Federal audit stuns science community

A 'razor gang' operating under the title of a "commission of audit" established by Australia's conservative federal government has called for sweeping changes to the national economy that include widespread cuts in spending and abolition of major science projects with modification of others.

Elected last September, one of the first acts of the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott was to appoint the commission, dominated by senior business figures and a former conservative senator, to inquire into and recommend ways of overcoming what the government calls "an economic crisis facing Australia".

The audit report released last Thursday contains 86 recommendations that focus mainly on the government's 15 biggest and fastest-growing areas of spending. If adopted, the recommendations would see savage across-the-board cuts in areas of education, health and pensions.

In the area of science, whose practitioners were appalled that the Abbott government was the first in decades to dispense with a minister for science, the commission has proposed scrapping the Cooperative Research Centres programme while also bringing the independent Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, CSIRO, under tighter state control.

The government will hand down its first budget next week and observers believe the alarm generated by the audit report will be tempered by a moderate response in what some call a technique to "frighten the hell out of the punters first and then show them they can still win".

Science independence concerns

Science and Technology Australia or STA, the peak group representing 68,000 scientists and technologists, called on the government to back the independence of scientific research in the face of the audit's recommendations.

These include changing the legislative basis for Australia's principal science organisation, the CSIRO, to "bring it into closer alignment with the way other public service agencies are governed". The commission recommendation calls for more government oversight "to ensure resources are directed to areas of greatest priority".

But STA Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said that if adopted, this would have the potential to constitute a serious infringement on the independence of Australian scientific research.

STA President Dr Ross Smith said Australians would be very concerned if the government compromised the independence of the CSIRO and its 6,000-plus scientists. "Australians trust CSIRO science and the autonomy of the CSIRO and its board is central to that public trust," Smith said.

"The recommended abolition of the Cooperative Research Centres programme would endanger years of carefully built up and highly fruitful industry-university collaborations that have delivered significant returns for the whole community.

"Also cooperation between smaller regional universities and their research-intensive cousins would be at stake if the recommendation to abolish the Collaborative Research Networks programme was adopted."

Cooperative Research Centres

The association representing the Cooperative Research Centres said it was "profoundly shocked" by the audit commission recommendation to abolish the CRC programme and roll its funds into the Australian Research Council's industry linkage programme.

"I can't for a minute believe the government will take on this recommendation," said CRC chair and former conservative politician Tony Staley. "Cooperative Research Centres have very clearly given the Australian taxpayers outstanding value for money."

The CRC scheme was initiated by a Labor government in 1990 and significantly expanded by later conservative governments.

Staley said the scheme had achieved widespread acclaim with its creation of the day and night contact lens, the hybrid cochlear ear implant, composite materials in the Boeing Dreamliner ailerons, vast improvements in the management of dryland salinity, and the world's most widely used environmental management programme for hotels.

Federal Industry Minister - and de facto science minister - Ian Macfarlane said in March that the government was investing A$186 million (US$172 million) to extend four existing cooperative research centres and establish three new ones.

"CRCs work so well because they bring together world-class scientists and researchers with industry, the community and government to create opportunities and develop solutions for Australia, Australian industries and the world," Macfarlane said.

"The seven CRCs we have funded are industry driven and combine more than 130 organisations from across Australia and internationally, including 60 industry partners in Asia, Europe and the United States.

"CRCs are a truly joint effort, with a 20-year history of bringing the government, researchers and industries together. All up they have put more than A$15.4 billion of grants and participants' cash and in-kind support to work for Australia."