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Public Sector Informant : PSI - October
THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT 29 [OCTOBER 2010] [SCIENCE:MICHAEL B ORGAS] Suffocate science, suffocate industry Open government Commercial concerns, risk aversion and closed copyright are compromising scientific advice Public profit: CSIRO's Wi-Fi patent court victory last year is expected to bring revenue worth up to $1 billion this decade to the Federal Government. The murky affair involving the CSIRO's attempt to censor economist Professor Clive Spash remains a source of resentment. It is never wise to allow partisan politics to affect scientific integrity. The world of science and its interactions with govern- ment is undergoing change around the world. Britain's new Conservative- Liberal coalition Government is like- ly to significantly cut science fund- ing, but at the same time is moving to reinvest in science by establishing technology research centres modelled on Germany's Fraunhofer institutes. Britain has a low overall level of research and development invest- ment, at 1.7 per cent of gross domestic product. Bitter infighting is taking place over the government spoils between the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and, as ever in Britain, between the two cultures of science and humanities. The latest Organisation for Econ- omic Cooperation and Development data shows Australia performs 13.7 per cent of its research in government laboratories, 25.1 per cent in higher education and 58.3 per cent in industry. These proportions are fractions of the 2 per cent of Australia's GDP spent on R&D; a level that has increased substantially under the Labor Government. Britain performs 9.2 per cent of its R&D in government labs, 26.2 per cent in universities and 62 per cent in industry, after decades of closing down government research labs. Its renowned Met Office is now slated for privatisation. Germany conducts 13.8 per cent of its R&D in government labs, 16.2 per cent in universities and 69.9 per cent in industry, and plans to increase spending on research and science in response to Europe's economic slowdown. Its R&D investment in 2008 was 2.6 per cent of GDP. The important contrast between these amounts is the ratio of government-to-university R&D, at almost a third for Britain, a little over a half for Australia and almost 85 per cent in Germany. One outcome is that Britain has 30 universities ranked in the world's top 200, while Germany has 12. On the other hand, Germany has the strongest economy in Europe and the will to invest more in science. Australia has eight top-200 univer- sities and is now investing more in higher education, but vice- chancellors have criticised the new Government's nominal separation of tertiary education from postgraduate training in industrial innovation. In fact, the leading countries for industrial production are the United States and China, with shares of world output of 17.6 per cent and 13 per cent respectively, and with ratios of government-to-university R&D of 83 per cent and 215 per cent respectively. Both are increasing their investment in government science. Government science is an import- ant determinant of industrial outcom- es even when industry itself invests strongly in research and develop- ment. This is because industry needs regulation, community acceptance, standards and legislative certainty as well as innovation and finance. Australian businesses increased their R&D spending to $16.9 billion last year, an increase of 13 per cent on the previous year, which moves Australia towards the top 10 OECD countries by proportion of GDP invested. German government laboratories include the prestigious Max Planck institutes, where 21,000 people tackle long-term fundamental science, and the Fraunhofer institutes, where applied research is supported by 60 per cent industry funding. Most of the 17,000 Fraunhofer staff perform technical or scientific functions. In addition, the Helmholtz Society has 30,000 staff working on wide- ranging science for society. But nowhere is perfect: German scientists also gave the world's bureaucracies the SAP management system. In Australian business, more than 53,000 people are devoted to research and development and over 83 per cent are technicians or researchers. But almost half of this effort is directed at mining and manufacturing, and the outcomes are for corporate benefit. Privatisation, commercialisation and excessive managerial control of science advice and data is a signifi- cant risk to the provision of good advice to government and to public trust in scientific evidence. The CSIRO blends a mix of fundamental science, science for industry, and science for government and society with almost 6500 staff, and represents about 40 per cent of Australian government science. There are many important industrial outcomes from CSIRO science, from the recent Wi-Fi patents and polymer money, to the late Dr Alan Walsh's atomic absorption spectrophoto- meter, and many more from our agricultural and primary production research. Much of this research is shared by whole sectors of