He had just about everyone on their feet. The mood at the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science was upbeat. We’d been treated to a stellar array of talent – science that could clearly lead to economic windfalls, science to help manage the country and its natural environment better, and outstanding teachers to help foster a more scientifically-literate community.
Malcolm Turnbull, the newly appointed Prime Minister, received a standing ovation for his speech that emphasized science as underpinning both the current and future prosperity of Australia. Standing ovations are a rare accolade from a scientific audience; rarer still when directed toward a politician, especially one from a party that had disparaged and cut funding to science so very recently.
That was six months ago. And not everyone had stood to applaud. Some wanted more tangible proof that science really was going to be placed at the heart of Australia’s prosperity. But even as I stood, I wondered two things.
Could the Prime Minister sway his cabinet to follow his call?
And for all the talk about science and innovation, what would it mean for funding? Perhaps more importantly, what would it mean for planning and better integration of research and higher education?
Six months would be telling. In particular, what would the Turnbull government’s first budget reveal? I was prepared to wait.
For too long now, funding of universities and major research institutes such as CSIRO has been distributed without a coherent plan for research and researchers. We can’t simply turn funding on and off like a tap and see changes in research performance. The human capital employed by that funding doesn’t change that quickly. It takes months, even years, of lost productivity to shift one’s research environment. Training and establishing a research career can take a decade or more.
We can’t have a research fellowship scheme that sees 200 fellowships one year, but only 50 in another. Or a fellowship scheme that is an expendable hostage in a game of political brinkmanship. Perhaps more importantly than the number of fellowships, we need capacity within our research institutions to accommodate that talent in the longer term. There is little point investing in fellowships if those recipients have limited opportunities once their fellowships expire.
If we want people to continue on research careers, they need to be able to see pathways. The instability and lack of planning means pathways are obscure for many young researchers. At the moment, they are living on hope, on skepticism, or on disappointment.
And we’re living on a slogan. The Ideas Boom. Let me tell you – there won’t be an Ideas Boom in Australia without a properly funded plan. Up until now, the Ideas Boom was simply a $28M advertising campaign. It still is.
The Ideas Boom will happen elsewhere, and some of Australia’s most innovative scientists will move there. Why? Because the budget does very little to lay the foundation for any coherent plan for science and innovation in Australia. In fact, the budget entrenches the Abbott government’s 20% funding cut to universities without providing further capacity to increase income.
Government expenditure on research is going south. As a proportion of each country’s GDP, Australia spends less than half of the research expenditure of Iceland, Finland and Denmark. If this were an Olympic medal tally, the public would demand an inquiry – we’re being beaten by New Zealand! If we want an Ideas Boom, we’ll need more and smarter investment.
University income has been increasingly derived from sources other than the Federal government for several years now. Below are the values reported by The University of Melbourne – the majority of its funding will soon be from private sources, it seems, given further cuts to university funding. Other Australian universities are likely on a similar trend.
The budget plugs some holes in research funding. Notably, various specialized pieces of infrastructure will be funded, supporting a small fraction of Australia’s research capacity. And extra funding for GeoSciences Australia will help us find more resources to mine. Antarctic science is set to benefit from an expanded Antarctic program, including a new boat just over the horizon. But the announced support is haphazard against a background of cuts.
This is not an Ideas Boom. It’s business as usual – reduced funding across the board, and sprinkles of funding in pockets.
The standing ovation is over. Everyone has resumed their seats, with arms folded. The Ideas Boom is busted. Well, to be honest it can’t really be busted because it was never built.