The CSIRO planned to stop “doing science for science sake” and would no longer do “public good” work unless it was linked to jobs and economic growth, according to internal emails between CSIRO senior managers.
I’ve written in the past about the importance of research that has no obvious outcome. Research is often incremental and often cannot be justified or commercialised; but we need to cherish both the research itself and the curious people who try to find answers. Doing science for science sake is, in fact, crucially important. And it is exactly what government funded research organsiations should be doing – the stuff that private enterprise doesn’t do.
But here’s the thing, let’s put the scientific rationale to one side, and look at this from the perspective of business. What the CSIRO managers are trying to do is to take a Government-funded organsation and make it compete with private enterprise for work. How is that fair on the private companies working in the same space? For example, the new Data61 group is pushing its capacity to work with big datasets in direct competition with private companies and consulting firms. That’s basically anti-competitive. And it is pointless: If it’s already being done why is the government doing it?
There’s a deep level of inconsistency in the government’s recent decisions on science. We should be the innovative nation, but we shouldn’t be doing blue-sky research. We should be seen as a nation of thinkers, but we shouldn’t fund schools. The government believes in private enterprise and small government, yet wants a government research organsation to compete with commercial players.
The only philosophical thread that binds all these decisions together is a deep distrust of science. The sort of distrust we see coming from politicians beholden to hard-right Christians in the USA and perhaps the same groups here. Along with many others I had high hopes that the emerging problems in Australia were not systemic and would be attacked by Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. The Abbott government clearly believed that scientific research showing climate change to be real, wind farms not to damage health, and so on were just politically motivated posturing that could be silenced by attacking science and scientists. Instead of changing direction, Turnbull has upped the rhetoric about innovation and research while still trashing its underpinnings behind the scenes.
And it makes no sense.
There’s no logical direction here. There’s no consistent philosophy that stands up to scrutiny. There’s no articulated policy. The decision-making appears to be more like trying to paint a room by throwing random buckets of paint in one of the windows and waiting to see what occurs. (And demanding a commercial outcome that competes with professional painters while doing it.)
Government should be funding the things private enterprise won’t or can’t do. They should be funding the research that does not have an obvious commercial return: Otherwise why bother? To have the CSIRO prioritise commercial returns not only makes no sense scientifically, it makes no sense economically – a government that is ‘for’ private enterprise should not be competing with private enterprise.
You know, when kids are being taught science in high school on of the things that have to do is start their reports by stating the purpose of their experiment: “What do you want to learn? What problem are you trying to solve?” It would do a great deal of good if the government could articulate, in statements it could stand by, exactly what it is trying to do and what the problem it is trying to solve is.