Rumours are circulating that the government is considering a 20% cut to funding for the National Health and Medical Research Council over the next three years, in order to meed the cost of rebuilding from the recent floods while keeping the apparently sacred promise to return the budget to surplus by 2013, something that is obviously far more important than life saving medical treatments.
Australian scientists have a bad record of just rolling over on this sort of thing in the past, so it’s great to see a grassroots campaign, Discoveries Need Dollars, has been launched to make the case for why medical research matters.
Good on the scientists (and disease survivors) involved, and particularly good on the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for kicking it off.
However, it’s disappointing to see that the campaign focuses purely on medical research, and there is no similar movement to combat similar rumoured cuts to the Australian Research Council.
The benefits of medical science are obvious, whereas other fields are often less tangible. Nevertheless, they can be just as important, not least because basic research conducted elsewhere often has a way of leading to medical breakthroughs. I’ve just written an article for Australasian Science (won’t be published for a while) about a rare Western Australian orchid that spends its entire life underground. The orchid turns out to have some strong genetic parallels with the malaria parasite, and there is a fair chance the orchid studies will inform future researchers in combating this terrible disease. Yet if the ARC gets chopped you’d have to think orchid research would be one of the first things to go.
One of the reasons Australian science is so poorly funded compared to other developed nations is that scientists here have lacked political clout. I don’t know of any studies of where scientists live, but we know that almost all the major research institutes are in electorates that have traditionally been safe seats. Not all those who work there would live in those electorates of course, but I’m sure there are a lot more scientists in safe Fraser than marginal Eden-Monaro, for example.
However, the game might have changed with Adam Bandt’s victory in Melbourne – the most educated electorate in the country and home to many leading research institutes (including WEHI itself). Suddenly some of these previously safe seats are likely to be highly contested between the ALP and the Greens. If scientists can get organised they might have a unique opportunity to throw their electoral weight around.