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.