Aussie coalition to ditch "futile" science if it wins

By Peter Griffin 06/09/2013

It’s highly likely Tony Abbott and his coalition will cruise to victory on Saturday night as Labour faces the crushing defeat the polls are predicting.

By Monday morning, a much harder nosed bunch of would-be ministers will be looking over the Government’s books, looking to shave the A$40 billion in savings they’ve promised and realigning funding to reflect their policy goals. One area in for a shake-up is science. The Liberals are vowing to reprioritise A$900 million in science funding from annual Australian Research Council grants away from “obscure research grants” to other projects and areas of research.

Here’s a taster from the Liberal Party website:

A Coalition Government, if elected, will crack down on Labor’s addiction to waste by auditing increasingly ridiculous research grants and reprioritising funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) to deliver funds to where they’re really needed.

Some of the grants issued by the ARC in recent years have been, frankly, completely over the top.

And a few examples, no doubt cherry-picked for effect:

  • The quest for the ‘I’ – a$595,000 grant aimed at “reaching a better understanding of the self”;
  • $160,000 on an examination of “sexuality in Islamic interpretations of reproductive health technologies in Egypt”;
  • a $443,000 study into “The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian idealism”; and
  • $164,000 for a study into “how urban media art can best respond to global climate change” .

Liberal MP Jamie Briggs, who is chairman of the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee is keen to point out that a Liberal Government won’t cut science funding.

In fact, the Coalition has announced new research into dementia and diabetes.

Nobel winner Peter Doherty - fears a return to "Howard-era" science decision making
Nobel winner Peter Doherty – fears a return to “Howard-era” science decision making

Scientists contacted by my colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre aren’t impressed at the axe being taken to social science and humanities funding:

Professor Peter Doherty, is from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University Of Melbourne Medical School. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1996. He comments:

“From the examples given, it looks as though the move would be away from the social sciences/humanities towards funding “hard” science. No scientist is likely to have a problem with seeing more money going into the physical and biological sciences, but further weakening the humanities in Australian universities does give cause for concern. It’s always important to look at the substance of the intended research. I hope we’re not moving back to the Howard era where a committee of supremely unqualified people scrutinised ARC grant titles for ‘political correctness’, that is, in terms of the politics of the right.”

Catriona Jackson is CEO of Science and Technology Australia. Science & Technology Australia represents 68,000 scientists and technologists, and promotes their views on a wide range of policy issues to government, industry and the community. She comments:

“The Coalition Government has now confirmed it would, if elected, direct its Commission of Audit, to re-prioritise the around $900 million in annual Australia Research Council grants.

The specific research projects named – all in the arts and social sciences – have been labelled ‘increasingly ridiculous’.

The flow of new knowledge is critical to the kinds of ‘real word’ results that all Australians are proud of. It was CSIRO scientist John O’Sullivan’s search for exploding black holes that led to his discovery of wireless technology that has swept the world, and drawn $500 million in royalties to Australia with probably as much again to come.

Australians should ask: Do we want politicians picking and choosing which grant proposals deserve funding?

The reports raise a number of critical questions:

• How does adding a ‘special team’ as part of the Coalition’s audit commission eliminate waste or cut red tape?

• How would any new filtering process work?

• Who would make the final funding call, a politician?

• How much would this new process cost?”

Scientists and research funding agencies understand that Governments set priorities for research and that this is entirely valid given we do not have the resources to fund everything.

Priority setting is very different from political picking and choosing.

Only a quarter of research grant bids that go to the ARC each year are successful. Only the best of the very best get through the very careful peer review, expert-driven process.”

Scientists had fears that the National Government would similarly shake up science funding on winning the 2008 general election here. In some respects it did – the formation of Callaghan Innovation, shake-up of science funding and move towards innovation and funding of applied science has been controversial.

But the Government has increased spending on research and topped up the Marsden Fund, which is available to social scientists and those in the humanities.

It’s R&D focus is aimed at boosting the level of private sector R&D which trails other OECD countries.

Where the rest of the Liberals’ A$900 million rejig comes from will no doubt be studied with paranoid-tinged interest by the Australian scientific community in the coming weeks.