Australia's War on Science

By Lyn Eyb

    SYDNEY - Scientists here in Australia say they've discovered their foe: Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

    Since he came to power in September, some of Australia's finest researchers point out that their budgets have been slashed. They say their expertise is being ignored in favor of the views of skeptics with a dubious commitment to the facts.

    Now the science community is speaking out over fears that the government's first annual budget could see a raft of further cuts at world-class research facilities, leading Australia to lose its reputation for cutting edge science and medical research.

    A leading researcher who asked not to be named out of fear for his own funding tells GlobalPost that budget reductions are leaving scientists feeling as though science "is being systematically removed at all levels." He pointed to past and future cuts at universities, the Australian Research Council and even the country's premier science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

    The Sydney Morning Herald recently revealed that the CSIRO is bracing for a budget cut of as much as 20 percent. Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty responded by saying such cuts would be "a sure way of accelerating our transition to a Third-World economy."

    Already, the government has announced the Department of the Environment, which is responsible for overseeing funding to dozens of science-based programs, will have its funding cut by 100 million Australian dollars ($93 million) over four years, resulting in the loss of a quarter of its staff.

    "What's happening in Australia looks awful compared to what's happening [in California]," says Alan Trounson, a renowned IVF and stem cell pioneer who has recently returned to Australia after 7 years at the helm of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Science funding in Australia is both "suboptimal and not terribly focused," with a clear "lack of leadership from government," he adds.

    In addition to funding cuts, researchers are outraged by Abbott's decision to abolish the science minister's post. It was a "real surprise," says Les Field, Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science. Instead, the science minister's responsibilities are being spread across other ministries, mainly the education and industry departments. "Education and Industry are both massive portfolios ... and no matter how you cut it, it will be difficult to get science, research and innovation to front-of-mind where it needs to be," he says.

    Trounson agrees that without a science minister, there is no one in government to champion research and innovation. Confining science to the fringes, he says, is unacceptable. "We could be doing wonderful things, and we're not because the funding is not there and what is there isn't targeted in the right areas."

    In May, the government will submit its first annual budget to parliament, a blueprint for how it will balance its books and fund its political agenda. Field says the budget will provide the government with an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to science, and to "signal a vision for where Australia is going in terms its support for research and innovation."

    The May budget will include numerous cuts. Australia's growth is slowing due to lower mining investment and a commodity price slump. But science and environmental sectors fear the brunt of the cuts, thanks to the Abbott's record of lackluster backing for science, his solid support for heavy industry (most notably the coal sector), and his penchant for appointing science skeptics as key advisors.

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