Who controls Australian science? And is this reflected in our international standing?

One of the biggest issues in Australian science revolves around the question  of where the power lies? Who decides where research funding is allocated? And who decides what information is provided and to whom?

The Health of Australian Science

This is an interesting question and one that I think deserves some attention. The age-old philosophy of “money talks” is certainly an influencing factor. A report on the Health of Australian Science,published in 2012, indicates that in spite of the fact that general support of science research has increased, only 30% of scientific research is controlled by the Commonwealth.  This leaves an astounding repertoire of valuable information and resources out of reach for people like yourself. Out of reach … and perhaps, out of mind. Political agendas, as always, also have a certain amount of influence on Australian science, especially where funding is concerned. Australia has a Chief Scientist (something I discovered only today). In a press conference for the release of a report on the Health of Australian Science, he stated that overall, ours was a healthy and robust system, but that some identified challenges would lead to long term issues for Australia if no action is taken. However, the percentage of science-trained members working in parliament today is not great (about 5%) and perhaps this is a big part of the issue – that people who are trained in science have no real interest in politics.

 So where does the power  lie?

Fields of Science
FUN FACT: Dr Howard Florey is an Australian Doctor who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work extracting Penicillin!

The CSIRO is a government body that most would recognize, at least by name. Their primary function is to carry out scientific research which will benefit the industries and communities of Australia. The CSIRO fall under the government department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research and are accountable to the minister for that department. While the CSIRO is accountable for the research they undertake, I wouldn’t say that control lies within their grasp.

As the longest running science publication in Australia, Australasian Science claims to have been the definitive authority on Australian science since its first publication. The patrons for the publication are Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty and Robyn Williams of the ABC, and their stated mission is to achieve excellency in science communication through the publication of world-class science. But does this allow them any control over the science that is undertaken? I would think not.

Next we’ll look at the Australian Academy of Science. The objectives of the Academy are to implement a range of activities with the aim of promoting science. Great! you say. This is what we need, and in this case, while the Academy receives government grants it has no statutory obligation. However, the Academy is, in my opinion, quite narrow minded in its scope – with scientists from the disciplines of physical and biological sciences. So again, participating but not in a controlling capacity.

Australia has a strong standing in the intentional arena. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of internationally co-authored publications in Australia more than tripled. Now, just under half of all Australian scientific publications are co-authored with overseas collaborators. But international recognition doesn’t play any role in the control of science here on home soil.

So where does the power lie?                   You tell me…

Reference: Office of the Chief Scientist 2012, Health of Australian Science, Commonwealth of Australia

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