Dr Joe Baker, President
The Careers Forum
The National Press Club was the ideal location to make the important national point that S&T is part of the mainstream of life, and needs to be taken into account with all the other factors in setting national policy.
Both the Minister for Science and Technology Peter McGauran and Shadow Minister Martyn Evans made interesting contributions to the Forum on science careers at the National Press Club on March 19.
The Forum was organised jointly by FASTS and the National Tertiary Education Union, and brought together 150 people from research, industry, government and science funding bodies.
There was wide participation by industry, funding agencies, the universities, and (most pleasing) young research scientists. The event was sponsored by several FASTS Member Societies, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and the Academy of Science.
The Minister committed himself to work with the science community "to create an environment in the public sector and in the private sector that funds R&D and therefore employs scientists, technologists and engineers and provides them with a career path."
He talked about the cultural change in the science community since he was Shadow Minister, and said the image of the "whingeing, befuddled scientist demanding unending funding" had been replaced by a new professional approach in dealing with Government by the research agencies, academies and societies.
Minister McGauran may have ended up with the media headlines: "Minister riles scientists with stern warning" and "Scientists hit back at Minister" for his provocative opening remarks, where he cautioned science groups about the negative impact of "shrill, over-blown exaggerated whining and wailing."
But his talk was a clear indication that the capacity and inclination of Governments today to create positions for research scientists are limited. The old ways have gone, and anyone wishing to influence the course of national policy has to recognise that.
He emphasised that there are rewarding jobs for scientists and technologists, and urged those present to "enthusiastically tell young people of the exciting opportunities of a career in science and engineering," particularly in the private sector.
Shadow Minister Martyn Evans advised scientists and engineers to adjust their value systems and think more positively about the opportunities to work in other fields than those for which they have been specifically trained.
"The job context in which today's graduates find themselves is interdisciplinary, demands collaboration and is based on a global economy. Science is an excellent general degree to train young people to be adaptable and flexible and to respond better to the needs of our technologically advanced society."
The full text of both speeches is on the FASTS' web site.
Bringing the S&T interests together
FASTS hosted a meeting of S&T organisations to discuss submissions to the West Review of Higher Education. Dr Doreen Clark, one of the two scientists on the Review panel, was invited to discuss the Panel's general approach and answer questions.
The meeting provided a valuable occasion for these groups (including the Academy of Science, the Deans of Science, the CRCs, the AV-CC, NGASS—the Next Generation of Australian Scientists Society—and the NTEU) to compare notes, as well as to hear from Dr Clark how the Review will proceed.
FASTS goes West!
The FASTS submission to the West Review of Higher Education has called on Government and universities to work together to create an efficient, competitive, well-equipped university sector.
The increase in the student numbers combined with a decrease in the funding per effective full-time student has put enormous strains on university budgets. Current realities are that not all 37 universities in Australia can offer top-level scientific and technological facilities in education and research in all disciplines.
Reorganisation of the higher education sector is required — and the rearrangements will not be minor. FASTS investigated and considered the consequences of three alternative courses of action in our submission:
We also urged further support for infrastructure—libraries, labs, buildings and equipment—to accompany the process of reorganisation; and pointed out that it is almost impossible for university graduates to meet industry expectations unless the university equipment they use matches industry standards.
Many university laboratories no longer meet basic occupational health and safety requirements, and are increasingly operating on outdated and failing equipment.
I have to thank Dr Chris Easton for his sterling work in drawing the submission together. A full copy is available on our web site.
FASTS in science policy
Minister McGauran has continued to express appreciation for the role FASTS plays in policy formulation. In a recent letter, he said he had instructed his Departmental officers to seek our advice on international scientific collaboration.
He has also invited me to discuss with Chief Scientist John Stocker Victorian initiatives to set priorities for S&T, which were views I initially raised with the Minister.
The role of FASTS in policy areas was the subject of a television interview which Lesley Warner of UCQ recorded with me for the Open Learning Program. It turned out to be a good discussion of FASTS' role in policy, and Member Societies might find it useful to show to their meetings. Copies can be borrowed from the FASTS' office.
The WISET Report
WISET made recommendations about boosting the participation of Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WISET). It was completed in May 1995, and has since disappeared into a black hole. The Labor Government failed to respond in its final months of office (although the Report was commissioned by one of its Ministers).
The new Government has declined to make a formal response to what it sees as a Labor initiative, so even though the Report has been dubbed "a valuable analysis" it still lies dormant. We are urging the Government to take a more active interest in its findings.
Australia suffers because the whole area of SET "expresses a strong sense of masculine ownership" (WISET p3), to the extent that only 6.9% of staff in engineering and processing in higher education institutions are women.
The newImages Conference
I participated in this Anglo-Australian Conference in Sydney. It compared the roles of the Chief Scientists of the two countries. In the UK the position is supported by 100 staff, but one wonders whether a cost-benefit analysis would show the advisory function there has been any more effective than in Australia.
