AS scientist and author Isaac Asimov put it: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny …’.”
Alexander Fleming probably said something like it back in the 1920s when he noticed a strange mould eating up the bacteria he was culturing in his London lab.
But it’s a phrase likely to be heard less often in this country if rumours that the federal government is planning drastic cuts to medical research funding in next month’s budget are correct.
The proposal to cut about $400 million in NHMRC funding — around 20% of the current budget — was leaked to various research bodies, apparently by sources within the government itself.
Of course, the leaks could be part of a strategy to soften up researchers, in the hope that when the actual cuts only total, say, $300 million they’ll be greeted with a sigh of relief rather than howls of outrage.
But, whatever the final figure turns out to be, the threat to funding is rallying the troops in universities and research institutes around the country. Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has spearheaded the movement, with its Discoveries Need Dollars website and Facebook page.
It could be an uphill battle, though, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard is widely believed in research circles to have little interest in the sector.
Former chief scientist Professor Penny Sackett, at the time of her surprise resignation earlier this year, revealed she had not met Gillard since she became prime minister.
The ABC’s Health Report reported last week that the prime minister rarely attends meetings of her own Science, Engineering and Innovation Council … meetings she is supposed to chair.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the days of great Australian medical discoveries — and there have been a few of these — will be short-lived without the government support and funding that underlies a vigorous research community.
Scientific breakthroughs are elusive and unpredictable creatures, often sneaking into the room when a researcher is looking for something else entirely. Which is why you need a critical mass of scientists with the freedom to follow a research trail in the full knowledge it may end up being a blind alley — or lead to something remarkable.
In the absence of such a vibrant and diverse research community, one thing you can be sure of is that Asimov’s “That’s funny …” moments will become a lot less common in this country.
And that means worse health outcomes for all of us because, whether it’s Indigenous health, obesity or allergies, Australian research is best placed to address and find solutions to Australian problems.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 4 April 2011