challenges we face, we can either choose to lead or continue being the happy-go-lucky country, successful by accident rather than intent.
Dr. Will Grant and Luke Menzies – The Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, The Australian National University. Upulie Divisekera is a scientist based in Melbourne.
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