Leading US scientist attacks federal cuts to science

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Cuts to scientific research in Australia have drawn the ire of physicist and World Science Festival founder Brian Greene.

An internationally renowned physicist and founder of the World Science Festival has criticised federal government science policies and funding cuts. 

The festival in Brisbane this weekend is being held outside of New York for first time with cast of celebrity boffins and geeks including Australian-born astronaut Dr Andy Thomas and actor Alan Alda.

The emphasis is on demystifying science and communicating it to the masses through theatre, film, art, talks and practical demonstrations.

To honour festival founder professor Brian Greene at the launch in Brisbane, a newly discovered Queensland spider species named Dolomedes briangreenei. 

Afterwards he echoed international concerns about the state of federal government support for science in Australia. 

“It doesn’t seem consistent with a government that has the foresight and forethought to recognise the power of scientific research to change the future,” Professor Greene told SBS News.

“We need to restore basic funding for science and beyond that, we need to increase funding for basic science because that is an investment in our children.”

This week a Senate inquiry heard the cuts and job losses have trashed the CSIRO and its international reputation.

An editorial in the New York Times earlier this month also lamented developments at the CSIRO.

“To the dismay of climate scientists around the world, Australia’s federally financed science agency - the CSIRO - announced plans to shift its focus to commercially viable projects and cut or reassign 350 researchers,” it said.

“The decision… demonstrates a deplorable misunderstanding of the importance of basic research.”

After CSIRO funding cuts under the previous Labor government, the Liberal-National coalition Budget in 2014 projected a further $114 million reduction over five years, resulting in hundreds of job losses.

Other science organisations suffered too and the Australian Academy of Science warned in 2015 overall government investment in science continues to decline. 

The engine for the future is fundamental research - the kind of research where you don’t know what application it might have five, or 10, or 100 years into the future,” Professor Greene said.

“Take quantum mechanics. When people were describing quantum mechanics in the 1920s, it didn’t have any commercial applications. We were talking about molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles, so far from every day life. 

“Now that we all have cell phones, personal computers, MRI machines that are saving lives around the world - that all comes from quantum mechanics.

“Imagine if we were short-sighted in the 1920s because we don’t know how we’re going to commercialise that. What a tragedy that would be. And what a tragedy today if we take the same perspective.”

The World Science Festival runs in Brisbane until Sunday.

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