Australia is at risk of becoming a scientific backwater due to the federal government’s budget cuts to the CSIRO.
The government has proposed a $111 million cut to CSIRO funding in the May budget — about 20% of its total funding — and at least 1000 full-time staff will lose their jobs over the next four years.
Eight CSIRO sites around the country will close. Many are in regional country towns, which rely on the sites for employment.
The government has also cut a further $310 million from the Australian Research Council, which reviews and grants research applications; the Cooperative Research Centres, a cooperation between research and industry to convert new discoveries into applications; and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.
On top of this, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has abolished the position of science minister.
These cuts mean that key research areas such as geothermal energy, marine biodiversity, liquid fuels, and radio astronomy site the Mopra Telescope at Coonabarabran will be badly hurt.
Also slashed was funding for postgraduate researchers, environmental science, clean technologies and water science. There have also been huge cuts to research and development and innovation programs, and to virtually every federal renewable energy program.
Other areas such as neuroscience, low carbon technologies, carbon dioxide capture, colorectal research, terrestrial and marine biodiversity, and the nanosciences will be cut.
On the other hand, research and development in coal seam and shale gas will be increased.
The government says we have to be smarter and increase Australia’s technological knowledge to survive in the global economy.
Since its formation in 1926, the CSIRO has made a huge contribution to innovative research advances, not only in Australia but worldwide. Investing in scientific research is critical to fighting climate change and other problems such as pollution and new diseases.
In June, CSIRO announced it was able to use solar energy to generate hot and pressurised “supercritical” steam, at the highest temperatures ever achieved in the world outside of fossil fuel sources.
It says this means that “one day the sun could be used to drive the most advanced power stations in the world” and “is a game-changer for the renewable energy industry”.
CSIRO also made a large contribution in royalties to the national income, about $37.5 million in licence fees last year and $278.5 million the year before.
CSIRO’s development of wi-fi technology has alone generated $420 million in royalties in the last five years for the Australian government. This technology is now used in personal computers, video-game consoles, smartphones, some digital cameras, tablet computers and digital audio players.
Other CSIRO inventions include a polymer for contact lenses, so they could be worn for extended periods. This has generated $10 million to date. The indestructible polymer bank notes that do not dissolve in the wash is another CSIRO invention, now licensed for use in 25 countries.
Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, argued that the current government has “no strategy” when it comes to science policy.
It is a tremendous blow to research in this country. If huge areas of research are slashed, it is impossible to restart these investigations further down the track. Australia has only seven PhD students per 1000 people; yhe US has double this number.
It is a loss of skills and personnel — many people will leave research all together or go overseas, to countries which consider science an important aspect of the future. The investment that the nation has made over many decades will be totally wasted.