March for Science Tasmania calls for better investment in future

Launceston could miss out on becoming the next technology capital if science industry instability encourages professionals to look elsewhere for work.

That’s the view of industry experts, including Tasmanian Irrigation environment officer Cassandre Tickner-Smith and IT solutions architect Jin-oh Choi.

Ms Tickner-Smith said some science professionals and graduates were looking to mainland Australia or overseas for more secure and better paying opportunities amid concerns of uncertain research funding and sector instability.

“Without the stability for people to move here or feel like they can be at uni and know that in 10 years time there will still be a job in that field, it does make it hard for scientists,” she said.

Science and Technology Minister Micheal Ferguson disagreed, saying that while research funding was predominantly through established federal bodies, science and information technology was valued by the state government.

Tasmania’s science research sector attracts about $500 million in investment each year, according to statistics from the Department of State Growth.

“Tasmania has the highest number of scientists per capita in the nation, so of course we value their contribution to not only the state, but the nation as a whole for the scientific work carried out within Tasmania and further afield, such as Antarctica,” Mr Ferguson said.

“The bulk of organisations based in Tasmania receive their funding through these bodies and private philanthropic organisations.”

Mr Choi said funding was often tied to achieving certain goals, including publishing multiple research papers a year.

“Rather than see where their research takes them, they are in a cycle of writing grants so they can fund what they are trying to study,” he said.

“It’s about quantity rather than quality.”

That was problematic for scientists.

“Science doesn’t have an agenda, there’s not necessarily a set goal in what it is trying to achieve. It’s the sense of exploration and discovery,” Mr Choi said.

Ms Tickner-Smith chose to work in irrigation science, despite being passionate about climate science.

She decided it was better to know she could pay the bills consistently rather than hope “if I release three papers a year, maybe I’ll still have a job”.

Many researchers faced high publishing expectations without support to fund peer reviews to test the veracity of the findings, Ms Tickner-Smith said.

“We only want results … all scientific experiments should be repeatable and if you can’t repeat it and get the same results, then perhaps the first results were not quite right,” she said.

“If you’re repeating an experiment that’s already happened, there not really the same funding.

“You do see evidence that there are options medically as well as in building infrastructure and ... a variety of scientific pursuits that we are not able to properly utilise because there isn’t a lot of testing and governments can’t back something that has only been tested once.”

Ms Tickner-Smith hoped the upcoming March for Science rallies to be held worldwide on April 14 would play a role in bringing scientific and funding issues to the attention of Tasmanian policy makers.

March for Science is an international movement calling for universal literacy, open communication, informed policy and stable investment.

A march will be held in Launceston, starting at the John Hart Conservatory at City Park from midday and finishing at the Queen Victoria Museum at Inveresk for discussion, speeches and mingling before finishing up by 3pm.

Both Ms Tickner-Smith and Mr Choi are March for Science Tasmania organisers.

Marches will be held in Hobart and Launceston, despite earlier concerns Tasmania could be the only state without a rally due to a lack of volunteers.

While Mr Choi said the marches would go ahead across Tasmania, he was concerned members of the scientific community would not attend as they were worried about potential repercussions.

Scientists were already faced with a lack of stable funding and they could not be seen to do anything that might further jeopardise their capital for research, he said.

Spatial Industries Business Association chief executive officer Deanna Hutchison will speak at the Launceston march.

“Complex science is behind so many things that we just take for granted now,” Ms Hutchinson said.

“What many people don’t know is that Australia excels in so many science fields, especially some of the new space areas. The challenge is, if we don’t keep investing, sharing and learning from scientific developments, we will lose access to these everyday conveniences ... and Australia loses economic advantage, which has a direct impact on jobs. This is of the utmost importance.”

Mr Ferguson said the federal bodies involved in research funding included the Australian Research Council, CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council, University of Tasmania and Australian Antarctic Division.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics were critical to the state’s economic growth, he said.

A $400 million STEM facility for the University of Tasmania in Hobart was approved by Infrastructure Australia last year.

“We have provided various support measures and funding streams for research, development and education, from school to a higher education level, organisation and private investment.”

He referenced establishing Coding in School programs and the Enterprize Hubs in Launceston and Hobart as support for STEM.

Ms Tickner-Smith said empowering people to be interested in science was important as it not only increased knowledge, but boosted the state’s economy.

“You really need to understand and listen to the science and not just the evidence that supports what you believe.”