As politicians are criss-crossing marginal seats to win the 2016 federal election votes of the Australian people, the scientific community is waiting patiently for its turn to be wooed.
It’s not an industry to be overlooked. According to the Australian Academy of Science, science contributes about $330 billion to Australia’s economy annually, with the physical, mathematical and biological sciences alone directly contributing about $185 billion.
However, funding cuts and policy uncertainty has left many researchers in limbo and asking themselves “is my job safe?” The Turnbull government’s $1.1 billion ‘ideas boom’ fund attempted to restore confidence in the industry, however this merely restored a third of the $3 billion cut by the Abbott government.
Job cuts at the CSIRO have also thrown into doubt the future of its world-class climate change research divisions built up over decades, and experts fear this will drive some of our best minds overseas.
SBS Science has reached out to representatives from various scientific fields to gauge what they would like to see from the major parties in the lead up to the July 2 election.
Professor Terry Hughes, coral reef expert from James Cook University and director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
“To limit further damage to the Great Barrier Reef, whoever wins the election should rescind the 60 year permit for the Adani coal mine, and encourage the transition to renewable energy by shutting down brown-coal power stations, reinstating a price on carbon, and reversing the 30% cut to the Renewable Energy Target. The 2050 Reef Sustainability Plan needs to be properly funded to achieve its water quality targets.”
Professor Andrew Baird, coral reef expert from James Cook University and research fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
“I would like to see them commit $1 billion to the ARC Discovery programme. We need more curiosity driven science. Personally, I would also like to see the Australian Research Council shaken up a little. I sat through a talk by the Chief Executive Officer last year and he failed to convince me that the funding process is as effective and fair as it could be. Perhaps more money for the programme might take some of the politics out of it.”
Professor Sarah Maddison, Dean of the School of Science at Swinburne University
“As we continue to face more environmental and human-induced problems, we need to increase funding for science to help find innovative solutions. Australia remains below the OECD average in terms of gross domestic expenditure on science R&D as a % of GPD and has for the last 15 years. We need consistent funding for science. Funding keeps chopping and changing and you're often unsure if a scheme offered last year will be offered again in the next. This is particularly true of infrastructure funding. While the latest budget was relatively supportive of science, this is not always the case.”
Professor Kathryn North, director of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute
“Genomic medicine has the potential to transform healthcare towards earlier detection, better prediction and prevention of disease and targeted effective personalised therapy. Continued support of The Australian Genomics Health Alliance (AGHA) will allow for the integration of genomic information into everyday healthcare, with patients, clinicians and researchers benefitting from access to genomic information. Federal funding for this network will give us the opportunity to position Australia among the global leaders in Genomic Medicine.”
Professor Matt King, expert in polar geodesy at the University of Tasmania and ARC Future Fellow
“In the face of cuts to CSIRO climate research, Australia’s Antarctic science community generally welcomed the Government’s recent Antarctic strategic plan, including a commitment to repair the long-term rundown in Antarctic science funding. What matters, though, is ensuring the promised $200 million over 10 years survives multiple terms of government, requiring bi-partisan commitment to ring-fencing science budgets.
Surprisingly, universities are almost unmentioned in the strategic plan – this is alarming given two substantial investments in Antarctic research end during the next 3 years –the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem CRC and the ARC Antarctic Gateway Partnership together employ dozens of scientist in Hobart and cement national and global partnerships. This leading research capability needs a 10-year commitment to match the timeframe of the strategic plan – and uncertainty needs to be removed before world-leading researchers relocate their expertise overseas.
Frustratingly, structural problems hinder Australian Antarctic research, with access to Antarctic logistics disconnected from Australian Research Council funding which can support it; this results in a grossly inefficient catch-22 situation with one requiring the other to succeed. While these disconnections are widespread within the Australian research funding system, other nations have demonstrated that political willpower can solve them.”
Professor Doug Hilton, President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes
“All parties to commit to building the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) and see it reach $20 billion by 2020-2021. The health and medical research sector, and indeed the Australian public, needs the MRFF to reach $20 billion in order for it to deliver an extra $1 billion in funding to the sector each year. It is only at this point that Australia will catch up to the OECD average for government investment in medical research.
Investing in health and medical research is a winner for all Australians: the MRFF is expected to return $3.40 for every dollar invested via savings made to the health system through improved diagnostics, treatments and cures, along with the financial returns offered through commercialisation of research; health and medical research is a key driver in helping to Close the Gap for Indigenous Australians; medical research is critical to overcoming the growing burden of disease for illnesses such as dementia and stroke; medical research is Australia’s best performing “smart industry”, and is central to creating the country’s jobs of the future.”
Professor Tamara Davis, astrophysicist from the University of Queensland and Associate Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence in All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO)
“Stable science funding that is not dependent on the government that is in power. Decoupling the funding cycles for research from election cycles would help long-term planning and make it possible to actually plan for longer than the next year, which is critical when most of our projects have long development and lead times.
Support for STEM education is immensely important to secure our prosperity through having a strong educated workforce with adaptable skills that can jump at the opportunities new technology is presenting us.
A strong CSIRO that has researchers at the coalface working with instrumentation and development. For example, there’s a push to reduce the active astronomers who are working at CSIRO and treat CSIRO telescopes as a service to the astronomy community — that won’t work because we need active researchers embedded in the organisation who are pushing the technology. Otherwise the service will not be of use to the astronomy community.”
These statements were submitted to SBS Science in writing and condensed for brevity.