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Innovation summit a reminder of how science's problem is politics

Science is being poorly served by politics. 

That's hardly a revelatory thought, but it seemed to be the undercurrent in remarks made by a number of Australia's top science leaders at The Australian Financial Review's Innovation Summit in Sydney Wednesday.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) CEO Larry Marshall has presided over a turbulent period at the national science body since he came on board in late 2014. Addressing his unique situation head on, the former Silicon Valley venture capitalist said "One of the great things about running an organisation like the CSIRO is there is no shortage of people that will tell you how to run it."

One of those "people" is presumably the Australian government, which in early August appeared to order Marshall to perform something of a U-turn on climate change research. 

In early 2016, Marshall caused international furore when he proposed cutting hundreds of climate research roles in favour of science that could be more readily commercialised, deeming the science of climate change largely settled. 

Nevertheless Australia's relatively new science minister, Greg Hunt, has now directed Marshall to restore 15 climate research positions. Around 20 climate jobs remain on the chopping block, and deep cuts are still being made in other parts of the organisation.

Part of the CSIRO controversy has been that Marshall appeared to be emphasising the potential monetary impact of science over curiosity-led research in the public good, such as the impact of global warming. He has not changed his tune there, telling the audience Wednesday, "We don't just do the science, we don't just do the invention. We do the science and we deliver the solution."

"About a quarter of our total investment goes into dealing with environmental disruption. But what about disruption to the resources market? What about disruption to health?"

Perhaps Marshall thought his focus on commercialisation would be embraced by the government, which under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has paid considerable lip service to innovation and little to pure science. 

Its National Innovation and Science Agenda, rolled out in Dec. 2015, is worth A$1.1 billion over four years. The government doesn't seem disturbed by the loss of top scientific minds, such as climate scientist John Church, who was offered a voluntary redundancy by the CSIRO in May. Something that will surely impact the CSIRO's ability to attract top talent.

During the 2016 election campaign, the shadow minister for research and innovation, Kim Carr, accused the government of presiding over the "largest brain drain in Australia's history."

While Hunt now says "climate science is important, it's significant, it's critical to our long-term planning," the Liberal government has sent mixed signals, first under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who slashed the CSIRO's budget in 2014, and now under Malcolm Turnbull.

After all, the government may have had a change of heart on climate research, but it has not accompanied it with cash. As Fairfax Media pointed out, those 15 restored climate positions do not come with a fresh budget and must be funded from the existing CSIRO's coffers.

Alan Finkel, Australia's chief scientist, also noted Wednesday that individual companies like Apple spend more on research and development than the Australian government spends on science. 

That's a tragedy, because as he pointed out, "Science turns money into knowledge, then innovation turns that knowledge back into money. And generally a lot more money than the taxpayers put in."

When asked what has been the greatest challenge on the job so far, Marshall joked, "How long do you have?"

"I've never done politics, and I don't think the head of CSIRO should be a political role," he said. "Science and innovation shouldn't be politicised, it's too important."

He should know.

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