A little while ago I wrote a post titled Should politicians choose what research to fund? This was based on news from America that a Republican Representative was attempting to install a set of criteria chosen by politicians for funding research. One of the criteria was that research must be of the utmost importance to society at large. The reason I’m writing about this again now is because Australia’s new Prime Minister is about to do a similar thing. Last week he announced that he was going to cut funding for what he decides is “wasteful” research.
One of the examples I gave for why I think this is a very, very bad idea is that of G H Hardy, a 20th century British mathematician whose work at the time had no practical applications, but which now forms the foundation of modern cryptography. Hardy’s work in pure mathematics enables us to buy and sell things over the web, a crucial component of modern economies. One of the comments in my post (from MikeM) is a quote from Hardy about his work. Here’s what he said:
I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own…
Hardy had no way of knowing at the time how important his work would become half a century later and indeed, he died long before he got to see his ideas in use.
Tony Abbott is now threatening to put government control on what research they think is good and worthy of funding. Science and Technology Australia says Australian scientists are “profoundly concerned by (this) news” and that it will “interfere” with independence of research.
What confuses me more than anything about it is that Tony Abbott is supposedly a centre-right politician. I have never studied politics formally and nor am I personally of any political persuasion but it was my understanding that right-leaning politicians were all about small governments and minimal regulation. These things to me seem at odds with allowing politicians to choose what research to fund which to my mind requires a more controlling government.
I think if Tony Abbott has his way on this issue, it will be bad news for science and bad news for Australia. It will also mean for me personally, a conscious decision not to return to Australia as I am married to a pure mathematician whose research is of no practical value but as far as I’m concerned, still important. Goodbye Australia and good luck with your anti-science government.