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Knowledge deficit looming

By Julian Cribb - posted Thursday, 5 July 2007


If the 2007 election is about Australia's future, then science is a blank spot on campaign maps. The main political parties appear to assume we can have a future without investing a lot more in science. There have been odd dollops of funds or pledges here and there, but nothing resembling a coherent strategy to invest in substantial growth in knowledge generation.

Take the recent announcement of $5.5 million for taxonomy by Environment and Water Resources Minister Malcolm Turnbull. It sounds reasonable until one recalls that Australia is still 90 per cent unexplored in terms of its biota. Such a sum will do little to roll back the cloud of ignorance in which we live. The 18th-century British admiralty was more concerned with finding out what inhabited Australia than recent Australian governments have been.

Among the more telling pieces of evidence that the nation is under-investing in science is recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data documenting a 10 per cent decline in general science investment relative to the economy as a whole during the past decade. While everything else in Australia is booming, science is going backwards.

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So who is to blame for the growing knowledge deficit? The politicians who don't know why it's important, the scientific community that seems incapable of mounting a compelling case to remedy it or the industries that benefit from knowledge but won't go in to bat for it?

The scale of the deficit is suggested in the recent report by the Group of Eight universities that advocates a doubling in competitive grant funding for the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council by 2012, taking them to a total of about $2.4 billion. If the Go8's estimate of the need has more substance than a mere ambit claim, it clearly implies that Australia needs to look at doubling research and development investment from $11 billion to $12 billion to about $24 billion a year within two terms of government.

A downside of calls such as the Go8's is that they encourage political bad behaviour. For decades politicians have dodged the necessity of enlarging the total science cake by funding segments of the research community one at a time. In advocating a doubling in funding for university researchers alone, the Go8 unwittingly perpetuates the ugly academic tradition of feeding out of someone else's bowl, rather than working together to enlarge the amount. It lets politicians off the hook.

This underlines the need to create an independent national science council to represent the combined views of the scientific sector fairly, objectively and, above all, without fear.

This ought to be the role of the academies but they, alas, are paid by government and must by necessity mind their language. They are also too poorly resourced to identify, analyse and answer the big questions of the future.

A new science council cannot and must not receive any government funds. It must be free to speak its mind in terms as honest and as blunt as the national interest requires.

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The closest to such a body is the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, but it represents only learned societies, not institutions or individual researchers, and it also has inadequate resources. Farmers have a National Farmers Federation, trade unions the ACTU, miners have the Minerals Council, business the Business Council of Australia, engineers have Engineers Australia, doctors have the Australian Medical Association and so on. What is it with scientists that they are so slow to recognise what it takes to get a decent hearing from politicians?

If every researcher in Australia donated $50 and if every institution contributed $10,000, it would yield $6 million for the establishment of an effective body with a lot of weight and credibility and capable of advising Australia on where to invest in the knowledge century.

Another vital role is to bring governments to their senses over issues such as climate change by providing transparent public advice (where individual institutions or scientists are capable of being gagged). With dramatic advances in medicine, biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology and other high sciences bearing down on us, it is clear the existing model of providing confidential advice to semi-deaf politicians will position Australia only at the tail of world technology leaders. Our national progress will be limited to the speed at which old politicians can absorb new scientific concepts. Frightening thought.

In the 21st century, science needs to drive the political agenda, not vice versa. Without a coherent and informed scientific voice now, the blank spot on the political campaign map will still be there in 2010, and Australia's scientists will still be fighting over scraps from one another's bowls.

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First published in The Australian on June 27, 2007. It is republished in collaboration with ScienceAlert, the only news website dedicated to Australasian science.



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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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