OPINION: Scientists in Britain shuddered at the Brexit poll outcome and Australian scientists will be nervous about a fragile government taking office here.
The momentum of the innovation tide, which began so well when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott, seemed to gradually dissipate. Many will worry the new government will be so fixated on maintaining power and accommodating special requests from the Senate that bold investment or major reforms to research funding are unlikely to be on the agenda.
The Coalition was very quiet on science funding during the campaign, merely reiterating its dedication to the welcome sugar hit provided by the National Innovation and Science Agenda and confirming it would implement the recommendations of last year’s Watt review.
The Watt review’s 28 recommendations will streamline the distribution of funding for research support and will enhance interactions between researchers and industry, and are thus welcome. But, on their own, they won’t make Australia much more successful or prosperous.
So, are there any significant opportunities?
There may be some portfolio changes. In particular, the fact Assistant Innovation Minister Wyatt Roy lost his seat may mean someone else may be elevated to this position. Or, possibly, the current assistant science minister, Karen Andrews, who was formerly a highly respected engineer, may assume responsibility for innovation.
Is there anything to hope for? Even hung parliaments sometimes deliver in unexpectedly positive ways.
There is a renewed focus on health, and one can expect the Coalition to be prominent in its support for medical research. As the research that the Medical Research Future Fund supports begins to dividends, one must hope that this investment serves as an example of what committing to science can produce.
A lot will depend on how the fund is administered. One hopes the definition of medical research will be sufficiently broad to include other areas of science that are integral to progress on complex health problems.
Finally, one may hope the parliament’s fragility and the avowed commitments made by some of the crossbenchers – including the Greens – and by Labor’s Kim Carr will prevent any significant cuts to Australian science and, most importantly, stay the tragic erosion of world-renowned institutions such as CSIRO – and, one hopes, also important science communication channels such as the ABC.
Merlin Crossley is a Professor of Molecular Biology and is Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education at UNSW.
This opinion piece is part of a larger article in The Conversation on Election 2016: what will a re-elected Coalition government mean for key policy areas?