Funding the future of Australian science

The Australian federal election is this Saturday. What have the major parties promised to do for scientific research and climate change?

 
  On 2 July 2016, Australians will vote in the federal election to decide who will represent them in Canberra.   Matt Stewart/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On 2 July 2016, Australians will vote in the federal election to decide who will represent them in Canberra. Matt Stewart/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Australian scientists have a strong history of leading the Southern Hemisphere in many areas of research and innovation. With achievements such as the invention of Wi-Fi, the cervical cancer vaccine, cask wine, and the vapour compression technology that led to the modern day refrigerator, we certainly have a lot to be proud of. Since the 1970s, Australia has been monitoring the climate in the Southern Hemisphere, while simultaneously contributing substantially to the broader scientific community worldwide. Although our population is small, our relative research output is high. 

Sustained quality research is made possible largely through federal science budgets, which provide funds through a competitive grant process. However, when elections loom, the emphasis on the importance of funding scientific progress is replaced with concerns about job security and the economy. In fact, we have recently seen $3bn cut from science and research. In what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has dubbed the "Age of Innovation," it certainly seems paradoxical that this sentiment often does not translate into adequate research funding. 

While Australia’s Science Party policies include doubling research funding to $18.4bn, building an Australian space agency, and legalising driverless car testing, they will not have the numbers to form government. The major political parties have also detailed what support scientists and research can expect to receive from them if they are voted in on 2 July 2016. Here is a brief overview of what Australian science has been promised by the three main political parties, as well as their track records in this area.

The Liberal-National Party Coalition

The Coalition can be assumed to have a pretty good track record when it comes to innovation because, according to Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull “virtually invented the internet in Australia”. However, during Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, Australia saw its research and development investment sink to a 30 year low, which included $400m cut from research institutions. More recently, the Coalition's 2014–2015 budget cut $111m from the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Australian federal government agency for scientific research. Almost 1,000 positions were eliminated, including over 100 climate scientists. This was a significant blow to the scientific community and sparked protests against the Abbott-led government, which were advertised on the CSIRO Staff Association’s webpage

This year, Coalition have delivered even more cuts to the CSIRO. As many as 110 positions in the Oceans and Atmosphere division are to be cut, and about the same number will be cut from the Land and Water division. While the jobs of these scientists have been ‘cut’ in a sense, most were redistributed to other areas. A similar redistribution occurred in 2009, where approximately 50 social scientists were transferred to an unrelated division. As a result, we saw many of our prominent researchers move away from Australia to greener pastures overseas. This represents a significant brain drain of Australian-trained scientists, whose tertiary education was likely supported in part by the government itself.

 
  The Great Barrier Reef has experienced bleaching recently, and both major political parties have promised funding for the reef.   FarbenfroheWunderwelt/Flickr  (CC BY-ND)

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced bleaching recently, and both major political parties have promised funding for the reef. FarbenfroheWunderwelt/Flickr (CC BY-ND)

 

Our current government’s stance on science funding has not gone unnoticed internationally either, and scientists across the nation are pleading for more funds to continue their projects. The popular magazine Scientific American condemned the 2016 cuts to CSIRO funding, explaining: “Scientists say the cuts would affect Australia’s ability to cope with climate change. The nation is already the driest on Earth and experiencing significant shifts in rainfall. It would leave the global research community disabled, since CSIRO ran the Southern Hemisphere’s most comprehensive Earth monitoring and modelling programs”.

Climate scientists’ research has been vital to our understanding of climate change and its effects, both in Australia and across the globe. Lack of funding for climate science in Australia has an impact on other nations in the Asia Pacific region, as well as the rest of the Southern Hemisphere. Pacific nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati have already felt the effects of climate change due to rising sea levels and they have been urging larger nations, particularly Australia, to rethink their climate policies.  