industry or disclosed openly by patents. CSIRO's Staff Association has about 3000 members and is part of the Community and Public Sector Union, which covers a wide range of government scientists. Many of our scientists want more open science, more opportunity for effect from science, and less bureaucracy. Last year, the case of CSIRO economist Professor Clive Spash drove demands from the Coalition, Greens and independents in the Senate for CSIRO to table a paper in which he criticised carbon trading schemes, but where the agency's management had sought to retract the work. This murky affair remains a source of resentment. It is never wise to allow partisan politics to affect scientific integrity. During the recent election cam- paign, Greens senator Christine Milne said, ''One wonders what's the point of media training programs for scientists and researchers unless they can speak their minds,'' while Labor's Kim Carr said it was ''not the job of government to increase the degree of difficulty by denigrating scientists or jeopardising their work for partisan gain''. The Coalition said it would ''adopt a new charter in consultation with Australia's science community to ensure that scientific activities funded by the public purse are conducted on an objective, inde- pendent and apolitical basis''. Australia's political parties are clearly demanding a more open approach to government. It is not only important how much science for government takes places, but also how openly scientific information is exchanged between agencies, to par- liamentarians and to all citizens. Unfortunately, the US's ambitious plans for Government 2.0-style open- ness are stalling, and Australia's recent Government 2.0 Taskforce is yet to attract significant reforms that will increase access to data produced by the public sector. The Obama Administration's recent Presidential Council for Advisors on Science and Technology was also criticised for delaying new guidelines on science integrity. US bureaucrats continue to gag scientists regularly. Scientists advise government on food safety and agricultural pro- ductivity, protecting the environment and biodiversity, managing fisheries, health, water safety and air quality, protection from hazards like bushfi- res, extreme winds and storms, exposure to hazardous chemicals and pests, workplace safety and pro- ductivity, discovering and exploiting mineral wealth, defence and energy security, and the efficient provision of infrastructure for the future. And we all want more gadgets and lifestyle-friendly diets. As part of the independent MPs' ''deal'' with our new Government, a parliamentary budget office will be established; a simple but overdue move to increase openness and trans- parency taken from public sector innovation in the US. Further initiatives such as a parlia- mentary science office might not eventuate, but we are overdue for a comprehensive root-and-branch overhaul of science advice to govern- ment and science advice for citizens; neither of which has been promi- nently addressed in recent inquiries into science and innovation, public sector reforms and government data. The Government's Inspiring Aust- ralia initiatives also seek to improve the communication of science, par- ticularly its engagement with young people. But engagement as a citizen in important decisions for our society -- such as climate change, alcohol and drug policy -- is more complex, and science's role is contested and some- times denied. A recent survey of politicians by the University of Queensland's Insti- tute for Social Science Research found 98 per cent of Greens said they were greatly influenced by scientists, compared with 85 per cent of Labor politicians, 54 per cent of non-aligned politicians and only 44 per cent of Coalition politicians. Perhaps they have more faith in economics. A parliamentary committee com- posed of politicians and scientists will soon inquire into carbon pol- lution but we remain unsure how open it will be or what mix of commercial, scientific and public interests will be represented. The Powering Ideas report, issued last year, failed to identify the roles of about 25 science agencies in APS (and even more in the states); the Moran review of the public sector also neglected to explicitly deal with science advice; and the Government 2.0 Taskforce recommended free, open information as a public sector default, but lacked explicit recom- mendations on science information. Science has long been assumed to be part of the human knowledge commons; indeed, science as a shared commons has long been a tenet of international diplomacy, most recently to engage better with Islamic nations. But science is increasingly restricted by commercial concerns, bureaucratic risk aversion and closed- access copyright. Australian science, in our univer- sities and government laboratories, can have an increasingly important role in society at home and world- wide. Now is the time to rethink government science advice, better fund it and provide greater public access to scientific information. Michael Borgas is president of the CSIRO Staff Association. email@example.com
PSI - September