AAS President: Science needs support to build a better Australia


By Andrew Holmes

29 May 2015

A shift has occurred in the past year in the way the Australian public, politicians and business talk about science. Scientists are no longer considered to be “precious petals”. We are being taken seriously. We are being heard.

At the end of last year we welcomed the reinstatement of the word “Science” into the portfolio of the Minister of Industry and Science. It seems like a small thing, but it’s symbolically significant. And it was followed by further indications from the government that it is listening to science.

The three key federal government portfolios of Industry and Science, Health, and Education and Training all speak to important pillars for the scientific community. And we are pleased that these three Ministers join the Prime Minister, the Chief Scientist and others at the Commonwealth Science Council.

It’s a council that has five Australian Academy of Science Fellows as members and has already met twice this year. We are heartened at the interest that the Prime Minister has shown in this body.

The Government has also committed to working with the council and the Chief Scientistto develop a science strategy, and will be consulting broadly with the sector over the coming months. This is important for Australian science and research, and I encourage every researcher and science organisation with an interest in Australia’s scientific future to provide considered input into the consultation.

In March, Science Minister Ian Macfarlane made a positive, respectful and forward-lookingspeech at Science Meets Parliament, in which he made it clear that he believes science is fundamental to our national prosperity, and that our scientific institutions have the capacity to provide a strong platform upon which to build the Australia of the future.

We are making headway. The political narrative about science is starting to shift.

Turning talk into action

In the Federal Budget handed down two weeks ago, there was a welcome reprieve for science funding in the coming financial year. However, there are still forecast cuts of around A$290 million to key Australian science and research programs that will take effect in the financial year 2016-17.

Despite immediate relief for NCRIS and an ongoing commitment to establish a Medical Research Future Fund, overall funding for science in Australia will continue to decline.

Unfortunately NCRIS has been funded through significant reductions in block grants to researchers in universities. This is like taking engines off the jumbo jet. To do science, you need excellent scientists to make the best use of top quality infrastructure; it can’t be one or the other. NCRIS needs a long-term sustainable funding model that addresses both ends of this equation.

The Minister for Industry and Science and the Prime Minister say they want science to play a greater role with industry, and yet in this budget there was A$30 million cut from theCooperative Research Centres, which are specifically designed to help improve collaboration with business and help generate jobs from research and development. It will be important to consider an alternative model to promote academia-industry engagement.

While there are forecast selective cuts there have also been selective increases – for the Synchrotron, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Antarctic research and medical research into exotic tropical diseases – and we look forward to seeing those increases sustained into the future.

We’re also pleased that there will be a Future Fellowships scheme this year, albeit with just 50 fellowships on offer. It’s a good start for this important initiative to support and retain some our best and brightest young researchers, and we will continue to advocate for the programme to be restored to its former scale.

As the mining boom slows, this should be a time of growth in science funding. We should be preparing Australia to build a knowledge economy so that we do not simply survive but thrive in an increasingly competitive world.

We should be supporting our world-class research infrastructure, and our world-class and emerging researchers, to create new knowledge and innovation. And we should be supporting scientists and industry to forge strong links to translate this innovation into economic growth and security.

This is a challenge for politics, yes. But it’s also a challenge for the science sector.

CSIRO scientists deploy the CTD instrument from the Southern Surveyor to monitor the distribution and variation of water temperature, salinity and density. Bob Beattie/CSIRO, CC BY
Click to enlarge

Building a strong voice

On the domestic front we must continue to persuade the Australian community of the importance of science as a major cultural contributor and a driver to national prosperity through wealth creation and improved productivity.

We must continue to focus on education, working with young people who will inevitably become the decision makers of the future. We must continue to build strong support, professional development, and mentorship for early- and mid-career researchers – such as that provided by the Early- and Mid-Career Researchers Forum, which grows from strength to strength.

And we must convince the community not only of the value of science as a discipline, but also as a provider of informed and trained minds who can meaningfully contribute to the workforce in many different areas from those directly related to their scientific training.

A major challenge facing the research community is to develop a profitable engagement with industry. There are many ways in which this can be realised, but common to all must be an acceptance that each party should benefit from this kind of engagement.

Here in Australia there are very few large companies engaged in fundamental and applied research. Much activity is carried out in small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which will invariably have limited capacity to fund collaborative research.

The solution to this must be seen as a task of government, which will inevitably reap the dividend in the taxation of increased earnings arising from the success of these small companies.

Just as we support the notion of a Medical Research Future Fund, so would we support industry engagement, through the Cooperative Research Centres and other mechanisms. It is, of course, important that this kind of engagement is not supported at the expense of our capacity for curiosity-driven research that is inevitably the wellspring of many translatable research discoveries.

All the evidence suggests that government is willing to engage constructively with scientists, and particularly Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science.

We have also gained the support of the President of the Business Council of Australia, who is a Fellow of the Academy and a passionate advocate for STEM education and research infrastructure.

Ministers take note of the opinions expressed by the Academy, as demonstrated by the recent campaign to preserve NCRIS. We are now regularly consulted when policy is being formulated, but there is much more to do to reach the stage where government routinely both consults and listens to us, and builds on our contribution.

For example, the absence of a holistic Australian international research collaborations strategy is becoming an embarrassment. Traditionally, Australia has been recognised as a significant player in the international scientific arena through its participation in many activities. Historically it has been well recognised that if we are not seen internationally, we will slip from the minds of those with whom we wish to engage.

It is on the base of strong historical opportunities that Australia plays such a prominent role in the international scientific community. We supply Presidents, office-bearers and committee members to a vast array of international scientific unions and societies, and hundreds of Australian scientists participate in their research programs. Our high profile abroad makes us respected international partners and we are chosen because we have a reputation for delivering good value in a research collaboration.

It is with these goals in mind that we seek to remind government that we can help in matters of science for diplomacy as well as science for the benefit of sharing information and capacity building. The Academy believes in the value of scientific collaborations that transcend political and religious beliefs and contribute to the peaceful co-existence of nations.

Looking ahead

It is up to all scientists to speak to power when it’s warranted. To become involved in educating and mentoring the next generation. To speak to the media and ensure that science has a voice in the public sphere.

We are improving well-being. We are helping to prepare this nation, and the world, for an uncertain future. We are strengthening our economy. We are nurturing our international connections. We are innovating.

Together we are making a difference. We are working towards a better informed, more capable, more agile Australia.

This is an edited transcript of the speech given by Professor Andrew Holmes, President of the Australian Academy of Science, delivered at the Science at the Shine Dome 2015.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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