Publicly funded research is the source of scientific knowledge economy

By Geoff Edwards

Friday July 12, 2019

Source: Getty Images

Clever Country

Smart State

Knowledge Nation

Innovation Nation

Always political slogans, albeit no doubt their authors (respectively: Bob Hawke, 1988; Peter Beattie, Queensland 1998; Barry Jones, 2001; Malcolm Turnbull, 2017) were committed to them at the time.

And at least they gave a nod to Treasury to find money at budget time for some new programs.

They reflected confidence in Australians’ innate ability to innovate and improvise. Give a farmer a pair of pliers and a length of fencing wire — so the saying goes — and they can fix anything.

And we have been repeatedly assured that the knowledge industries are the pre-eminent source of future economic advantage.

But don’t ask contemporary researchers in the natural sciences in Australia what they think about these enthusiasms.

Whilst the scientific community watches in astonishment as program after program is de-funded or abolished, it is time to ask our political leaders, what are your priorities, really?

The assault on scientific research

If anyone thinks this is an exaggeration, peruse “Gravestones”, a table listing a sample of just nine manifestly successful public bodies with evidence of their success, and the weak excuses for their abolition as perpetrated by both major parties. This table has been compiled by public intellectual David Marlow, member of The Royal Society of Queensland, and is available for critical review.

Abolition is not the only contemporary assault upon scientific institutions. In the name of budget discipline or some other excuse, publicly employed scientists in just about every jurisdiction in Australia are routinely made victims of departmental reorganisations and can even suffer the indignity of having to apply for their own jobs time after time.

The continual search for budget efficiencies ironically imposes enormous operational inefficiencies upon the gathering, publication and application of scientific information. Fiscal parsimony cannot power the knowledge economy, as a knowledge economy requires public expenditure alongside long-term strategic planning.

Publicly funded research is the backbone of economic development

Publicly funded research undertaken for public interest objectives and released into the public domain can diffuse rapidly through the economy into farming, business, local government and all other sectors. In contrast, little corporate or private wealth trickles back into public institutions except via taxes or philanthropy, the latter being the exception rather than the systematic rule.

Corporate research and development tends to be proprietary and conducted for commercial advantage. There’s nothing wrong in principle with that, but it is not a substitute for public knowledge being freely available and delivered by career officers who have spent years or decades honing their skills.

If anyone doubts the value of publicly funded research, the argument should be settled with a single word: Wi-Fi, claimed by CSIRO as its invention and a by-product of curiosity-led research into other subjects.

Scientific research in the natural sciences seems to be under particular attack, for no rational reason except that its generation of successive warnings about deteriorating environmental condition no doubt fuels hostility by the culture warriors in the dull corners of conservative opinion.

Yet when local horticulturists attended a workshop organised by Farmers for Climate Action in Stanthorpe in April, they weren’t interested in attacking the scientists present as pawns of some global anti-capitalist conspiracy: they wanted the most up-to-date information about frosts, heat waves and ambient temperatures that the Bureau of Meteorology and the state Department of Agriculture and Fisheries could provide.

They were well justified in their concern, given the mean maximum temperatures in the Granite Belt in January were 4.5° — I repeat, more than 4° — above the long-term average1.

We hear a lot in the newspapers, including from the Governor of the Reserve Bank, about the need to invest in infrastructure to strengthen the economy.

One option for pushing the economy forward, said Philip Lowe in a speech to the business community in Darwin on 2 July, “is fiscal support, including through spending on infrastructure”.  “A strong, dynamic, competitive business sector generates jobs”.  So also does targeted investment in the public sector.

If only the Governor would include “information-gathering” and “public institutions” within his definition of “infrastructure”.

The transport projects that seem to gain the headlines and the billions in the name of “infrastructure” give a sugar hit to the construction industry and to the particular locality, but scientific information is a gift that keeps on giving forever throughout the nation as it empowers everyone it touches, including but not limited to commercial beneficiaries.

The need for good information is more desperate even than that.

Scientific advice is unambiguous in its call that the capacity of Australia to feed itself is in doubt as the climate becomes more variable and farming in traditional cropping areas becomes more challenging.

We’re importing wheat from Canada!

This year, Australia is importing wheat from Canada. There is a question as to whether pastoralism can continue under current tenure arrangements in outback Queensland and New South Wales. Vignerons are eyeing off real estate in Tasmania.

If the national government really wants to boost the national economy, it would guarantee long-term and generous funding to its scientific institutions, offer secure tenure to its scientists and cease intimidating scientists who comment on policy matters.

If only the national government would quit applying efficiency dividends to wonderful services like the National Library’s Trove, a collaboration between hundreds of cultural and research institutions around Australia.

If only it would restore funding to The Conversation and cease sledging the ABC, two of the public institutions most competent in translating scientific knowledge for popular and policy audiences.

Science is not the only body of knowledge that needs nourishing but it is a field in urgent need of public declarations of support.

The present cavalier approach by political leaders to the public institutions that have been entrusted to their care is laying waste to the nation’s capacity to develop innovative solutions to some very large challenges: the energy transition, worsening rates of obesity and chronic disease, transport fuel insecurity, decline of fisheries and a whole range of other subjects – and that is without even mentioning climate change.

If we fail to nurture the sources of scientific knowledge and allow politicians like Barnaby Joyce to make up their own facts, then Australia is in a dark place indeed.

Dr Geoff Edwards is President of The Royal Society of Queensland. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the Society.


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