High hopes for science as new Labor government ratifies Kyoto

Australia’s new Labor government has ratified the Kyoto protocol in a move to make good on its pledge of ’decisive action on climate change’. But, with higher education spending flagging, the country’s academics are waiting to see how Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will bring about the ’education revolution’ promised during the election campaign. 

As part of its education plans, the government has said it will create 1000 mid-career fellowships to help strengthen career pathways for mid-career researchers. Up to 10 per cent of the fellowships are intended to attract Australians working overseas back to the country.

’That’s generous, that’s a good programme,’ says Bradley Smith, executive director of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS). But with Australia the only OECD country where higher education spending has declined as a share of GDP over the past decade, more needs to be done, he says. ’There is still a lack of commitment for a comprehensive reinvigoration of the higher education sector.’

The administration has also agreed to scrap the contentious Research Quality Framework, which would have seen government funding for university research allocated according to its quality and commercial impact from 2008. It will now probably be replaced with a metrics-based system.

It also hopes to stem the decline in the number of science and maths students and bolster the number of teachers in those subjects. It is going to halve the university fees for those students and halve their repayments for up to five years if they take jobs in key fields, especially teaching. ’Anything that can attract students to teaching is a good thing,’ says Smith.

Restructuring science

In a move welcomed by researchers, the government has also moved science from the education and training portfolio into a new Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research with Kim Carr as minister. The post of chief scientist will be made into a full time job and CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, is to be revamped.

’Bringing industry, innovation and science and research into the one department has the potential to reinvigorate a somewhat tired policy area by bringing supply and demand side policy issues together,’ says Ken Baldwin, president of FASTS.

Ian Rae, president of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, points out the Victorian state government already has an innovation department which has spent money on the biotech sector and, as a result, biotech companies have thrived.

’The federal government might pick up that model,’ says Rae. ’The link between federal departments and the state ones is not all that strong, but, given the political will, I think that could happen.’

Industry boost

Private sector investment in public sector research peaked, in terms of percentage of GDP, during the last Labor government. Now, the new government has said it will adjust R&D tax concessions and set up mechanisms to encourage private investment in public sector research.

A key initiative is the Aus$200 million (?86 million) Enterprise Connect network. This will include Aus$10 million for a Researchers in Business initiative, to build strong research links and develop the commercial potential of new ideas. It will also include a national network of Manufacturing Centres and a Clean Energy Innovation Centre. 

Other specific programmes that have been announced have a strong focus on climate change, water and clean energy. The Clean Energy Plan includes a Aus$500 million Renewable Energy Fund to develop, commercialise and deploy renewable energy in Australia; and a Aus$150 million Energy Innovation Fund. This will provide Aus$50 million for the Australian Solar Institute, Aus$50 million for photovoltaic research and Asu$50 million for general clean energy R&D. A further Aus$20 million is earmarked to establish a National Centre of Excellence in Water Desalination and another Aus$14 million will go to a new Mining Technology Innovation Centre. There will also be a Aus$500 million Clean Coal Fund, made up of new and redirected money.

Clean technology research and industry could also be boosted by new targets, such as the proposed aim of generating 20 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

The main impact for the chemical industry will be felt around government policies regarding the ratification of Kyoto and the move towards an emissions trading scheme.

’There are some positives [with the change of government] and any future concern that the industry might have felt isn’t greatly different no matter which party came into government because there is a recognition that both parties were heading towards quite significant changes over the next three to five years in terms of policies around climate change,’ says Michael Catchpole, chief executive of the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association.

Karen Harries-Rees