Labor accuses government of ‘waging war on science’

Research and development has emerged as a new front in the battle being waged between Australia’s two main political parties over which one will take government at the next election.

The latest OECD figures show that Australia does not do well compared with other countries on federal government funding of research and development. As a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), the government spends 0.4% on research and development, far less than comparable nations.

The Labor opposition has accused the conservative government of “waging a war on science” and has promised to put forward research and development as the key to the nation’s future.

In a speech to the Australian Academy of Science on 28 November, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten accused the conservative government of “waging a war on science with an aggressive anti-scientific mindset” that seemed to revel in its lack of intellectual rigour.

He promised to defend science from such “aggressive attacks” should Labor win the federal election, due to be held early next year.

That has become an increasingly likely prospect as the embattled government has fallen into disarray after dislodging two prime ministers in as many years.

It is now led by Scott Morrison, formerly a little-known politician until he became treasurer and then prime minister after former premier Malcolm Turnbull was forced by party malcontents to step down.

Turnbull resigned, and then quit parliament, requiring the government to hold a by-election.

So unpopular has conservative politics become, however, that the former prime minister was replaced at a by-election in October by Dr Kerryn Phelps, who was elected as an independent in the formerly safe conservative seat.

In his speech to the Australian Academy of Science, Shorten said his government would make policy decisions on the basis of the best possible evidence.

“And science provides us with that evidence," he said.

A new Labor administration would “put science back at the centre of government” by significantly increasing research funding and initiating a “root-and-branch inquiry” into the sector.

Referring to a decision by the conservative government to block a number of research grants awarded by the Australian Research Council, Shorten said any ministerial decision to block a research grant would need to be explained to parliament within 15 sitting days.

‘Once in a generation’ inquiry

His government would also establish a prime minister’s Science and Innovation Council and would launch a “once in a generation” AU$1 million (US$733,000) inquiry into the science and research sector, to be led by Australia’s former chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb.

In addition, Shorten pledged to lift Australia’s overall – public and private – spending on research from 1.8% of GDP to 3% by 2030.

According to Labor, the conservative government has cut AU$1.1 billion from research funding since 2013.

One serious impact has been felt by the nation’s leading research organisation, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. The CSIRO, as it is known, has lost nearly 1,000 full-time positions in that time.

"It seems wrong that the purpose of science is something we have to defend in 2018. But we do. And we must,” Shorten said.

President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor John Shine, said he was pleased that Shorten had committed to a number of the recommendations put forward in its science priorities for the federal election.

“The academy welcomes Labor’s commitment to establish a charter that recognises the mutual obligations of scientists and government and to establish meaningful national priorities,” Shine said.

‘Honoured’ by proposal

He applauded the decision to restore the prime minister’s Science and Innovation Council and was “honoured” by the proposal that an elected Labor government would partner with the academy to establish a ‘National Scientific Expert Panel’ to work directly with the council.

“In our election statement we called for a review to look at how effectively research is being supported, because only then can we know that maximum benefits are being returned,” Shine said.

“So we are pleased Labor has committed to holding an inquiry to build a long-term framework for the research sector [while we] also welcome the announcement by Labor to lead a national effort to encourage more women and girls to study and work in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics].”

Shine also praised Labor’s plans to recognise the important contribution and role of early and mid-career researchers; to lift Australian spending on research and development to 3% by 2030; to legislate that ministerial changes to Australian Research Council funding recommendations be tabled in the Australian parliament; and to increase collaboration between public and private industry research and development.

According to an OECD survey of 18 developed countries on government spending on research and development as a percentage of GDP, South Korea headed the list with 1.18%.

Australia, however, was third last – but in front of Slovakia and Spain – with expenditure of 0.4%.