» Towards consensus on science policy in Australia?
25.07.2017 - Natural Sciences Sector

Towards consensus on science policy in Australia?

© Paintings / Shutterstock.com, Demonstrators in Brisbane advocating a carbon tax in 2011 on World Environment Day.

What direction shoukd science take ? This question has been driving an animated policy debate in Australia, particularly in relation to climate and energy, explains Tim Turpin, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University in Australia and lead author of the chapter on Southeast Asia and Oceania in the latest edition of the UNESCO Science Report.

It is in this context that the coalition government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull since September 2015, has sought to build on some of the changes introduced by his predecessor, fellow Conservative Tony Abbott, and create a more structured and co-ordinated approach to science policy.

Published in late 2015, the UNESCO Science Report observed a drop in domestic expenditure on research and development (R&D) from 2.40% to 2.25% of GDP between 2008 and 2011. Since then, investment levels in Australia have slipped further to 2.20% of GDP (2013), with industrial research being the most affected sector: its contribution shrank from 1.47% to 1.30% of GDP between 2008 and 2011 then to 1.24% of GDP in 2013. The drop in government research spending over the same five-year period has been more modest (from 0.29% to 0.25% of GDP) but preliminary figures indicate a further drop to 0.21% of GDP in 2014. The higher education sector saw its own research expenditure rise over the five years to 2013 (0.58% to 0.64% of GDP), while the non-profit sector remained steady but low on 0.06% of GDP.

Australian science has been feeling the pinch since the end of the commodities boom in 2013. 'In a context of reduced government revenue …, the government’s 2014–2015 budget made severe cuts to the country’s flagship science institutions’, observed the UNESCO Science Report. ‘The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) faces a reduction of AU$ 111 million (3.6%) over four years and a loss of 400 jobs (9%). The Cooperative Research Centres programme survives but its funding has been frozen at current levels and will be reduced further by 2017–2018’.

Since one-fifth (22%) of business research spending concerned the mining sector in 2011, particularly iron ore and coal, the drop in the global price for iron ore from US$ 177 to less than US$ 45 per tonne in July 2015’ severely affected industrial research in Australia, according to the UNESCO Science Report. ‘The mining sector accounted for 59% of Australian exports in 2013, nearly two-fifths of which consisted in iron ore’.

The budget released by the government in May this year trims the CSIRO’s budget further, albeit not on the scale of earlier cuts. Although the budget includes an outlay of AUS $74 million to promote innovation in the manufacturing sector, it also makes provision for removing an AUS $810 million tax incentive for industrial research over the next three years. The government is also proposing cuts to the higher education budget(1).

According to the UNESCO Science Report, ‘it is Australia’s strengths in science and the solidity of its institutions that have enabled the country to become a key regional knowledge hub’. Australia is the fourth-most popular destination for PhD students in science and engineering after the USA, United Kingdom and France.

A new whole-of-government approach

For 15 months, Australia was without a minister with sole responsibility for science, the science portfolio being shared between the Ministries of Industry and Education. Since December 2014, the science portfolio has been restored but there has been little stability, with four science ministers having succeeded one another over the past two and a half years.

Some important policy structures have nevertheless been retained and strengthened. The National innovation and Science Agenda, released in December 2015, set out a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to science and innovation by involving all ministers and departments concerned, in one way or another, with the status of Australian science.

The Commonwealth Science Council, established under the Abbott government, held its first meeting in September 2014 and continues to meet regularly. The Council is advising the government on how to take a strategic, whole-of-government approach to science. This covers all aspects of the scientific enterprise, including technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation, identifying areas of national strength in science, research and innovation and current and future opportunities, providing advice on national priorities for science and research and improving ties between government, research organizations, universities and the business sector.

Coordinated science and research priorities

In 2015, the government established a set of nine science and research priorities. These had been developed by the Commonwealth Science Council within a tripartite initiative involving representatives from industry, government and research institutions. The objective was to steer commonwealth-funded competitive research funding towards important challenges facing the nation. Health and advanced manufacturing, along with soil and water, are the three top priorities, together accounting for a target of just over 50% of priority funding. The other priorities are, in order of investment level: food; environmental change; resources; energy; transport; and cyber security.

In 2016, the government raised the level of support for science, technology, engineering and maths across all levels of education. It also formed an independent statutory board called Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) to advise it on how to adopt a whole-of-government approach on all matters to do with science, research and innovation, thereby complementing the Commonwealth Science Council.

