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Monday, 29 May 2000
Page: 16490

Mr MURPHY (10:39 PM) —Among the less well-informed, a myth exists that various technical devices we use in our daily lives came into being by a form of magic. People who believe this myth suppose that products we take for granted were brought into existence solely by the inspiring effect of market forces. The origin of many technical devices is in fact significantly more complex than this simple proposition suggests and, in most cases, has involved both market forces and an underlying basis of scientific discovery. Radio technology, for example, is a product of a centuries-long process of the investigation of wave phenomena by university academics who initially set out to understand the physics of violin strings.

Like radio, many of the technical devices we use these days had their origins in the curiosity driven research of academic scientists. The growth of modern economies is partly due to the exertions and investigations of generations of scientists and engineers. In today's world, a scientifically literate population and a thriving higher education sector are essential for economic success. With some exceptions, the nations that have supported science in their national spending are highly successful. These countries have educated, well-paid workers, and their income distribution is generally fair. Their people are healthy and well fed, and their political structures are stable and democratic.

Despite these benefits, the Howard government has slashed support for basic science and has cut university budgets to such an extent that research work in many universities is under severe financial pressure. These days, four out of five research projects are rejected, often after months of detailed and difficult preparation. The government's hypothesis that private industry will pay for curiosity driven research is plainly ridiculous, yet it is just this proposition that the government turns to in justifying its failure to properly fund university research workers.

There are other dubious propositions that the government employs to justify its position. Some misguided commentators have suggested that science has found virtually all that there is to be discovered and that there is nothing more to be gained from further funding of scientific research. Others, such as postmodernists, claim that the discoveries of science, rather than being dispassionate descriptions of nature, are simply myths designed to legitimise Western dominance over other cultures. Proponents of those uninformed points of view found their arguments enthusiastically accepted by the hatchet-wielding Thatcher government—an icon of failure, incidentally, that the Howard government frequently draws succour and guidance from.

The implication that money spent on basic research is being wasted found favour with the Thatcherites who were hell-bent on reducing the size of the public sector. There seems little doubt that these same feral attitudes are entrenched within the ranks of the Howard government and are regularly drawn upon to rationalise funding cuts. The consequence of this ignorance is a government science policy that is uninformed and based on opinion and prejudice rather than on rational decision making processes.

The explanation for the government's failure to properly fund science budgets lies in its hostility towards scientists and academics who dare question the government's political agenda. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the government's doctrinaire position on global warming and climate change. Despite rigorously tested evidence from the most eminent climatologists, the government continues to argue that global warming is simply speculation and that there is no need to take action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The well-known coalmine shareholder, former senator Warwick Parer, when asked about the government's policy on global warming, was reputed to have said that he had not yet seen any evidence for global warming. The scientists must have shuddered.

Not content with attacking research budgets and demolishing funding for university research workers, the government has also targeted university graduates as a source of revenue. They are, through HECS, being squeezed for money at the same time as university facilities are starved of funds. While HECS was not designed to be a financial disincentive for low income earners wanting to take up higher education, under this government that has become its effect. Those members of the government who benefited from a free education under the Whitlam government and who now demand mutual obligation are hypocrites. Today, many students will leave university burdened by a debt sufficient for the deposit on a small property.

Just to ensure that students understand the government's priorities, HECS fees for science and engineering students have been increased to a level where bright students from a low income background are now strongly discouraged from undertaking tertiary education. The universities our children are now entering are short of modern teaching equipment, have few support staff to prepare classes, and have professors or lecturers who are no longer conversant with the latest findings. One can only hope that the university system will survive long enough for a Beazley government, with a vision for a knowledge nation, to be elected and for the Howard experiment to be terminated.