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Vaccine creator worried about fading support, and funding, for science

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Professor Ian Frazer, co-creator of a cervical cancer vaccine, said the future of government funding was less of a concern than the low level of philanthropy and corporate support.

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As part of National Science Week Queensland, Frazer said he believed most people regarded science as a way to solve problems, but there were still misconceptions about the possible solutions. The need to test, and clarify, was often overlooked.

“Media and politicians find it hard to understand that science is, by definition, not about measuring but about testing,” Frazer told InQueensland last week.

“Perhaps that’s human nature. People like answers, they don’t want problems, by and large; and the natural tendency of people is to try to simplify things down to a natural model of what they think is happening.”

Frazer said there would inevitably be debate around some of the major issues affecting the world and how science has sought to clarify the evidence to identify potential solutions. Sometimes, this all happens at once, as shown by the response to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.

“I think that anywhere where there is a choice to be made about what we do, and where it is not entirely clear from the evidence what is the right thing to do, there will be controversy,” Frazer said.

“That is the same for COVID-19 as it is for whether you can do anything about the gradual warming of the planet.

“But science is about experimentation – you try something, you see what the outcome is.”

While heartened by the government response to the search for a COVID-19 vaccine, Frazer said he would like to also see public funding for research into potential treatments and the novel coronavirus itself.

Generally-speaking, Frazer felt governments increased funding for science when new challenges arose, but he was concerned for research funding overall, particularly with an economic downturn.

While Australian governments had been “very generous” in comparison to some other countries, the private and corporate sector in Australia was well behind other countries.

“The challenge is that we get rather less philanthropic and business research than most countries and we’ve always been trying to play catchup,” Frazer said.

The so-called brain drain could also accelerate if Australia continued to train more scientists and researchers than it employed. Universities have been hit hard by the pandemic, and Frazer said the corporate sector should focus more on research and innovation.

“It would be really helpful if we also had industry that could employ some of these people to do useful work in R and D (research and development) in an industrial sense.”

Frazer said science was important to the future as it has been to the past, and urged people not to take it for granted.

“Science actually delivers, and has delivered in the past, and we are now reaping the benefits of what science has delivered in the past,” Frazer said.

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