The past few decades have seen a dramatic erosion in Australia’s capacity for public interest research. Universities, CSIRO and other research institutions have been systematically steered toward increasing emphasis on short-term commercial activity. While it is obvious our research institutions should have some commercial emphasis, the imbalance is now grotesque. Starving public interest research of resources leads to poor outcomes in economic performance, environmental protection, community health and social cohesion.
While there never was a “golden age” in which public interest research was adequately funded, the changes since I returned to Australia in 1980 have been striking. CSIRO was then funded almost entirely from the public purse as a world-class research institution, able to attract and retain high-flying scientists from around the world.
It was structured so research was directed by outstanding scientific leaders and it had a strong commitment to informing the public about the science it was doing. The erosion began under the Hawke Government, with the decision to reduce the public contribution to CSIRO’s budget and require it to earn an increasing fraction of its revenue by selling its services to the private sector.
The change inevitably compromised the organisation’s independence, especially in some areas where more than half the budget came from vested interests. This in turn steered the direction of research, not just increasing the effort on short-term commercial projects but also discouraging the sorts of inquiries that could reflect badly on potential sponsors.
The changes have been accelerating of late with most chiefs replaced with people who more closely reflect the new corporate ethos. Former CSIRO scientists have become increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the institution: a reduced commitment to basic research, with public communication of science having given way to corporate spin.
Twenty five years ago, university science departments were able to provide limited funds for bread-and-butter research and new appointees. This “primed the pump” to enable these researchers to develop track records that allowed them to apply for support from granting agencies. Those agencies were genuinely independent, ranking competing applications on the basis of peer review by acknowledged experts.
Today universities are starved of public funds, increasingly dependent on charging fees for the courses potential students want. This has steered the emphasis away from disciplines that are expensive to operate and appeal to fewer students: thus all around the university system the basic sciences and expensive fields of technology have been wound back to offer more places in marketing, law and business studies. Less money is available for basic research, so large projects can only be conducted by those able to attract funding from outside the university.
The independence of the granting agencies has been steadily curbed, so we now have the minister unashamedly intervening to reject expert advice in favour of the prejudices of a few insiders with no credible track record. More academics find themselves having to tailor their research ambitions to the need to attract funding, steering their work away from basic research or studies in the public interest toward projects having potential commercial outcomes. The reluctance to antagonise possible benefactors has produced what a colleague called the “pre-emptive crumble”, a research community increasingly reluctant to intervene in public discussion of important issues.
The Co-operative Research Centres were proposed as a new mechanism for funding areas of important application, with a balance between work of commercial potential and research in the public interest. The past five years has seen a systematic dismantling of the public interest component.
One by one, the CRCs working in such fields as tropical pest management, care of the coastal zone, renewable energy, tropical rainforests and coral reefs have been discontinued so funds can be poured into increasing subsidies of established industries, with the coal industry the most obvious beneficiary of the Howard Government’s largesse. Treasury even mounted a serious campaign to discontinue the CRC grants. The economic argument that eventually won the battle was the evidence that the tax revenue alone from one successful venture arising from the CRC program was greater than the total government expenditure on the entire scheme.
I have a direct concern about the impact of dwindling research capacity on environmental studies, because I believe that we still do far more damage to natural systems through ignorance than through malice aforethought. So our prospect of a sustainable future depends critically on a major investment in understanding the complex natural systems of Australia. Similar arguments could be mounted for public health, for social welfare and other areas. Our future depends critically on research in the public interest, but that research is being systematically neglected in favour of short-term commercial work. We will pay a heavy price for the current approach.
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