Thousands of researchers took to the streets of Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide on Tuesday to protest cuts to the research budget of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the main source of public funding for research scientists in the sector. The cuts are thought to total AUS$400 million (US$419 million) over the next three to four years. Further rallies will be held in Perth, Brisbane and Darwin later in the week.
The protests have been organized as part of the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign, a grass-roots organization started by the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. "The turnout was phenomenal," says Doug Hilton, the institute's director, who took part in the Melbourne rally. And not only scientists joined the protest, he adds. "About 1,000 were from patient groups and the general public — that's what was really inspiring."
Rumours of looming cuts first began to circulate in March, although the Australian federal budget for 2011–12 will not be presented to Parliament until 10 May. The Department of Health and Ageing has declined to comment on the reports. If the leaked figures — which, Hilton says, come from Cabinet-level conversations — are accurate, they would constitute a cut of around 14-19% to the NHMRC budget, which totalled about $715 million last year.
But medical-research funding is not the place to trim fat, says Hilton. The medical-research sector might find some efficiency gains in areas such as general administration, but that's not what NHMRC funding covers. "NHMRC funding simply covers the direct costs of doing experiments," he says. "I think the argument that there is fat in that part of the sector is a complete misreading of the situation by the federal government."
In fact, the cuts would suggest a more fundamental misunderstanding by the federal government, says Cathy Foley, President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies. "The concern I have is the apparent lack of understanding of how research is done — you can't just turn research on and off," she says. The funding cuts will mean researchers losing their jobs, and they may not come back.
In addition, there's some talk going round that the budget is going to cut into welfare, specifically unemployment benefits. I flipped on the news briefly while eating breakfast and they interviewed an elderly woman who said fat people shouldn't get any government help, which is really missing the point. The government and the media's portrayal of the unemployed as people who are taking advantage of everyone and running wild in parties and living decadent is a terrible one, born out a low key hostility toward the idea of those who don't have to work at a job they dislike or find futile. Ignoring the rather large implications about our society that is part of such a statement, targeting the unemployed or those on benefits is really just targeting those who are in an already disadvantaged position, and who have no voice in our culture. Don't fall for that. If a tough budget is needed (and it probably is) the places to cut it are not where we held the most financially vulnerable, or in the research that will help the country and public in the future, to just pick the two choices being put around.
Also, while I am discussing the current failings of our government, I'd like to point out that I have never seen a more awful and terrible mishandling of an issue as I have with the carbon tax plan. Seriously, the solution to make it palpable to people after Abbott and the opposition ran around cackling like evil super villains is to simply bribe them?
Here is the solution:
"We're putting in a carbon tax. The money raised from the tax will be used to fund alternative energy resources to change our current damaging power sources."
Honestly, it's not hard.