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Govt freeze on research grants 'crazy': Nobel -

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ELEANOR HALL: Australia's Nobel Prize winner for Physics Brian Schmidt says the Federal Government's freeze on research grants is damaging and crazy.

The Government has put a hold on awarding research grants, as it prepares its mid-year economic update.

Yesterday the Science and Research Minister Chris Evans told a Senate Estimates hearing that the Government will reveal in that update whether programs will be cut permanently.

But Professor Schmidt told our chief political correspondent Sabra Lane that it makes no economic sense to freeze or cut the grant programs.

BRIAN SCHMIDT: The research that's done in Australia is very good but it's also very fragile. We are 4 per cent of a huge endeavour that is done around the world. We have invested very heavily over the last 10 or 20 years in people, in young people who come from around the globe in what is really a global market place, much more so than almost anything else we do.

And right now we have uncertainty - are there going to be grants renewed? And the grants really are the single form at which research is undertaken especially in the physical sciences like I do, across the country and when that becomes uncertain, there is no other place to turn to and the whole thing becomes highly volatile, people start looking and thinking about moving overseas and so I think the ability to do lots of damage very quickly is maybe not appreciated by everyone just by saying, well, there is this uncertainty about the future.

SABRA LANE: How would you characterise the freeze?

BRIAN SCHMIDT: Well, the freeze itself, we don't even know what it is right now but, you know, people whose grants come to an end at the 31st December, which is two and a half months away, are, I think, you know, obsessed by the uncertainty because they could be literally without a job on the 1st of January.

SABRA LANE: You've tweeted that, I think you used the words crazy and that it devalues the current investment in research, how does it do that?

BRIAN SCHMIDT: So Australia is investing more than a billion dollars a year in various forms of research and that research is really aimed at doing things that have a 20, 30 or even 50 year horizon associated with them and yet when we do this uncertainty of well, maybe we're not going to, we're going to hold off for a year which means that a whole bunch of people are going to lose their jobs, you go through, and for a very small savings, you put a huge dent in the capacity of the nation to do this research on this 20 year timeframe.

So the last 20 years of investment where you build up all this capacity suddenly you're, you know, swelling volatility and maybe getting rid of 10 or 15 per cent of that capacity, so $10 billion worth of investment is being put at risk for what is a savings of, you know, less than 1 per cent of that total investment and that is crazy.

SABRA LANE: Do you have any sympathy towards the Government and towards Treasurer Wayne Swan given the economic environment they are currently dealing with at the moment? It's looking towards all government programs at the moment to nip and tuck.

BRIAN SCHMIDT: I have no problem with governments going through and taking a long term view about how much they want to invest and to shape that investment over time but to come in at the second half of a budget cycle and to you know, do what is a pretty draconian measure of potentially freezing investment, well, I think that is, would be, would indicate poor planning and so yes, we need to make things add up in the long term of this nation but I think it is really important to shape the investment to give us a long term clear strategy so that we can spend the money that is given to us appropriately and not have interruptions suddenly occurring in October for what are people's lives in January.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Nobel Prize winner Professor Brian Schmidt, speaking there to our chief political correspondent Sabra Lane.