In 2015, the Coalition introduced the Medical Research Future Fund Act, which seeks to “improve the health and wellbeing of Australians… [through] financial assistance to support medical research and medical innovation.” Under Turnbull, there has also been a push toward increased commercialisation of ideas through better collaboration between business, research organisations, and educational institutions. This kind of collaboration is sorely needed and has been recently discussed in the leading scientific journal Nature. For this election, the Coalition has proposed a National Innovation and Science Agenda, with a promise of $1.1bn to “incentivise innovation and entrepreneurship and help bring more great Australian ideas to market.” It remains to be seen how this approach of sellable science combined with decreasing investment will result in innovative ideas and research if the Coalition come out on top on 2 July. 

The Greens

The Greens, while they do not have a realistic chance of forming government, are hot on the heels of winning marginal Lower House seats such as Batman and Richmond, as well as a variety of Senate seats. As such, it is worthwhile exploring their science policies, as the winning party will likely have to work with the Greens in order to pass any legislation.

Traditionally having grassroots, environmentally-focused ideology, the Greens are now proposing an Innovation Commissioner and $678.9m over four years to increase STEM uptake in schools and universities. This is coupled with the ambition to ensure that energy generation in Australia is at least 90% renewable by 2030 as a part of their Renew Australia plan, as well as a $2.18bn plan to save the Great Barrier Reef. By comparison, the Coalition have plans to set up a $1bn Reef Fund focused on improving Great Barrier Reef water quality. The Greens are decisively anti-mining, and describe the Adani mega-coalmine and the Abbot Point coal port expansion as “environmentally disastrous and economically reckless”. 

 
  Australian researchers have monitored the southern hemisphere extensively in the past, but cuts to CSIRO jobs are detrimental to climate science.   NASA/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Australian researchers have monitored the southern hemisphere extensively in the past, but cuts to CSIRO jobs are detrimental to climate science. NASA/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

One of the main points of difference between the Greens and the two major parties is their stance on CSIRO funding. The Greens would see a complete reversal of the Coalition’s cuts to the organisation, bringing it back to pre-2014 levels. With such strong environmentally-focused policies at the forefront of their campaign, the Greens will drive hard bargains to pass legislation for whichever of the ‘old parties’ wins on 2 July. 

The Australian Labor Party (ALP)

While traditionally focused on workers’ rights and heavily influenced by trade unions, the ALP previously introduced some measures that are environmentally progressive. Notably, the Gillard government brought in the tax on carbon, which was repealed in July 2014 by the then-Abbott Coalition government. However, many of the mining pursuits that adversely affect the climate and the Great Barrier Reef were approved by the ALP, although this was typically done at the state level rather than at the federal level. For the 2016 election, boasting 100 Positive Policies, the ALP support ensuring that 50% of the nation’s electricity is sourced from renewable energy by 2030. In particular, they focus on the jobs that the renewable energy sector will provide for Australia. In reference to the 2014–2015 Coalition budget cuts, the party said: “Australia cannot be an innovation nation while ripping the heart out of CSIRO”. 

In addition to this support for the climate, the ALP’s policies toward the sciences seem to be a welcome antidote to the past several years of Coalition policies. To help make up for the $3bn lost since 2014, the ALP have promised $1.2bn over four years, including $250m to reverse cuts to the CSIRO and $76.9m for a new biosecurity institute to help programs that are about to run out of funding. Without explicitly stating the 2016 Coalition campaign slogan of the year — "Jobs and Growth" — the ALP policies that encourage innovation certainly seem geared towards the same marketable scientific research as their main opposition.

Deciding the future of Australian science

In 2013, Australian science spending as a percentage of GDP came in at number 18 out of 20 OECD countries, beating only Greece and Slovenia. If this is indeed the age of innovation, we need to adequately fund it in order to produce more leading research that is in line with our impressive history of scientific work. If Australia continues to spread our scientists thinly, we will continue to see an exodus of our brightest minds.

Whatever the result on 2 July, there can be no doubt that Australia is in desperate need of a comprehensive, lasting science policy that supports our researchers. It is our duty to be informed citizens and to make our choice and voice heard by voting at the polling stations this Saturday.

Edited by Ena Music