One of ISA’s first tasks in 2016 was to review the performance of the Australian science and research system. The resultant Innovation, Science and Research System Review noted that Australia was lagging behind international competitors in some key areas and that much remained to be done to break into the top-tier of nations for innovation. As a consequence, ISA has been set the task of developing a strategic plan for the Australian innovation system to 2030. Due to be delivered in the last quarter of this year, the 2030 Strategic Plan will serve to identify investment and infrastructure priorities for future consideration by the government.

Climate and energy: a hotly contested domain

If there is one area that overshadows all others in the policy debate, it is issues associated with climate and energy. There is a widening gap between state and federal policies in this respect. The Labour-led government of the State of South Australia has embraced renewable energy. This year, it commissioned Tesla to build the world’s largest lithium ion battery to store renewable energy. The battery will be paired with a wind farm(2).

This has placed South Australia at odds with the federal minister of energy, who is seeking to persuade the states to abandon their own renewable energy targets in favour of a single national target. However, it appears likely that the states’ will retain their independent positions, as many argue that the federal government’s targets are not sufficiently ambitious.

The consequence is that energy policy, which is very much integrated with science policy, remains a hotly contested domain. As one political commentator put it in mid-July, ‘energy policy in this country has reached the point of catastrophe. Faced with crippling electricity prices and uncertain system reliability, there is still no agreement about the appropriate direction of policy into the future’(3).

Illustrative of the competitiveness between federal and state governments over energy is the prime minister’s March announcement of plans to increase production from the Snowy Mountains hydro-electricity scheme by 50%. The prime minister claimed that, ‘in one hour, it could produce 20 times the 100 MWh expected from the battery proposed by the South Australian government but would deliver it constantly for almost a week, or 350,000 MWh over seven days’(4).

Could the Finkel review pave the way to consensus?

Whereas political divisions both within and between the major parties on energy and climate policy have dogged long-term national action for the past decade, a report published last month by the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has paved the way to a new consensus. The report sets out a blueprint for the future security of Australia’s national electricity market(5).

Central to the Finkel review is the recommendation that a clean energy target be adopted and that a ‘technology neutral approach’ be taken to reach this target. Under this mechanism, ‘new low emissions generators such as wind, gas or the combination of coal with carbon capture and storage, will receive incentives to enter the market…In addition to incentivising reliable generation into the market, a goal of the clean energy target is to lower long-term emissions. For example, a mix of wind, solar and coal generation would be equally acceptable as a mix of wind, solar and gas generation, as long as the emissions reduction trajectory is achieved’.

Rather than extending the existing renewable energy target beyond 2020, the Finkel report recommends developing ‘a whole-of-economy emissions reduction strategy for 2050’ that would be agreed by the Australian, state and territorial governments.

Should the government adopt the technology neutral approach, it is likely to drive science, technology and innovation in the field of renewable energy well into the future.

In 2016, the Australian government had announced plans to establish an AUS$1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund to support emerging technologies in this sector. The Fund will be jointly managed by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, both having survived threatened closure in 2013, as readers of the UNESCO Science Report will recall.

The Fund will make available AUS$100 million a year for ten years. Funded projects are likely to target the development of large-scale solar with storage, off-shore energy, biofuels and smart grids.

Encouraging signs over the past two years

Overall, the last two years have been encouraging for science in Australia. The Commonwealth Science Council is meeting regularly and there is a dedicated minister for science.

There has been progress towards whole-of-government science and research priorities and the adoption of a co-ordinated National Innovation and Science Agenda. In addition, the Innovation, Science and Research System Review has established a set of metrics for the future monitoring and evaluation of the system.

In spite of the controversy surrounding energy policy, there is some light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the Finkel review.

All of which suggests that a more consistent and clearer approach to science, technology and innovation policy is beginning to emerge.

(1) Jones, Cheryl (2017) Australian astronomy one of few winners in new budget. Science, 10 May.
(2) Guardian staff (2017) Tesla to build world’s biggest lithium ion battery in South Australia. The Guardian, 7 July.
(3) Sloan, Judith (2017) Energy poverty and the threat of Frydenberg. The Australian, 15–16 July, p.15.
(4) Prime Minister Turnbull (2017) Securing Australia’s Energy Future with Snowy Mountains 2.0. Press Release, 16 March
(5) Alan Finkel (2017) Final Report of the Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market. Commonwealth of Australia

Source: Tim Turpin, including excerpts from the chapter on Southeast Asia and Oceania in the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015)

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