BOOSTING SCIENCE AND RESEARCH IS A NO-BRAINER

The Liberal government is out of touch with modern Australia — and nothing shows it more than the government's relentless war on science.

The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has slashed funding for research in universities and public agencies such as CSIRO, shedding more than 1300 science jobs since 2013.

As the official budget tables confirm, in their five years in office the Liberals have reduced spending on science, research and innovation by $1.1 billion in real terms — a cut of 10 per cent.

The Coalition government has ignored or denigrated the expert advice scientists provide on the great global issues of our time, such as climate change and energy policy.

It has failed to understand that, if we do not invest in basic, curiosity-driven research about the world and our place in it, we will also degrade our ability to conduct applied research.

The government’s hostility to science derives from the hard-right ideologues in its ranks.

That hostility is not shared by the wider community.

Australians know that if you care about the food that you eat, the water that you drink and the air that you breathe, you must care about science.

They know that if you care for someone who is sick, you must care about science. They know that if you care about how rapidly changing technologies are transforming the way we live and work, you must care about science.

Without the enhanced understanding that is provided by science and by scholarly research in all disciplines, including the humanities, we will not be able to resolve any of the challenges the nation faces.

Yet the Liberals’ cuts to science have created Australia’s largest brain drain, depriving Australia of the talent it needs.

Bill Shorten has declared that if Labor wins the federal election, which must be held within the next six months, we will end the Coalition’s war on science.

Labor understands that science and research are fundamental to Australia’s future.

They are fundamental to our capacity for innovation, for increasing economic diversity, for creating new jobs and for sharing the benefits of growth as widely as possible.

It is no accident that Australia has become a less equal society during the years the Liberals have been draining resources from Australian science.

In a speech last week to the Australian Academy of Science, the Opposition Leader renewed Labor’s commitment to reversing the decline in Australia’s research and development activity.

Labor has set a goal of increasing the share of gross domestic product devoted to research and development 3 per cent by 2030 — up from 1.8 per cent now, which is well below the OECD average of 2.3 per cent.

We will return science to the centre of government by resetting the relationship between government and Australia’s scientists and researchers.

A Shorten Labor government will establish a charter with Australia’s science and research community, setting out the reciprocal roles of government and researchers. Under Labor, government will restore respect to scientists and researchers.

We will uphold academic freedom and protect them from political interference while providing the best facilities and equipment the nation can afford.

In return, we expect that researchers will strive towards helping us to meet Australia’s national challenges.

Labor will establish a new Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Innovation, to advise the prime minister and other ministers on the implications of science, research, engineering and technology issues.

The present Commonwealth Science Council, recently renamed the National Science and Technology Council, has not met for 15 months.

Labor’s council will be chaired by the prime minister, and include the science, education and health ministers, five eminent scientists and researchers, at least one of whom will have a social science or humanities background, and four representatives from business and industry.

Finally, a Shorten Labor government will instigate the first comprehensive review of Australia’s research framework in more than 20 years.

In that time, ad hoc changes have been made to policy, funding has been cut and political interference has hampered a system that is in need of a root-and-branch examination.

The review, assessing research needs and priorities up to 2030, is an ambitious project in the Australian context.

But, globally, it is neither novel nor unique. Britain and Canada have both recently undertaken reviews to ensure that maximum benefit is obtained from public investment in research.

Australia’s review will be led by former chief scientist Ian Chubb, who will be supported by an advisory group comprised of eminent academic and business leaders.

A Labor government will support the work of this review because we aim to shape the future of Australia, and we know that is impossible without a central role for science and research.

This opinion piece was published in The Australian, on Wednesday 5 December 2018.


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