Big choices ahead for science and society

Tony AbbottStaff Association President Michael Borgas examines the Big Society and what the future might hold for public sector science in Australia.

BIG SOCIETY. The premise sounds positive enough: A reformed public sector that encourages greater community involvement, built on volunteering and local decision making, underpinned by open and transparent processes. Just ignore the slightly Orwellian-sounding language.

Big Society. What’s not to like?

Championed by the UK’s David Cameron and increasingly embraced by Coalition policymakers at home in Australia – Big Society is all the rage when it comes to contemporary reimagining of the public sector from the right-of-centre. Think of it as Compassionate Conservatism for the digital age.

But what is the real-world impact of the Big Society? The bitter realities of the deep public sector cuts currently visited on the UK are well documented. But if you need an example closer to home, look no further than Queensland.

A year on from their thumping election victory, Campbell Newman’s LNP Government has begun to flesh out their plans for the Queensland public sector.

Former Federal Treasurer and perennial political bridesmaid Peter Costello was commissioned to conduct an audit of Queensland’s public sector – and recommended the privatisation of public assets, relaxation of regulations and the widespread outsourcing of public services.

As with the UK, the results for Queensland may be big, rather than positive.

So what does this all mean for Australian science?

According to the OECD, Australia spends roughly 35 per cent of GDP in the public sphere, across all levels of government. Our larger trade competitors spend much more: Japan (42%), the United States (43%) and Germany (48%) to name a few.

When it comes to government-funded research and development – including public sector science – Australia invests 0.27% of GDP.

Again, that places us behind some of the big players such as the United States (0.29%) and Germany (0.35%) but streets ahead of the UK (0.16%).

The figures indicate the continuing support of Australian science by successive Governments; set against the challenging backdrop of a changing economy, diverse ecosystems, massive marine and land territories and a relatively small yet widely dispersed population.

CSIRO is a large and privileged part of the government science system in Australia and often draws the gaze of budget ‘razor gangs,’ in search of a big, soft target.

The reality is that the proportion of spending on government science – including CSIRO – has not increased in real terms for decades. It’s a clear case of funding maintenance rather than investment.

By contrast, science doesn’t become any less relevant with the passage of time, quite the opposite. One of the ways our society depends on publically funded science is in the development and regulation of industry and trade.

Take the topical example of Coal Seam Gas. Here is an emerging industry that relies on new research to explore, develop and help draft a social contract. Local communities are also counting on science to protect their lands, health and livelihood.

The financial independence of research – via arm’s length of government funding – is important to maintaining credibility and confidence, protecting the public good from private interest.

Not all would have it this way. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) – free market think tank and conservative policy incubator – would prefer to see Government out of the science game altogether.

In an article last August (devoid of Big Society sugar coating) the IPA exhorted Federal Coalition leader Tony Abbott to pursue 75 policies designed to transform Australia.

“Recommendation 72. Privatise the CSIRO.”

There’s been no response from Mr Abbott concerning Recommendation 72, specifically. However, in a speech at the recent IPA birthday dinner, the Opposition Leader identified twelve areas from the list of 75 that a Coalition Government would support.

The man famous for making a political virtue out of saying no crowed: “So, ladies and gentlemen, that’s a big fat YES to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me.”

An internal funding and staff cut at CSIRO – seeming largely in response to a collapse in external earnings – has also served to throw the public funding issue into sharp relief.

There is a clear role for government in providing science functions in modern society, particularly when that society gets bigger with increasing demands on resources.

For the past year the Staff Association and CPSU has been advocating for a broad Science Integrity Charter which seeks to help make government science more open and transparent where possible, independent of commercial and political bias, and resourced for quality and soundness.

In some respects our Science Integrity Charter is an anathema to those cheering Big Society – simply more Government red tape instead of responsible industries engaged in noble self regulation.

And yet when it comes to trust, the public favours researchers – and public servants for that matter – far ahead of business executives, corporate CEOs and advertisers.

Populations of modern states may want more participation and local decision making – a sentiment that Big Society seeks to tap into – but they also want trusted science free from commercial, political and ideological pressures, and common sense suggests a key role for government science.

A bigger society may be inevitable, but it will be a poorer society if government science in Australia were massively cut back or misdirected by vested interests.

Dr Michael Borgas is the President of CSIRO Staff Association.

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