Australia

Australian scientists lament research cuts in budget

Australian cabinet applaud Treasurer Joe Hockey after his budget speech (12 May 2015) Image copyright EPA
Image caption Not everyone applauded Joe Hockey's budget

Shortly after Australia's annual government budget was handed down on Tuesday night, an image began circulating, tongue-in-cheek, on social media.

It depicted the official budget website with "science" typed into its search field, and the response: "A software error has occurred."

On Twitter, people from the country's scientific community also commented more seriously on the absence of the word "science" in Treasurer Joe Hockey's speech. Others noted the lack of any mention of climate change.

While medical research received a large injection of funds, university research funding was cut, as was financial support for co-operative research centres, which bring industry and scientists together to forge solutions to some of the biggest environmental, social and economic challenges facing the country.

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The Australian Academy of Science was quick to point out that, although some scientific endeavours were singled out for cash injections, overall investment in science would continue to decline.

"As the mining boom slows, this should be a time of growth in science funding to allow us to better prepare for the knowledge economy we need. Instead our future prosperity is at risk," Academy president Prof Andrew Holmes said.

'A UN ruse'

On the back of deep cuts to the nation's science agency, the CSIRO, in 2014 and consequent staff losses estimated at more than 20%, Australia's scientific community has been reeling from an increasing sense it is being sidelined.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Maurice Newman's dismissal of climate change as a "UN ruse" was not backed the environment minister

Nowhere has this been more acutely felt than in the field of climate change research, which continues to be questioned even at the most senior levels of government.

On Sunday, Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce expressed his scepticism that the weather was affected by human-induced climate change in a television interview with conservative News Corp blogger and commentator, Andrew Bolt.

"There's an ebb and flow in temperatures all the time," he said, when questioned about climate forecasting from what Mr Bolt described as the "warmist" institutions of the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

The chief business advisor to Prime Minister Tony Abbott made headlines across the country last week when he penned a newspaper opinion piece arguing climate change was a ruse co-opted by the UN to take control of the world and end democracy.

Maurice Newman, the chairman of Mr Abbott's Business Advisory Council, was writing in The Australian, News Corp's conservative national broadsheet.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Medical research will receive a cash boost from the budget

"This is not about facts or logic," he wrote. "It's about a new world order under the control of the UN. It is opposed to capitalism and freedom and has made environmental catastrophism a household topic to achieve its objective."

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt distanced himself from Mr Newman's comments.

"It's not been something that I've expressed," he said. "It's not something that I would express."

'Considerable nervousness'

While the Australian government officially accepts that human-induced climate change is occurring, the prime minister has made a number of public statements on the phenomenon in the recent past, including that it is "absolute crap".

When the current administration came to power in 2013, Australia was without a science minister for just the second time in more than 80 years. The portfolio was finally teamed with industry more than a year later.

Leading climate change expert Prof David Karoly said fear of further funding cuts under the Abbott government was such that scientists within the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology were now self-censoring.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some scientists have warned climate change will mean Australia will suffer more severe droughts

"There's considerable nervousness in the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO about making statements about climate change," the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report contributor and chapter editor said.

Prof Karoly said Australia had entered an era where only a "selective trust of science" existed.

The nation's chief scientist, Prof Ian Chubb, did not disagree. But he said he would be "appalled" if scientists were censoring their findings.

"I hope that we would never get to that position where scientists fear telling people what they need to know," he told the BBC.

The so-called climate deniers represented "a very small drum beaten loudly", Prof Chubb said. He described Mr Newman's recent opinion piece as drivel.

Speaking to the BBC before this year's budget was handed down, he expressed hope for a bright future for Australian science despite recent funding cuts.

"Of course I was disappointed in last year's funding cuts," he said. "No matter how you portray them they were disappointing."

It was inconceivable to be a prosperous country and responsible global citizen without high-quality science, even if research had to be strategically prioritised should funding continued to be rationed, he said.

The Minister for Industry and Science Ian Macfarlane said much the same - and denied any CSIRO scientists were censoring their findings.

"The Australian government continues to make strategic, targeted and smart new investments in Australia's science and research capacity, including almost $70m in the additional funding in the 2015-16 budget for the nation's leading scientific research organisations to build world-class infrastructure that will create stronger connections between research and industry," a spokesman for the minister said.

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