Monday, 16 May 2011

Unstable funding and the Aussie brain drain

I don't often write about science in my native Australia, but this is something which has been building up to a post for a little while...

The Australian Synchrotron officially opened its doors to users in July 2007 and is the second of only two synchrotrons in the southern hemisphere. Since then it seems to have suffered a regular series of management disasters and now, just as things seem to be looking up, the threat of no future funding.

“The Age” even went so far as to suggest that the facility could be shut down next year. If Australia can’t get it’s priorities right to ensure that their major facilities continue running, I can only imagine how hard it is for the scientists who rely on the facility for their research. Why should anyone be surprised that there is a ‘brain drain’ in Australia?

If it were me, I’d be off to do my research somewhere that I didn’t think would suddenly pull the resources out from under my feet. Impressively, though, the scientists at the synchrotron are continuing to plan for expansion to utilize the space available for more beam lines.

This whole situation can cause nothing but stress and uncertainty, which can’t be healthy for a community that has already been through so much controversy. While their “Aussie battler” spirit impresses me, I sincerely hope a solid funding announcement comes soon.

What is the wider impact of such instability in funding? Are Aussie scientists just going to get up and leave? Even if they aren’t, it certainly can’t be doing much to attract top talent from abroad.

It does rather beg the question of why Australia aren’t doing more to ensure that top scientists view the country as a good place to work? I have been shocked on a number of occasions to hear Europeans dismiss Australia out of hand as having “no science”. They DO have science. They DO have facilities. But unless those facilities are stable and supported wholeheartedly by the government, the only attractions to live there are the sun and the surf. Not the science.


  1. The synchrotron is a publicly-funded resource; it should therefore be subject to the same cost-benefit analysis as any other publicly-funded resource. If the government considers that taxpayers aren't getting good value for their money from the synchrotron, or that their money could be better spent elsewhere, it can and should withdraw funding from the project. Naturally, you'll disagree with the government's assessment and you're certainly free to protest as loudly as you please. It may be that you'll change the government's mind. But let's not pretend that governments cannot have legitimate priorities apart from funding the activities of scientists.

  2. On most of your points I agree - facilities should be subject to cost-benefit analysis. But what needs to be taken into account are the nature of the 'benefits' in terms of long-term science outcomes, the costs of keeping it running vs initial capital costs, and the wider ramifications of shutting it down. No-one is arguing that the government should focus only on funding scientists, that would be ridiculous, what they are arguing is not to overlook science completely, which is a much more likely occurrence in Aus!

  3. You've got to look at the relative priorities of Govt here too. For example the total cost of the Synchrotron (without the beamlines) was exactly the same as the strip of road that connects the Calder Hwy to Essendon airport - I know this because I was one of the Scientists on the Synch at the time both were built, and the cost of the freeway extension was posted on the road - it struck me that the two were the same number (156 Million). Roads are important pieces of infrastructure and are needed to make our advanced community work - by allowing the free flow of goods and services. In the same way - and SO much cheaper - are pieces of major scientific infrastructure - they make the free flow of scientific data possible. The funding for the ongoing operation of the Australian synchrotron is absolute chickenfeed compared to the cost of roads. By the way, you only on the Caldr/Ess bypass road for about 2 minutes tops.
    The Synchrotron or "lightsource" is available to all scientists based across Australia (and NZ) based on Scientific merit and so it needs to be a federally funded body.
    I love the place - I put years of my life into it, but sadly have become part of the brain drain as the mismanagement of funding and the like takes its huge toll.

  4. Yep, would definitely contribute to the brain drain. We'll see the international profile of Aussie science in some areas diminishing with less or no access to synchrotron facilities.
    The beamlines are mostly over-subscribed as is so it's not an option to just go overseas, the experiments just wont get done.

    As for the brain drain, it's either overseas (as in your case) or into the ether (which is probably my case if I can't get my work funded).