After years of controversy over ministers personally vetoing scientific research funding for no reason *** maybe give an example? ***, the Australian science community has called on the federal government to withdraw science funding.

The call comes in a week the United States has announced a series of possible reforms to prevent unruly governments from undermining the foundations of national scientific research. Biden’s response at the White House would be a direct step to stop interference like that which has occurred under the Trump administration.

Leading Australian science institutions have seized the opportunity presented by the Albanian government’s call for submissions on a review of the Australian Research Council Act, saying government interference has reduced trust and respect.

The Australian Academy of Sciences says the current state of Australian research lacks strategic direction and is the result of “piecemeal interference and one-off interventions” over two decades that have “demoralized researchers, minimized efficiency and disadvantaged the nation”.

The Australian Academy of Science and Technology explained in its brief why it is essential that the ministerial veto be abandoned: “No individual or organization can predict where the greatest impact of research and innovation will come from. .

“Curiosity-driven research, born of genuine intellectual freedom and critical evaluation by colleagues, has led to some of the world’s most important discoveries that have in turn shaped the world we live in.”

A Flinders University spokesperson said Cosmos“The law should specify that the minister responsible for the CRA [currently the Minister for Education] can only intervene in extraordinary cases where there is a real national security problem that would justify the suspension of funding.

Ryan Winn, CEO of the Australian Council of Learned Academies, who did not submit a response to the review, says the challenges Australia faces are complex.

Ryan Win

“There is a wide range of research undertaken in Australia which may or may not lead to a commercial outcome and similarly knowledge about our culture and that of others, societal transitions and art can provide important insights into our world past, present and future.

“So it’s important to support a wide range of thinking and investigation that advances our collective knowledge, based on the advice and consideration of experts in the field, not by politicians who likely have limited expertise, or even potential biases or personal preferences, in understanding or evaluating the specifics of research proposals.

Winn says few would agree that the government shouldn’t fund all research.

“Universities, philanthropy, industry can be sources for these broader efforts and interests. The government, quite rightly, should establish funding expectations, selection criteria and parameters for what is in the public interest, including a statement of national benefits and needs, which currently takes the form [of] the national interest test.

“With this, let ARC, supported by relevant and respected experts, determine the most impactful areas, projects and researchers to fund.

“Honest and genuine dialogue is needed between the public, government and the research sector on setting priorities and expectations for publicly funded research, and a number of ongoing processes seem likely to achieve it.

The debate over funding scientific research also raises questions about STEM

Winn also suggests that the value of social science funding has been undermined in recent years.

“Australia needs a more nuanced discussion and understanding of the value of humanities and social science research in Australia and the policy, products and knowledge they develop.

“These are critical to Australia’s economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes. These disciplines seem to be most often at the center of government interventions in research and higher education in general.

“I fear that we risk promoting and investing in STEM disciplines, which are needed, at the expense of the wider critical skills that Australia needs – for example, taking innovations from the lab to commercial successes, building cultural understandings to address geopolitical tensions, enhance our understanding of resilience to natural disasters, and support a prosperous and productive society free from poverty and racism.

Winn says he believes the government is sincere in its approach to finding new funding mechanisms.

“Yes, which is very nice and that there seems to be a real openness to engagement as evidenced by the overwhelming number of reviews.

“The challenge is that the reviews by ministers Jason Clare and Ed Husic deal with various aspects of the system, but that will be how they all come together to ensure that the whole research system is effective, efficient and driving our economy. Knowledge. Time will tell if the government actually hears or listens.

The Vice-President of the International Science Council, Professor Anne Husebekk, who specializes in politics, said Cosmos that Australia’s science metrics could be much more focused.

“It is not for politicians to decide on research projects, but for research funding agencies (who) will get their funding through government departments.

“In Norway, there is a comprehensive 10-year research plan – the plan is approved by parliament and is mission-based, which gives researchers the freedom to apply for projects within a broader plan. “Universities are funded by the government and are largely responsible for basic research that is not influenced at all by politicians.

“In this way, the research is not entirely free, but in my opinion sufficiently free. Politicians can of course restrict university funding, which influences capacity and can restrict “science as a global commons”.

Husebekk recognizes that there are benefits and costs to government involvement in research funding.

“Politicians can point to societal issues and fund research programs to help address these issues, but should not be the ones who choose research projects and dictate direction/methods/interpretation of results.

Rebuilding trust in science

Husbekk says there needs to be a distance between politics and research and roles need to be clearly defined. “There is also a need for politicians to trust and uphold trust in science. Today there is a decline in trust in science, which is a big challenge and a threat to, for example, climate actions and democracies.

Husebekk says the research community needs to watch carefully for any threats to freedom and accountability in science, of which, she says, there are examples of such activity in all parts of the world.

“We are worried when Australian politicians stop funding for projects, we are worried when politicians replace scientists from vice-chancellorships and when politicians blatantly stop research that could undermine their policy directions.

“The International Science Council covers the academic systems of many countries and reacts when something goes wrong. The entire scientific community must react. In many countries, this is considered political opposition with the risk of a sanction or displacement, which is absolutely unacceptable.

Husebekk also praised the approach taken by the government. “The current government’s recent commitment to support the establishment of an ISC presence in the Asia-Pacific region is appreciated and shows that there is a new understanding of the importance of science.”

ARC is the largest government funder of non-medical and medical basic research comprising both pure basic research and strategic basic research.

The Group of Eight University’s submission indicates that higher education spending on basic research has seen a relative decline in Australia over the past three decades, from 63.6% of total higher education spending in R&D in 1992 to 37.1% in 2020. “Over the past decade actual funding for ARC has declined with an estimated cumulative deficit of $1.25 billion compared to 2012.”

Detailed submissions from several institutions can be found at the bottom of this Cosmos article.

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