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Issue #1676      March 11, 2015

Govt blackmails Senate with science cuts

Last week the Abbott government announced that $150 million funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) research program would not be delivered unless the Senate approved the deregulation of university fees.

NCIRS, which commenced activity in 2004, provides collaborative funding for private and public projects that are too expensive or complex for any one institution.

It has invested more than $2 billion in scientific infrastructure, including high end microscopes, high-precision GPS radio telescopes and processes for developing new products. Its facilities are now shared between universities, research institutes and private businesses, and are used by 35,000 Australian and international researchers. It was expected that the facilities would become involved in the international development of extremely large telescopes.

The announcement has appalled the scientific community. The NCIRS program involves hundreds of long-term scientific experiments being carried out by 1,700 staff in 27 different facilities, the majority of which are now at risk of closure because of the cuts.

Research institute IMOS has stated that without the NCIRS funds it will have to sack its 80 staff and close, ceasing production of data from $40 million of equipment that is now used by PhD students and research organisations involved in hundreds of projects.

If IMOS collapses, others will follow, including the National Fabrication Facility, which is now developing needle-free immunisation patches. The nation’s scientific endeavours will take years to recover, and Australia will lose its enviable lead in many areas of research.

Science fights back

The National Research Alliance, which brings together private and public research organisations, has written an open letter to the government, stating;

“The damage to Australia’s domestic and collaborative research effort that will result from such closures is immense. Continuity and productivity of critical research programs will be set back several years … some innovative Australian companies will be forced to take their operations offshore [and] many profitable international research collaborations will cease.

“The facilities underpin much of Australia’s $30 billion annual spend on science, research, and development at an operational cost of just $150 million per annum [0.5 percent of the total …]”.

If the government ceases funding NCIRS it will blame the Senate for the inevitable collapse in scientific research. The government was fully aware new funding was needed when it drew up the budget, but following its tradition of blaming someone else, it now says Labor caused the current crisis by not allocating long-term funding.

And that’s not all

The NCIRS program is not the only area now threatened by the government’s $500 million science budget cuts. The CSIRO lost $111.4 million, as well as the Australia Research Council ($74.9 million), Cooperative Research Centres ($80 million), the Australian Institute of Marine Science ($7.8 million), the Defence Science and Technology Organisation ($27.6 million), and Geoscience Australia ($36 million).

The $45 million grant to National Information Communications Technology Australia will cease in July next year.

After its election the government immediately attacked any government agency concerned with tracking climate change or helping to reduce carbon emissions. It eliminated the Climate Commission (now salvaged by dedicated private individuals), the Climate Change authority and the Department of Climate Change, and tried, but has so far failed, to wind up the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

It even made a savage cut to the budget of the Bureau of Meteorology, whose daily reports bring news about the impact of climate change.

The way to go

Science is at the heart of the national economic development. Without it, Australia would slide into poverty.

Historically Australia has scored some remarkable scientific achievements, from the clinical trials of penicillin to the development of Wi-Fi by CSIRO astronomers, the first cancer vaccine, Google maps, the bionic ear and the first frozen embryo baby.

However, in 2011-12 Australia spent only 2.19 percent of its budget on research and development, compared with the OECD average of 2.34 percent. Sweden, with a comparable economy and standard of living, spent 3.39 percent.

Australia’s science budget has been cut over the last three years, and more cuts are to come. When the Abbott government was elected, the cabinet did not include a science minister, and Trade Minister Ian MacFarlane sneered about protests from “some of the precious petals in the science fraternity”.

This year Australia’s spending on science will probably fall to $8.5 billion, the lowest in five years. When told of the cuts, Australian-born Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 joint Nobel Prize winner for medicine and biology, exclaimed: “How could Australia not think of investing heavily in science? This is just insanity.”

Nor is it possible, or desirable, for the private sector to make up the deficit. Peter Doherty, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology commented; “Everywhere you look, basic science is through public funding. It can’t be left to the magic of the market, it doesn’t work in innovation”.

Almost all areas of government spending are now being slashed. The government claims it must pay billions of dollars in interest on government debts every year, and that the only way out is for most areas of expenditure to be cut, and for average Australians to pay more tax and work until they’re at least 70.

That’s nonsense. The real answer is to reduce those areas of government spending which are currently rising, particularly defence. It was allocated $24.2 billion in 2012-13, and in 2016-17 the figure will rocket to $30.8 billion.

That insane increase arises mostly from the astronomical sums the government is spending on new multi-billion dollar submarines (which it wants to have built in Japan), and the astronomically expensive new US jet fighter aircraft, (which won’t be ready for ten years, by which time they’ll be out of date) – not to mention the cost of sending our troops into whatever war Uncle Sam dictates.

The solution to the debt problem is for wealthy citizens and major corporations to pay a greater tax rate (as they did 40 years ago), for tax loopholes (like the transfer of profits to low tax countries) to be slammed shut, and for our obscenely high defence expenditure to be cut.

That’s the way to go.

Next article – Protest in Perth against Abbott govt’s attacks

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