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Not good news for Science in Australia

Australia has a new federal government and it looks like world opinion of science in Australia has taken a hit. New Scientist just ran an article entitled “Australia rips up climate-change policies” (10 September 2013) which covered a number of policies:
  • climate
  • National Broadband Network
  • Specific research projects
  • NICTA
With a focus on the reduction or scrapping of these initiatives. Whether you agree or not with these individual policies the overall impression is one of a reduction of focus on science and technology in Australia.
The Coalition government has generated a situation where it appears anti-science, this will hurt the recruiting of students, technologists and academics in the sciences both locally and overseas. Research and development is beset by uncertainties and uncertain funding is one of the more crippling and certainly a disincentive to choose a location for ones career.

Of particular concern in the article was the branding of some research projects as “ridiculous” and the suggestion that the government would apply a politically controlled process to target grants it claimed as wasteful. This trend is particularly worrying as:
  • Anyone who has applied for a grant knows it is a difficult, highly reviewed process, restricting access to what is a scarce resource - political processes are not known for their universal depth of thought - so we are going from a process that judges projects on their merits with often a less than 1 in 3 chance of success to a process where the final step potentially has influence and popularity having major sway
  • Governments haven’t proven great pickers of winners in the past in science projects
  • The processes of politics are very hard to reconcile with the processes of science
    • scientists are obligated to give up even cherished ideas if the evidence disproves them
    • in science there is always the potential of disproving something
    • scientists live with uncertainty in politics this is called doubt and easily used as an excuse for following paths that suit the opinions of the holder
    • science is slow and improved certainty generally takes time
    • debate is valued in science - sticking to message is rewarded in politics

If the Coalition wants a high tech future for Australia it has a lot of work to do to reassure both local and foreign scientists because at the moment the press for science in Australia is dominated by bad news.