Stability key for science outcomes

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James Riley

It started so well. A quantum computing professor, Michelle Simmons, was named Australian of the Year and for a moment 2018 looked like it would be a bright and positive year for the recognition of science research and its importance to the nation and its economy.

But instead the theme became one of instability and inconsistency. Not simply for the government, but for how we approach research funding. And that’s a critical concern.

Politics runs its course. Election to election, budget to budget. But research demands a long-term outlook. It must stretch beyond the limits of any given government, let alone any given Prime Minister. Without consistency and certainty for research science, we lose a lot of great talent.

That mixed bag of science policy still offers a few more positives to reflect on, though.

In August we saw two key appointments take place. The restoration of a science portfolio, with Karen Andrews sworn in as the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. And we saw CSIRO appoint its first female Chief Scientist, with Dr Cathy Foley appointed to the role.

Amongst its various initiatives, CSIRO’s work on space research has also had a good year. Along with long-term and renewed relationships with NASA, there’s a new agreement to manage the European Space Agency’s deep space tracking station in Western Australia. From the tracking Voyager 2 beyond the solar system’s edge, to spotting gravitational waves and our ongoing development of the Square Kilometre Array, Australia’s space science is essential to global research.

Biggest of all when it comes to space is the confirmation that South Australia will be home to our new Space Agency. As the agency solidifies its presence, it plots a big path for not just our research community but also new commercial opportunities, with the likes of Myriota, Fleet Space Technologies and Gilmour Space all showing a path for a robust commercial industry.

Back here on Earth, but no less looking toward the future, Australia has built an amazing quantum computing research community off the back of decades of long-term thinking. From Simmons’ team at UNSW to Sydney Nano at University of Sydney and the amazing collaborative work under EQUS, there’s a tremendous spirit of collaboration in this industry and a drive toward the commercial opportunities of the future. And with the recent launch of Q-CTRL’s first commercial product, Black Opal, the era looks set to make great strides toward seeing all that hard work become a revenue industry in the 2020s.

The future of science education and communication is also looking strong, with the Superstars of STEM initiative continuing to grow – with the latest cohort of 60 women in STEM double that of the first year’s list.

So many positives are out there, but overarching research policy continues to shunt and shudder from budget to budget, causing deep concern for the scientists who want certainty to underpin their big research efforts.

This year we’ve seen delays to Australian Research Council grants processes, and the emergence of a ‘national interest test’ that undermines academic independence and reeks of political point scoring.

Then in the latest MYEFO yet more cuts and freezes that continue to undermine the availability of research funds for the future of developing local ideas into future local industries.

Someone told me recently we need science policy to “escape the announceables” and move toward solid, strategic concerns that can be agreed upon at a level that transcends the political cycle. Then we can focus on smaller updates and adjustments to stay on target, but wholesale scrapping and relaunching of government initiatives should disappear.

Australia has lost great researchers in the past, and many other countries are eager to woo our best and brightest when they get the chance to lead on thinking that will drive the 21st Century. We can see so many great research teams and commercial opportunities well underway, and those we’ve mentioned just scratch the surface.

Without confidence in stable, long-term funding for research, we’ll lose many more.

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