The budget and the science
How did science and science education fare in last week’s Federal Budget and what do the Fed’s funding decisions say about their respect for science and innovation? Well it’s a mixed picture with possibly encouraging signs of better things to come and a change of heart. Only time will tell but from the current vantage point, it is a confusing outlook.
A number of good summaries and commentaries of the Federal Budget with respect to science can be found across the internet including on the Science Show, the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), the Chief Scientist, and from the CRC Association.
The big ticket item that received most of the attention and was well-received within science circles, was the announcement of $54 million to support science, mathematics and engineering education. Included within this was $5 million over four years to the primary and junior secondary school science programs, Primary Connections and Science by Doing run by the AAS.
There will also be a National Mathematics and Science Education and Industry Adviser located within the Office of the Chief Scientist, who will champion the role of mathematics, science and statistics across education and industry. All this on top of the recent funding announcement of $10 million for the Australian Council of Learned Academies to support the work of the Chief Scientist and the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council.
While these are good and laudable measures, you would have to ask what is the evidence that they will have the desired effect of attracting high school and university students back to science? So far as I can tell, this drift away from science education is partly caused by the sorts of lack of educational opportunities that the Budget seeks to address, but it is also a much more complex problem. Students of all ages do not value the effort needed to do science courses because they cannot see how that will help them in their careers. Until we address the wider issues of poor career structures in science and the lack of prospects for science graduates, why would all but the most dedicated students even consider doing science? And when we look at the other measures relating to science in the Budget, we can see that this status quo is being perpetuated.
While the CSIRO receives an increase in funding of 2.6% over 2011 figures, it has to implement a $23M efficiency dividend which will mean job cuts. The Budget ignores the call to establish a strategic program to support Australian science internationally, put forward by the AAS. There is still a cloud of uncertainty over important science infrastructure such as the Melbourne Synchrotron.
Budget funding for both the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has been maintained but not indexed against inflation. These are the two main granting bodies for Australian science and medical research, already struggling with trying to match a small pot of cash to a rich and diverse nation of research opportunities.
And the $54 million push for science education must be read in the light of a doubling of HECS fees on science courses implemented in last year’s mini-budget.
So there are swings and roundabouts, snakes and ladders, in the funding of science and science education under last week’s Federal Budget. But we should look at that in the context of the Budget as a whole: in a generally tough budget, science got off lightly. And, to put a brighter note on the situation, perhaps we may be witnessing a turning point in the Federal Government’s policy and views on science and science education. At least I hope that we are. If this is the case, there needs to be a lot more creative funding decisions made to support science and science education across the board.
On a tangential endnote, one measure in the Budget that received little coverage, but which heartened this crusty rationalist’s mind was the announcement that the Federal Government is going to remove the 30% private health insurance rebate for some of the more absurd ‘alternative therapies’. This measure is detailed by Ian Musgrave, Senior lecturer in Pharmacology at University of Adelaide in The Conversation, but basically unproven quackery like ear candling, Reiki, homeopathy and aromatherapy will no longer be subsidised by the public purse. Perhaps the Federal Government is listening to the voices of reason and evidence-based thinking!
By Paul Willis, @Fossilcrox