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Economic myopia threatens environment.



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Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management

PRESS RELEASE

Phone 08 8303 6590 crcweeds@adelaide.edu.au Fax 08 8303 7311

5 June 2007 - World Environment Day

Economic myopia threatens environment

Distorted economics, coupled with ideologically driven decision making, is threatening Australia’s best efforts to preserve its natural heritage, according to the CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management.

Speaking in Brisbane in the lead up to World Environment Day on June 5, Dr McFadyen said that while the latest national budget contained some good initiatives, the past decade had been one of neglect and lost opportunities for environmental research.

‘The dominance of short-term commercial objectives in setting the national research agenda has been a disaster for environmental science’, said Dr McFadyen. ‘It has left many of the scientific groups focused on public good and the environment scrabbling for support.’

Within the CRC Programme, for instance, the Rainforest CRC, the Reef CRC, the Tropical Savannas CRC and the Weeds CRC are all casualties. Even the Bushfire CRC, possibly the world’s leading research body in this area and vital to Australia with a drying climate, had considered not reapplying for funding as a CRC suggesting that its non-commercial focus could rule it out of consideration.

In a wide-ranging statement anticipating her retirement at the end of next year, Dr McFadyen criticised the rundown in research capacity and facilities across Australian universities and research agencies.

According to Dr McFadyen, Professor Julian Cribb (The Australian Higher Education supplement, 24/5/2007) was right to point to short-sightedness in the 1990s that wound back public investment in energy research and the geosciences in Australia and which led to their widespread decline. Mathematics was another casualty.

‘To those I would add a generally inadequate investment in insect and plant taxonomy over the decade, as well as in weed science.’

On the environment, Dr McFadyen said despite the NHT investment, science that predominantly benefited the environment had been sidelined. She said the $10 million a year for four years for the federal government’s Defeating Weed Menace program had been valuable, but paled into insignificance compared to the size of the problem.

‘Weeds cost the agricultural sector over $4 billion per year - that is in the same league as the total national export income from refined gold ($6 billion in 2004-05), or from exports of liquefied natural gas ($4.4 billion in 2005-06)’, she said.

‘We know that the country could save billions of dollars in the long term by investing in better ways of weed management.’

‘We have all the evidence you need - for example, over 100 years of data shows that investing in the biological control of weeds delivers a benefit of $23 million for every $1 million spent. This is data from a well conducted economic analysis.’

‘We also showed that the nation’s farmers could save $2 billion over 25 years by investing a further $30 million in weed science over the next seven years’, Dr McFadyen said.

Regrettably, Dr McFadyen said, too often governments are not prepared to fund research which saves them money in this way. Costs avoided do not seem to count - rather it has to be cash made from products and services marketed.

‘This approach is made even less appropriate by the fact that returns from biological control can take ten years or more to be fully delivered, even though the benefits can be spectacular, and permanent, ‘Dr McFadyen said .

‘This kind of thinking doesn’t even make common economic sense, let alone serve the interests of the country’s long-term scientific and agricultural development’, she said.

‘In particular, on World Environment Day 2007, I am concerned that still so few people are prepared to stand up for the environment and back the science needed to protect it.’

Dr McFadyen said that new reports show that biodiversity is indeed threatened by the spread of invasive plants, both at the local and national scale. Indeed, we now know that invasive plants and animals together represent the most important immediate threat to Australia’s biodiversity, she said.

Yet many concerned scientists were effectively being forced to ignore this evidence when applying for funds to survive as researchers, knowing that only the commercial aspects will be considered relevant.

Dr McFadyen said the Productivity Commission was absolutely correct in emphasising that government funding should support public good research - namely, the translation of research outputs into economic, social and environmental benefits.

‘I’m hoping for new priorities to emerge’, Dr McFadyen said. ‘I want my successors not to have to continually set aside the environmental benefits of their research in order to work as scientists within the government system in this country.”

‘And I want savings attributed to better weed control counted as an outcome, and not dismissed as irrelevant’, she said.

Contacts: Dr Rachel McFadyen, CEO, Weeds CRC, 0409 263 817 Peter Martin, Weeds CRC, 0429 830 366

Images of weed infestations available at: www.weeds.crc.org.au/publications/media.html

An image gallery of is currently under construction. For a sneak preview visit www.weeds.crc.org.au and click on ‘image gallery’.

The Weeds CRC was advised in November 2006 that its funding will not be renewed, and that it will wind up in June 2008. A media statement and updates about the situation are available at: www.weeds.crc.org.au/main/weeds_crc_to_end.html