The blue marble

The blue marble

Australia R&D about to Trip over Red Tape

A healthy R&D system is one of the underpinnings, if not sufficiently recognized, of the prosperity Australia enjoys, and a likely silver bullet to maintain our economy healthy in the unavoidable aftermath of the resources bloom.

A healthy R&D system sits on three pillars: sufficient funding, high-quality human resources, and robust and effective processes for resource allocation.

Australian R&D funding and high-quality human resources are in healthy standing, bench-marked against international standards. However, the third pillar, effective processes, is so flawed that it has Australia’s R&D system limping with a significant risk of falling down.

The problem is with the excessive proportions the red tape around the processes governing the Australian R&D system has achieved, entangling the system so tightly as to holding it on the verge of suffocation.

The excess R&D in the Australian R&D system has been the focus of a recent correspondence published in Nature that estimated that Australian researchers wasted collectively more than four centuries of effort in preparing unsuccessful research-grant proposals for consideration by the largest funding scheme of 2012. A recent submission by Universities Australia to the Opposition’s deregulation task force estimated that Universities spend $280 million a year on complying with government regulations and reporting requirements.

This situation should be addressed in everyone’s interests: government, researchers and eventually, tax payers, who support all three pillars with their effort. The red-tape malady of the Australian R&D process is composed of three major syndromes:

(1) A gluttony for thick documents

The ARC, arguably the jewel in the crown of Australia’s R&D system, application processes require the production of inordinately thick documents, typically involving applications ranging between 70 and over 500 pages across programs. I have no doubt that the NHMRC suffers from equally lengthy processes.

This is in contrast with the international trend towards parsimony and reduction to the absolute essential of processes. Applications to the European Research Council program are restricted to a maximum of 15 pages for individual-researcher grants of up to 4.5 million $, and the US National Science Foundation requires even thinner proposals.

Much of the detail in these voluminous proposals is spurious, of marginal interest to evaluate the proposal or involves information redundant or already available in the files of the ARC. Provided thousands of applications are submitted every year, with a success rate between 10% to 30%, the collective time wasted by allocating the talented minds of Australian researchers to produce and review this inordinate amount of paper represents a huge loss of productivity to the R&D system, wasted in red tape.

(2) A system Hostage to Legal Departments

Lawyers have taken a firm grip on the interactions between research partners within the Australian R&D system. Contracts regulating ordinary research interactions between partners often take over a year, if not longer, to be agreed and signed. This compares to bench marks of three to six months elsewhere for projects including complex international partnerships.

This excess time is consumed by pit bull battles between legal departments of the participant organizations often agonizing about minute details of wording. Unnecessarily detailed discussions about deliverables and milestones also contribute to delays. If we could anticipate the outcome of the research to such a level of detail there must be, necessarily, very little room for discovery in the ideas proposed.

Particularly significant dead weight on the contract negotiations is the endless discussion about IP registers. The nature of this IP in my field of research, marine ecology and oceanography, I haven’t yet managed to fully understand despite my strongest interest in resolving what these discussions on IP are really about and why they are not handled, as they are elsewhere, by the widely accepted rules of professional ethics and best practice.

These lengthy discussions are not only prevalent in the normal mode of operation, but they take place even in national emergencies. For instance, the Montara commission of inquiry report on the handling of the Montara oil spill in 2009, reads: “The Monitoring Plan needed to be in place shortly after the 21 August 2009; that it was not in place until October 2009 is unacceptable”. The delay was due to lengthy negotiations as to which government department was to bear the costs. Yet, it is widely recognized that immediate scientific assessment of the scale of the accident is key to minimizing the possible impacts of oil spills.

The consequence is also one of productivity loss and heavy costs resulting from a high ratio of administrative to research personal in Australian research institutions and large overheads consumed by the heavy administrative apparatus that shrinks the funds available to actually conduct the research.

_(3) A focus on dollars over ideas _

Scientific research is expensive in a high-wave economy as Australia is, even if researchers earn a fraction of what workers in the resource industry do. This justifies the fact that discussions on funding and monetary compensations for time be prominent in the R&D process, but only to a point.

A focus on monetary transactions and compensations has taken control of interactions between research partners and individual researchers, often dominating research workshops and meetings, with the consequence that the discussion of ideas - which ultimately set all the value research projects can possibly deliver - is subordinate to the monetary and associated operational discussions. The culture of monetary transactions has percolated academic institutions where interactions between departments are dominated by complex negotiations on the sharing of benefits and monetary compensations and flows.

I refer to this as the Australia R&D Monopoly Syndrome, where talented minds are distracted from generating ideas with the potential to bring about breakthroughs and major discoveries by being applied to bitter negotiations over small monetary exchanges. The value these transactions add to advancing R&D is no greater than that in Monopoly tokens while consuming vast spans of valuable time and talent.

As a result, Australian research providers are migrating, in mind and souls, towards a commercial culture. In this commercial culture economic benefit, rather than advancing the frontiers of knowledge to address the great challenges of our times, drives the institutions often conflicting with their mission statements. Yet, non-monetary outcomes, such as excellence in research and discoveries, probably deliver a much larger, by orders of magnitude, value to R&D organizations and society than the sum of all the transactions that occupy so much of the attention of research organizations. Research excellence does so through prestige, recognition, branding and eventually disruptive technologies and solutions to ease the problems of everyday life.

I believe that the consequence of the syndromes defined above is that the Australian R&D system delivers well below the potential of its excellent researchers and the effort of Australian citizens, who appreciate the value of science and who propel scientific progress.

The Australian R&D system needs to engage in an independent red tape review benchmarked against the best international standards, to release the power of the talent currently tied up in red tape in Australian research institutions to advance science and continue to support the prosperity of Australia and the world.

A likely reply from those responsible for setting processes is that this cannot be done. This is the response that the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC), of which I am a member, was used to hear when making specific recommendations to cut red tape in the EU funding system, notorious for an excess of red tape. Yet, persistence, common sense and compelling rationale proved effective at cutting through red tape. The ERC processes now provide a benchmark for streamlined processes propagating across European R&D systems and beyond. Likewise, there is no reason why excessive red tape cannot be trimmed down in the Australian R&D system.

I am only a 457 visa holder, but is seems to me that these are propositions of value to consider in an election year.

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