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New Australian Government Seeks to Revitalize Country's Scientific Infrastructure and Research Programs
[Photograph courtesy of Harvey Leifert]
Australia's recently elected government has embarked on an ambitious program to revitalize the country's scientific infrastructure, an effort involving the federal government, public research organizations, universities, and the private sector, new Innovation Minister Kim Carr said at a briefing co-sponsored by AAAS.
Carr told the audience of 50 that the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acted quickly after winning last November's election: It ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which the former Liberal-led Coalition government had declined to do. It formed the Ministry of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. And the ministry undertook various administrative actions that, while generally symbolic and low-cost, nevertheless demonstrated the new government's commitment to scientific progress.
Carr described some of the issues facing Australian science and the government's plans to deal with the issues at a meeting of the Washington Science Policy Alliance on 11 June in Washington, D.C. The Alliance is an informal group, comprising AAAS and other science-related institutions, that conducts seminars and meetings on science and technology policy.
After the Rudd government took office, Carr said, it undertook various short-term steps designed to show respect to Australian researchers and bring them back to the center of public life. They included action to eliminate what he called covert political interference in the grant-allocation process, creation of an advisory board that gives researchers a voice in funding strategy, and upgrading of the office of chief scientist.
Carr's other priority, he said, was to put innovation on the policy map, a goal with a much longer timeline. He said that it was a matter of national pride that Australia, with just 0.3% of the world's population, produces 3% of the world's research papers. Over half of spending on research and development—54%—comes from business, with another 3% from nonprofit organizations, he noted, while 43% of spending is public, comprising 27% by universities and 16% by government agencies. But, he added, very little of the business spending is on pure, basic research.
"Surely, all we need to do is marry the basic research capabilities of our public researchers to the application and development capabilities of industry," he suggested. Actually, no. "It's a fine idea, but historically, it hasn't happened," he said. In fact, Carr reported, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) puts Australia in last place among 26 industrialized nations for university collaboration with business firms, large and small. Public research organizations ranked only a little higher in their collaboration with business.
The Ministry of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research seeks to bridge the gulf between private industry and public research, Carr said. "It has been created to get people looking beyond their affiliation to this institution or that sector—to get them seeing themselves instead as participants in a single, national innovation system."
The new government's first budget, adopted in May, delivers on several science-related electoral promises, Carr said. Among them: Clean Business Australia is a program to help industry adopt green building and production techniques and commercialize green products and services. Future Fellowships will fund 1,000 mid-career scientists—from any country—to undertake major research projects in Australia. And the government will partially reimburse tuition fees for undergraduates who major in science and mathematics, with further reductions promised to those who make careers in these fields, including teaching.
Indeed, public education is a major focus for the Rudd government. It has allocated AU$500 million (US$465 million) to upgrade and maintain university teaching and research facilities in the current fiscal year. Starting in 2009, at least AU$11 billion (US$10.23 billion) will be available for capital spending for university-affiliated research institutions and other educational infrastructure.
"It didn't come a moment too soon," Carr said, describing the new budget as a "sea change." He noted that the previous government had reduced spending on tertiary education by 4% from 1995 to 2004, while during the same period, other OECD countries had increased their spending by an average of 49%. Australia was the only OECD country to record a decline, he added.
Carr has followed educational issues since he was first elected to the Senate in 1993, and he served as Shadow Minister science and research when Labor was in opposition. Still, in his first six months as minister, he has realized that bringing about cultural and structural change is "an endurance event, not a sprint." Change can only come about, he said, "by patiently investing time, thought, and money in building capacity, concentrating activity and resources, improving connections, and fostering creativity across the innovation system."
International cooperation in research is essential, Carr told his audience, and Australian scientists are heavily engaged with colleagues overseas. Some 58% of journal papers with an Australian author now have at least one international co-author, up from 39% in 2003. The United States is Australia's principal research partner, involved in a quarter of all government-funded international collaborations.
Australian-U.S. links should further strengthen, Carr said, under the terms of the joint Agreement on Science and Technology Cooperation signed in 2007. It covers such areas of strategic importance as climate change, clean energy, advanced computing, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. Further, a new partnership between Australia's Bureau of Meteorology and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should improve tsunami warning systems, he said.
Australia's biggest international scientific project, said Carr, will be the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), if it wins the competition in which it and South Africa are short-listed for the building site. The SKA is a AU$2 billion (US$1.8 billion) radiotelescope, intended to answer questions about the complexity of the universe and the fundamental laws of physics. The array will consist of a central core of antennas, with others spread out over some 3,000 kilometers (around 5,000 miles). The total collecting area of the antennas will be one square kilometer (around 250 acres).
SKA will be 50 times more sensitive than any existing radiotelescope arrays, able to hear faint radio signals generated billions of years ago, when the universe was young. An international committee will decide between Australia and South Africa in the 2011-2012 period.
The Square Kilometre Array is "exactly the kind of large-scale, long-term science we need to get us thinking about the big picture," Carr said. "It has the potential to alter the way we understand the universe and our own place in it. And changes don't come much bigger than that."
17 June 2008