Thursday, March 21, 2013

Putting science to work: increase, don't cut R&D investment when times are tough

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Australia has proposed cuts to a range of different Australian Government departments and programs, including completely cutting government funding for agricultural research and development.  Here is the paper by IPA .

The Australia Farm Institute  has been quick to respond and contends that  the recommendation are based on a quick and dirty attempt to generate Australian Government budget savings rather than on any proper analysis.  

Of course, the question of how to utilise science for the benefit of industry and business is not new and increased funding is not the whole answer. The “right” answers have morphed continually across countries and for decades.

What gets obscured in the discussion at times, and yet has remained relatively constant, is the fundamental value of science. Furthermore, using science as a driver of economic growth without regard to its underlying core is dangerous. So what are the core components that remain at the heart of science’s value proposition?

First, science is a body of knowledge, a vast one that has accumulated and built upon itself over hundreds of years. Trying to define its origins highlights the extent of human endeavour that it encapsulates. For example, Hippocrates’ work some 2300 years ago is still visible in the practice of medicine today. 

Secondly, science offers a consistent and structured approach to observation and problem solving. Again this isn’t a modern construct, rather something Isaac Newton is credited with formalising.

Thirdly, science’s role as a generator of new ideas and opportunities, whether through design or serendipity, has been well traversed. From the discovery of penicillin to the invention of the microwave oven and Teflon, there is a seemingly endless list of stories of how science has delivered significant advances from the unexpected.

While by its very nature science changes, these core components have remained constant. As discussions on R&D, innovation, and knowledge economies (or however the contemporary analysis is described) evolve, it is important to keep in mind these foundations, which have seen science assume such significance in the drive for wealth and wellbeing.

Another important aspect that should also be kept front of mind is that at its heart, science succeeds through talented, creative, and motivated people. Creating and maintaining a diverse environment where people can flourish is a necessity. 

It is important to recognise  therefore, that an increased support in the Budget for R&D will have the greatest long-term impact in the drive for productivity and prosperity increases.

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