Triple bottom line academia: communicating in the face of research cuts.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott vows to cut funding for ‘wasteful’ research.  Coalition spokesperson on Scrutiny of Government Waste, James Briggs MP suggests Australian research should be “about the better future for our country, not about funding some interesting thought bubble that some academic sitting away in a university somewhere has come up with”.

There are two possibilities that lead to this: 1) research in Australia is wasteful, born from fanciful academic thought bubbles, or;

2) Australian research is useful, contributes to our economy, standard of living and our understanding of the universe, but that Mr Abbott, Mr Briggs, and the majority of Australians don’t know it.

Every dollar spent on research is a dollar that can’t be spent on upgrading our schools, refurbishing our hospitals, providing clean water to the 2 billion people on the planet without it, or combatting Australia’s ‘budget emergency’.

Invest in schools and we get teachers, classrooms and computers.  Invest in hospitals, we get doctors, nurses and MRI scans. Invest in our budget surplus and we get Mr Abbott. But invest in research and we get conferences, some news stories, a patent or two, and journal articles, most of them esoteric, that until recently the public had to pay to access.

Of course this is not all we get.  Australian research has given us (and the world) penicillin, WiFi, the bionic ear, efficient solar panels, cervical cancer vaccines, and a whole host of undersold amazing technologies.  Australian research has contributed to our wellbeing, the awareness of our culture, our society, our region, our country, and our universe. Current research will do the same but we must make the case for it. And we must tell people outside our research cohort.

Publishing in journals is necessary for research to advance, but more is needed if research is to be supported.  Perhaps now is the time to make a case for triple bottom line accounting in academia; not for reasons of altruism, but out of Machiavellian analysis for self-preservation:

Triple bottom line accounting[*]                                       Triple bottom line Academia

Image

To complain when funding is withdrawn without deigning to make the case for it is self-defeating.  There are excellent academics and communicators engaging in the public sphere, but as an industry we can do better.  This means communicating beyond our research fields and extending our comfort zones to inform and educate Australia of our fantastic research, and where there’s a lack of basic understanding, to address this gap first.  To speak with politicians and policy-makers and public servants. To write in newspapers, to get on radio and in schools; to engage with kids and adult-learning institutions.  There are excellent platforms to do this across our varied research disciplines and we should harness them proudly to justify our existence.

Public engagement of academia of course has its own benefits; cultivating a sense of wonder in the universe, building scientific literacy and the awareness of our cultural and social fabric, inspiring the next generation of young Australian minds.  But purely out of self-interest, to avoid facing the same deep cuts every election cycle, academia must engage more with the public.

Dr Niraj Lal graduated with a PhD in physics from the University of Cambridge in 2012.  He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian National University working on Nanophotonics for Solar Cells. He was named the 2013 Young Tall Poppy of the Year for the ACT.

[*] Triple bottom line accounting figure (left) based on original by Johann Dreosvg.

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