Australian Science – A public sector perspective

Sam Popovski and Michael Borgas examine the state of Australian research from a public sector perspective. What are the prospects for science directly funded and delivered by Government?

The state of Australian Science – A Government Science Perspective
Michael Borgas & Sam Popovski
CSIRO Staff Association

Australian science and technology is facing uncertainty with reduced funding to higher education and within the private sector because of declines in manufacturing and mining. The dominant angst about innovation and the future prosperity of Australia is mainly played out in the futures of the higher education and business sectors. The often ignored third sector is government science, work undertaken by laboratories like CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, with missions fundamental to governance, regulation and policy in addition to conducting research and innovation. The CSIRO Staff Association represents thousands of staff in CSIRO, an institution of nearly 6000 people.

The facts are stark. Government science in Australia has declined from 40% of all research and development activity in the early 1980’s to just 12% in 2009. Much of that science is also leveraged by industry with CSIRO required to source nearly 40% of its funding from external clients, just to continue to retain its capability.

In April 2013, CSIRO CEO Megan Clark issued directions to cut staffing as well as operations by 2.5% and reprioritise towards industrial innovation and away from environmental research. Approximately 200 redundancies across the organisation is the expected outcome, along with the non renewals of term contract staff. These changes reflect the lack of sustainable funding and new investments in government science and a growing technological cost-base of doing science.

The boom and bust support of science is typified by infrastructure like the Australian research vessel. At the height of the global financial crisis, the super science initiatives of the Australian government and ex-Minister Kim Carr, provided a welcome funding boost, including for the research vessel the Investigator. Now ready to be commissioned, and with super science funding winding down, operational funding to trial the ship had to be rescued through a one-off measure of $11m in the 2013-14 Budget. Future funding of the Investigator sea operations will require further budget rescues to realise the innovation potential of this national facility.

But this is not new. For over two decades, government science in Australia has lacked growth funding. This has seen real declines in science capability in many agencies and departments, increased outsourced work and Australian science careers cut short. This is not obvious to the public, as part of the problem is lack of a map of science capability and function within the government and the economy.

The Chief Scientist of Australia, Ian Chubb, is now developing a capability map and consulting with the Australian community on strategic priorities for Australian science, including government science in departments and agencies. From our viewpoint, this should produce a case for growth funding for government science based on needs for public knowledge and for our environmental, agricultural, mining and industrial development.

Australian government science is currently stretched and stressed, with many concerns emerging from staff surveys together with claims of bullying and distress. Job insecurity is a major issue and an unproductive distraction to ongoing science. The scales of the demands are illustrated by ocean-going research activity – a nice new ship, but with piece meal approaches to its operational funding; and more than 5% of the world’s ocean territory (largely unexplored) claimed by Australia; and with just 0.4% of humans doing nearly 3% of the world’s research. The numbers do not add up in any sensible strategy.

As Australian business panics on R&D in response to the decline of the mining and resources boom, the need for higher productivity in our economy concentrates on a myopic focus on industrial relations and labour costs. A lack of strategy and investment in R&D by business is the biggest threat to both sustaining a research workforce in Australia and to securing middle class jobs in our economy. Research by business has grown to $17 billion in 2012, but this represents just 1.2% of Australia’s GDP, which is a low figure for a developed economy. It is what is expected for a more simple economy dominated by agriculture and mining.

If Australia is to develop a more diversified economy, there is a strong case for a strategic and growing investment in government science in addition to business. The Australian higher education sector currently strives to support about half of all research workers in Australia, with business supporting 40% and government science just 12%.

The real world has historically been happily resilient to voices like the Institute of Public Affairs, who are currently calling for the privatisation of CSIRO and cheering on current Opposition plans for large cuts to the public sector. It is not at all clear how cutting CSIRO or other research providers would improve Australia’s productivity and long-term wellbeing.  The lesser cuts of efficiency dividends, lapsing programs, and budgetary reductions to science and research may prove small beer by comparison.

The ongoing sustainability of government science is a major concern to the Staff Association and the need for clear recognition in the Chief Scientist’s strategic review and in sensible policy proposals in the upcoming Federal Election. Funding our schools, higher education and broadband technology only goes so far. Science and innovation will unlock the jobs and livelihoods of a prosperous future, as CSIRO discoveries such as WiFi have shown. Government science needs to be a more significant part of the tripartite balance of higher education, government and business research in Australia.

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