I have attended the last half-dozen Prime Minister’s Science Prizes in Canberra, but not this year. I stayed at home and followed the action on social media. And, as the various feeds of the glittering event flashed across my small screen, I became increasingly depressed.
My Twitter and Facebook feeds were also laced with yet more reports from Australian researchers getting out of research because they can see no future. There were also laments from colleagues who were reviewing grant applications and their despair that so many good researchers cannot find a basic income appropriate to their skills, talents and experience.
Research in Australia is in chaos and deeply troubled. There is a dire need for a coordinated, comprehensive and supportive national science policy. What we get is a bunch of tawdry baubles covering just a lucky few.
The PM’s Prizes
Awarded annually, the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes are a collection of 7 awards covering science and science teaching. Straight away we have the ‘picking winners’ problem seen in other science prizes such as the Nobles. There are many areas of scientific research which deserve our attention and accolades but only a few that are brought before the Australian public via the PM’s annual science bash.
The 2016 the Prime Minister’s Science Prize winner was Professor Rick Shine from the University of Sydney. He started his acceptance speech at the glitzy dinner at Parliament House by saying that the best way to celebrate Australian science is to fund it properly.
That observation digs deep into the problems of the Prime Minister‘s Science Prizes; they give the appearance this is a pro-science government for one day of the year. But their actions for the other 364.25 days contradict this image. Most of that time is spent cutting funding and support to research or ignoring scientific advice altogether.
At the heart of the problems rampant in Australian research is the Federal Government’s lack of genuine commitment to the national research endeavour. There is no meaningful science policy and there is extremely poor representation of science across all Federal MPs. The Feds just don’t seem to understand what science and research are and what they have to offer to our society.
The Federal Government‘s lack of respect for science is no better illustrated than in the revolving door of Science Ministers that we’ve had over the last five years. I’ve actually lost count of how many have been appointed, some for as little as a couple of months. This seemingly unwanted portfolio is passed around like a turd in a brown paper bag. No ownership of the science portfolio means no policy for science.
What we have
The closest that the current Federal Government has come to announcing a science policy is their Innovation Agenda. There’s a lot to criticise in the way that agenda is being run.
In a nut-shell the Federal Government has a rather idiosyncratic definition of what innovation is and all research activities are viewed through that misaligned prism. It is only the applied sciences that could generate an economic return that get any attention. Science has many more important stories to share with Australians than simply how to make a new widget to make some corporation a few more dollars and grow the economy.
Towards a National Science Policy
What are the problems that need to be addressed by a national science policy? From what I’ve seen, such a policy would address the underspend on research, the lack of career structures of researchers and look toward clearing other roadblocks to the conduct of research in this country.
Our national spend on research is well below the OECD average but there is a qualifier in there; in Australia 80% of funding for research comes from Government and 20% comes from industry and the private sector. In many cases overseas those numbers are reversed with industry and business carrying the can for conducting research.
Tax breaks in support of research should also be reinvestigated to see if business and industry can be encouraged to do more. Perhaps there are other mechanisms at the Government’s disposal to encourage business and industry to carry their share of the national research effort.
Yes, there is the option of simply pumping more money into research but there’s also a problem in the way that funding is distributed. The main mechanisms for distributing research funding are the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical and Research Council (NHMRC). They have a success rate of just under 20%, that is less than one-in-five applications for funding end up receiving it.
Thus 80% of grant applications are a waste of time, the applicants will not receive any funding towards their research. For the lucky 20% many will not receive all the funding they request. The assumption on the behalf of the ARC and the NHMRC is that the researchers can find the missing funds elsewhere. All too often that is not the case, the limited funding is handed back and the research project does not go ahead.
A national science policy would encourage the creation of job structures and career paths for researchers. Over the last couple of decades there has been a move away from permanent employment for researchers to rolling contracts. Earlier this week I had a disturbing message from a long-term friend; they had just been given their fourth five-year contract by their university. People cannot create a meaningful financial life with such uncertainty around their employment.
With such an unstable employment environment it’s no wonder that students do not look to the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) subjects as a career choice. If you have the smarts to complete a STEM course at university, you’re probably capable of completing a degree in law, economics or medicine with a much clearer and well-remunerated career path after you graduate.
If the Federal Government is serious about supporting STEM education, they could do no better than to create well-structured STEM careers for graduates.
I remember sitting next to a big wig of a large international pharmaceutical company at business lunch. I asked him how much research his company conducted in Australia and he responded not as much as he would like. I asked what would be the one thing he would change in order to encourage his company to conduct more research here? His response surprised me. He would do something to streamline the otherwise onerous responsibilities from ethics committees.
All too often, particularly when dealing with human research, researchers have to deal with three, four or sometimes more ethics committees. These can be at the Federal, State, Local and Institutional level and they are not necessarily in sync with each other.
Often these ethics committees are stacked with ‘ethicists’ from backgrounds other than science research, so they have little appreciation of the science behind the research that they are assessing.
This all adds up to a lot of research’s time spent dealing with paperwork for different ethics committees just to be able to meet their requirements.
While ethical oversight of research is important, a national science policy could streamline the ethics processes and make it much easier for researchers to comply with. Not only would this free up researcher’s time to get on with their day job, it would also encourage the private sector to invest more in research in Australia.
The Federal Government must embrace science and research. They must broaden their understanding of what science and research are and what they offer for the betterment of our society. They must except the findings of science into policy debates and demonstrate their commitment to the national research endeavour by appointing a Science Minister who is committed to the job. Above all, they must produce a comprehensive science and research policy.
Instead of this passionate embrace for science and research, what we get from the Feds are the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes. Recognition of a few scientist among a community that numbers in the tens of thousands is meaningless.
I mean no disrespect to the winners of this year’s Prime Minister’s Science Prizes (or any from the past for that matter) and I extend my hearty congratulations to Professor Jenny Graves (this year’s winner of the major gong). I have watched her work in genetics develop over the last couple of decades and she is a truly worthy recipient of this prize. Congratulations also to all the other winners; Eric Reynolds, Jian Yang, Dayong Jin, Neil Bramsen and Brett Mackay.
Yes it is important that we celebrate the best of Australian science. This should be a compliment to, and not a substitute for, a comprehensive, cohesive and supportive national science policy. Wouldn’t some recognition of the breadth of genius and hard work from our researchers be a fine thing? Isn’t it time that we, as a nation, supported all our scientists instead of showcasing a lucky few?