Likely outcomes include additional exchanges for young scientists, and a cooperative approach to science festivals of each country. But it is clear that the UK has a definite role in the European Union and Australia a growing role in Pacific Rim SET alliances.
The Budget for science
On first view, S&T based portfolios had done pretty well in the 1997-1998 budget. It had managed to avoid any further big cuts, and some even suggested that it was "steady as she goes".
But with the release of supplementary papers, the real position of the Budget is becoming clear. "Steady as she sinks!" — Ian Lowe's description — might be more appropriate, particularly if one looks at the Forward Estimates.
Nothing the Treasurer said on Budget night indicates that the Government has accepted the role of S&T in solving major economic and environmental challenges facing Australia. Not once in his speech did he use the words "science", "technology", "education" or "innovation".
The Prime Minister has made some strongly supportive speeches in recognition of the value of research in Australia's development objectives, and Peter McGauran has been obviously successful in protecting factors in his own budget sector against big cuts. But when one looks across the major portfolios dependent on S&T, the future is not secure.
We are still waiting for a clear articulation of the role of S&T in Australia's future.
The Budget has, on close analysis, recorded a steady chipping away at funds available for S&T, with the Science and Technology Budget Statement showing an overall reduction in real terms of 1.3 per cent.
The CRCs have been cut, the universities have had further reductions to their operating grants, CSIRO has been hit with an "efficiency dividend".
This has been offset to some extent by small increases to ARC and the NH&MRC, to funding for rural R&D, and targeted Higher Education R&D.
The Australian Geological Survey Organisation has been cut, as has Defence Science. The Energy R&D Corporation has quietly been abolished, a move which should have attracted more industry comment than it did.
But the worst news is reserved for the Forward Estimates. These figures set out the Government's long-term intentions, and they show reductions in all areas.
Australia plans to enter the new millennium spending less on CSIRO, less on the ARC and NH&MRC, less on the CRCs and international and other research. In some cases these estimated cuts are massive. In health research, current spending of $174 million is projected to be cut to $131 million in 2000-2001.
The challenge that now emerges is for industry, the education sector, scientists and technologists and society as a whole to convince Government — within this next 12 months — that there must be justifiable increases in the S&T Budget.
And the argument has to be taken more widely than Minister McGauran and the portfolio of Industry, Science and Tourism, to the other portfolios directly dependant on science and technology based knowledge.
The PM demonstrated genuine enthusiasm for the PMSEC meeting last week. He expressed his interest both publicly and privately, and said at lunch that he had gained a new appreciation of the long time it can take for research to come to fruition.
Major topics on the agenda were the telecommunications revolution, skin cancer, and the Great Barrier Reef. There was also a Ministerial response by John Anderson and Robert Hill to the recommendations from last year's session "Managing Australia's inland waterways"; and on S&T teaching in primary schools.
I attend the meeting as FASTS President, as one of the six ex officio members. FASTS is consulted about possible topics, and Member Societies should forward suggestions to the FASTS office.
Council on November 20
The Minister, Shadow Minister and Democrat spokesperson have all expressed interest in addressing FASTS Council in Canberra on November 20. All Member Societies are invited to send representatives, and to contribute to the makeup of FASTS "Top Ten Policies" for 1998. The Chief Scientist will also be in attendance.
Enrofloxacin and the Minister for Health
I have written to Dr Michael Wooldridge, to express the concerns of the Australian Society for Microbiology (one of our Members) about moves to use enrofloxacin as a growth promoter in the chicken industry.
This has significant implications for human health, and the use of enrofloxacin in this way could render ineffective those drugs used in the standard treatment of serious complications of salmonella (such as blood poisoning) in humans.
The matter is currently before the National Registration Authority. The FASTS' Board expressed concern that the NRA may not be giving adequate consideration to the expert scientific advice being offered by the ASM and other authoritative bodies which have the expertise to advise Government on this issue.
Science bodies compare notes
Top administrative figures from nine S&T organisations met this month at their regular quarterly meetings hosted by FASTS. The discussions bring together representatives from groups like the Deans of Science, the CRCs Association, the AV-CC and CSIRO.
A major discussion point was the proposal from Australian Science Communicators that science organisations should combine to run a new showcase for science, aimed at bringing the best Australian science to public attention through the media. The event would be part of National Science Week in May 1988, and discussions are continuing.
Mail from the Ministers
Minister John Moore wrote to advise FASTS of PIIP, the watered-down successor to the Factor (f) scheme. Minister McGauran sent the proposed scope of the marine S&T plan for Australia, and invited comment. He also invited scientists from non-English speaking backgrounds to register for possible appointment to Government bodies.
How to contact FASTS
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
PO Box 218, Deakin West, ACT 2601
Web address: http://www.usyd.edu.au/su/fasts/