In the late 1950s when I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I was the only woman in my year of the Bachelor of Rural Science course at the University of New England.
I was extremely fortunate that my farmer father valued education highly. In fact, he was a Balliol College, Oxford graduate and two of his sisters had degrees. He felt women had as much right to a university education as men— a somewhat revolutionary view at the time.
At one point the farm mustn’t have been going too well, because my father’s bank manager called him in and said: “Look at all these red lines here, John (indicating negative accounts). You’re spending money on your daughter’s university education. You should be spending it on more fertiliser.”
My father said to him: “Fred, as a matter of fact, it’s the finest form of fertiliser I know.”
Wasn’t I lucky that my father considered education an investment, not a cost?
I was reminded of that story that is part of my family folklore when I heard of a recent analysis that shows that Australian government investment in research and development is at a 30-year low: 2.2 per cent of total budget expenditure.
The Fairfax Media figures reveal that government research and development (R&D) spending has fallen as a share of either GDP or total budget spend for the third consecutive year. So it is clear that governments of both political persuasions have contributed to Australia falling to 18th out of 20 advanced economies for government R&D spending as a proportion of GDP.
It is deeply disappointing that Australia, which produced some of the outstanding scientific minds of the 20th century and participated prominently in some of the major scientific and medical science breakthroughs achieved in the past 100 years, should be lagging so far behind in terms of government commitment to science.
It seems Australia has fallen into the trap of viewing scientific research as a cost, not an investment.
You're spending money on your daughter's university education. You should be spending it on more fertiliser.
Yet all the evidence is to the contrary. Nations that invest in scientific research and innovation certainly reap a strong economic dividend.
I see that the Australian scientific community is not taking this situation lying down. Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb is leading a chorus of people who are calling for more government investment in scientific research.
He needs all the support he can get.
Professor Chubb makes the very good point that government investment in science flows through to the private sector by encouraging businesses to take “creative risks” to develop and apply new knowledge. While this has obvious flow-on effects for jobs and the economy, the opposite also applies if the government cuts its support of research.
I worry that science has lost its appeal—for the public and therefore politicians.
In my generation it was the thing to become a scientist. In the 1950s the public was very excited by scientific discoveries because the fruits of the medical revolution, in the form of vaccines, were fresh in people’s minds.
Australia’s last polio epidemic took place while I was in high school. Then the vaccines came along so everyone was acutely aware of what they could do.
But the public became blasé about those medical wonders and the medical and technological breakthroughs that have succeeded them. Even space travel doesn’t seem to get people excited anymore.
People have come to expect constant upgrades to their personal technology like their smart phones, tablets and satellite navigation systems, without necessarily considering the investment in research and innovation that is driving these changes.
Unfortunately most of these innovations are coming from overseas.
Another problem is the massive salaries earned by chief executives of big corporations, especially banks and other financial institutions, which are attracting our best and brightest minds and thereby depriving other professions including science of excellent people.
In Britain we have seen that top mathematicians, physicists, biochemists and chemists have gone into financial services. People now talk about the damaging effect to other professions of this focus on one aspect of the economy.
We need to reverse this brain drain from the sciences, and a good place to start would be for government to more pro-actively (and financially) support scientific research and innovation.
Australia has many fine scientists who will continue to provide excellent service to the nation. But imagine how much more they could do if the government was prepared to apply more fertiliser!
- DAME BRIDGET OGILVIE AC DBE
Eminent international scientist and biomedical researcher Dame Bridget Ogilvie AC DBE, divides her time between Britain and a home in Wollongong. She has made a significant contribution to research at UOW as the inaugural Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI ) and as Chair of the International Advisory Committee of the Australian Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science (ACES). In 2005 UOW recognised Dame Bridget’s life-time contribution to science by awarding her an Honorary Doctorate of Science.