Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chief Scientist Alan Finkel

Science is at the heart of the government’s agenda, according to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. If he’s serious about it, here are some Abbott government policies he can reverse to show his is a government of more than just nice words.

Turnbull presented this somewhat odd word salad at a press conference at Parliament House this morning:

“Science and in particular science as part of innovation is at the very heart of this government’s policy. If we are to remain a high-wage, generous social welfare net economy in the years to come, if we are to remain prosperous, seizing the enormous opportunities that are available to Australians, now more than ever, we need to be more innovative, more technologically sophisticated, more scientifically alert and aware and adept and we need to be able to combine science with industry in an innovative way that enables us to stay ahead of the curve, always ahead of the curve, technologically sophisticated, scientifically advanced, innovative, clever, [and] imaginative.”

Turnbull announced Dr Alan Finkel as the new chief scientist after Dr Ian Chubb’s five-year term comes to an end at the end of this year. Finkel is the outgoing chancellor of Monash University and president of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. Finkel also founded the Australian science magazine Cosmos with his wife, Elizabeth. He left academia early in his career to pursue entrepreneurial work in founding Axon Instruments. Although reportedly the selection process for the chief scientist job had closed in July and was not re-opened when Turnbull became Prime Minister, Finkel’s roles in both university and in entrepreneurship both fit in with Turnbull’s new approach towards leading a government focused on innovation and science.

Finkel said at the press conference:

“I never anticipated a business career, but then I saw an opportunity to build on the skills that I’d developed there, combined with my electrical engineering to develop a new type of instrument for that research, and I took it over the fence and went commercial, starting a company. So for many, many years I worked developing instrumentation for scientists, and that was successful. Since then I have seen the importance of this translation from the pure to the applied across the fence into the commercial world as being key to success in other countries, and there are wonderful pockets of success in this country as well.”

Turnbull said Finkel would be brought on to help bridge the “Valley of Death” faced by companies between funding for technology and research and when a project becomes commercially viable.

But while Finkel’s contribution will no doubt be substantial, the hangover from the Abbott era means that for all the talk about making science the heart of government policy, there are several policies that will need to be changed in order for that to actually be more than just buzzwords.

Fund CSIRO and NICTA

In the 2014 horror budget, the government announced it would cut CSIRO’s funding by $111 million, leading to the axing of more than 500 jobs in the research organisation. The National ICT Australia (NICTA), the government agency most responsible for spinning off university research into commercialised entities, did not get an expected $42 million in funding in the same budget. NICTA was ultimately forced to merge with CSIRO to form a new entity, Data61, headed up by entrepreneur Adrian Turner. There is still no word on the fate of the 200 staff employed by the former entity known as NICTA.

Restore funding to the Co-operative Research Centres program

The program, which CSIRO participates in, had its funding cut by $26.8 million over four years in the most recent budget. Some of the promised $730 million has come through in subsequent announcements from the Science Minister, but so far the two programs funded for $74 million are for optimising resource extraction and innovative manufacturing.

Address science and research funding

In May’s budget, the government announced a “one-off redirection” of sustainable research excellence funding of $300 million over four years. The money is normally granted to universities to meet the indirect costs of research that cannot be met by existing competitive grants programs. The money is instead to go to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, to “address issues raised” in the controversial National Commission of Audit. The NCRIS funding is welcomed, though, because the former government had threatened to withhold the funding unless the Senate passed its university deregulation legislation, but it has been referred to as “budget cannibalism“.

The Australian Academy of Science has said that there was a “reprieve” in science funding the 2015 budget from the 2014 budget, but there were still around $290 million in cuts to science overall, largely from the university grands, and the research centres funding.

Labor has also suggested there still exists $144 million in cuts to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Geoscience Australia, and Defence Science and Technology.

It’s time to address climate change

There is also the delicate matter of climate science. While Turnbull, in the past, has backed strong action on climate change, as part of his ascendancy to the top job he has adopted Abbott’s “Direct Action” policy and low emissions targets. The former head of the Climate Change Authority, Bernie Fraser, who resigned in September just before the leadership change, has co-signed a letter with 60 other public figures asking for there to be a negotiation for a global moratorium on new coal mines at the United Nations climate talks at the end of November.

Finkel said today that his vision for Australia was for a country that didn’t use coal, oil or natural gas. Finkel himself has 100% green energy in his home, from wind power and solar energy. Turnbull isn’t as optimistic, saying, as he does with the NBN, that it will be a “mixture of technologies” supplying energy and coal is needed to raise Third World countries out of poverty. He said that a moratorium “would not make the blindest bit of difference” to global emissions, and arguably would increase emissions if Australia stopped exporting coal because Australian coal was “cleaner”.

Turnbull said that people should be “rational” with their approach to what energy sources Australians use. Coal is cheaper but has higher emissions, nuclear has low emissions but is expensive to construct and has environmental problems with it.

“The appropriate — the way to deal with this is to be thoroughly rational about it and to say the object is to make sure we have access to all of the energy we need at the cheapest possible price because energy is a major input. So we have to be cost effective. And be able to use whatever energy mix is appropriate.”

But stuck with existing policy on climate change, for now, Turnbull is still all talk and no action about making science the heart of the government’s agenda.

Peter Fray

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