Australia warned against leaving global science group over costs

Conference windfalls alone justify the membership costs of global scientific community, analysis finds

April 17, 2019
Tuition fee hike
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Australia risks squandering a fortune from international visitation by allowing its membership of a global science organisation to lapse, a report suggests.

The report, by the Australian Academy of Science, says the entitlement to host scientific union meetings – a perk of membership of the International Science Council – earns the country roughly 19 times the participation cost.

But more importantly, ISC membership delivers Australia significant “soft power” benefits, bolstering its reputation and buying it a “seat at the table” of international scientific policy development. It also makes Australian researchers eligible for travel grants, awards and fellowships that would otherwise be closed to them.

All this is under threat because the federal funding grant that helps to pay for the academy’s activities – including maintaining Australia’s ISC membership – is not rising as fast as the ISC subscription costs.

The academy’s secretary for physical sciences, Australian National University physicist Jim Williams, said the government grant was indexed at roughly the rate of inflation. But subscriptions to the ISC – which are based on metrics such as the number of scientists in each member country – were increasing at roughly double that rate.

On top of this, the ISC regularly spawns subcommittees dedicated to issues such as climate change, data science and Antarctic research, each of which requires its own subscription. “It’s essential that we stay engaged internationally in all of these things,” Professor Williams said.

“It’s not only that existing subscriptions are going up beyond indexation. We’re getting new ones all the time.”

He said the academy had sought co-funding from “various stakeholders” to help meet the costs. “In the short term we’re OK, but if you look on the horizon, we’re not.

“If the international subscriptions keep going up, we’ll have to address this again.”

Professor Williams stressed that the academy did not expect the government to meet the entire cost of the rising subscription. But conflict-of-interest concerns constrained the range of potential donors.

“People have said to us, ‘Why don’t you ask IBM? Why don’t you ask [Australian mining giant] BHP?’ We can’t, because perceptions of vested interests limit the potential stakeholders we can approach for funding.”

Professor Williams said ISC membership could be justified purely on the direct economic returns. Modelling by the accounting firm Ernst and Young had concluded that by hosting scientific conferences, Australia had earned A$118 million (£65 million) between 2000 and 2017, while subscriptions over that period had cost just A$6.6 million.

A single geological congress in Brisbane had attracted more than 6,000 delegates, mostly from overseas. The analysis concluded that 60 per cent of the attendees to scientific union conferences came from abroad, compared with about 3 per cent for regular business summits.

Professor Williams said the commercial returns were perhaps the weakest reason for remaining in the global science camp. “As a developed country, Australia is expected to be part of it,” he said. “All science is part of the global market.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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