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Issue #1659      October 8, 2014

Government cuts threaten CSIRO’s future

When the Abbott government took office it merged the Department of Science with another department. The government is not interested in research in new, broad-ranging “blue sky” science, nor is it committed to assisting scientific development as a national responsibility unless it serves the interests of major corporations.

And that doesn’t mean all corporations. The Abbott government has indicated that scientific research will now be primarily focused on mining, medicine, energy, agribusiness and (despite the devastation caused by government tariff policies) advanced manufacturing.

However, research in radio astronomy, geothermal energy and biodiversity will be cut or abandoned. Renewable energy and climate change, crucial for the nation’s development and security, are virtually ignored.

A Murdoch publication editorial recently declared enthusiastically:

“Australia must improve business collaboration with university and public research agencies … Where it exists, such collaboration has led to world first innovations, especially in mining technology.

“… the ‘Agents of Change’ PhD program at the University of Queensland, funded by the Australian Research Council and the Australian Food and Grocery Council … funds doctoral students to research food security and will lead them to jobs in industry rather than academic careers. Their work will help boost exports to Asian markets.”

Nevertheless, agricultural production is threatened by the government’s iron-clad opposition to anything that adversely affects the mining industry, and by climate change, which has largely been caused by emission of carbon from human industry over two hundred years.

To reduce emissions, coal must be replaced with renewable energy for power generation, and petrol replaced with electricity as the vehicle energy source. Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel mining industries adamantly oppose any such move.

So does the Abbott government, which has omitted any such action from its so-called “Direct Action” climate change program and has eliminated or constrained government agencies involved in researching climate change or funding its mitigation.

The nation’s major scientific institution, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has played a vital role in tracking climate change.

But because of staffing restrictions and funding cuts the CSIRO lost 513 positions last financial year. The federal budget imposed a further $111 million four-year funding cut, as a result of which eight of the CSIRO’s 56 sites will close.

Four hundred researchers and support staff will lose their jobs this financial year, including eight scientists at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, the nation’s only establishment for researching live samples of deadly diseases like Ebola. A further 300 positions will be lost because of an internal restructure.

Between 1996 and next July the number of CSIRO employees will have fallen from 7,400 people to 5,034.

Phoney remedies

The government intends to establish the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund, a new organisation funded from the inequitable Medicare co-payments.

The government’s descriptions of the Future Fund’s operations are vague. However, it is highly likely that its role will be to fund medical research by private firms rather than carrying out research itself. If the research results in failure Medicare patients will carry the bill rather than the firm and if it succeeds the firm will walk away with the profits rather than being required to return any of them to the public.

Meanwhile, the CSIRO is being progressively stripped of funds. One CSIRO member has revealed that because of reductions in support staff numbers, scientists must now spend up to one day per week cleaning laboratory equipment, stacking chemicals, restocking photocopy machines and /or preparing promotional material.

Scientists are also underpaid, given the importance of their work, and young students are not entering the profession. According to Australian IVF research pioneer Allan Trounson, the average age of leading scientists awarded research funding by the National Health and Medical Research Council has risen from 39 to 48 years over the past thirty years.

The Murdoch editorial quoted above concluded:

“Leading scientists must do better in explaining the fascinating opportunities … their profession offers. Properly informed, many young people would prefer producing cervical cancer and malaria vaccines, and studying astrophysics and astronomy, to shuffling paper as merchant bankers, lawyers and accountants”.

But as the editorial admits, salaries offered to scientists by research institutions have fallen far behind those of the other professions, and job security is low.

Moreover, public research funding is inadequate. According to Trounson Australia’s existing public funding bodies, which currently provide funding for young scientists’ research projects, only have enough money for two grants in every five applications. As a result, young people are not being drawn to science, and many who join the profession subsequently leave it.

Real solutions

The CSIRO has hundreds of outstanding achievements, including the development of Wi-Fi technology, polymer banknotes, aircraft landing systems, Hendra virus vaccine, and atomic absorption spectrometry.

It is now being stripped of funds and its scope of work reduced so that it becomes an accessory to the narrow section of Australian industry whose interests the government is committed to serve.

Three CSIRO organic chemists, Graeme Moad, Sam Thang and Ezio Rizzardo, who developed polymers for solar cells and other applications, have qualified as candidates for the Nobel Prize. However, they have warned that the sort of work they carried out, which requires long-term funding stability, may now become impossible because of the funding cuts.

The solution to the current difficulties for science does not lie in imposing what is, in effect, a new tax on Medicare patients in order to fund private research organisations.

Instead, the Medicare co-payment scheme should be abandoned, adequate research grants should be provided for the nation’s scientists, and it should be compulsory for part of the profits derived from funded research to be returned to the public.

The work of the CSIRO should also be expanded and sufficient funding provided so that it again becomes a growing, thriving institution dedicated to assisting the development of the nation’s current and emerging industries.

And the first step is to replace the current government with one dedicated to achieving that objective.

Next article – Australian Premiere of Catherine Murphy’s Maestra

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