Research funding focus shifts to industry

Research heads are hoping to avoid another round of government funding cuts. AAP

The likelihood of research funding freezes or cuts by the Federal Government is worrying, says incoming Australian Research Council executive director Brian Yates, but is more likely to be a cyclical problem than an ongoing one.

“My view is it’s not a long-term shift. There’s a recognition of the value of research in government.”

Dr Yates, who is currently a professor in the School of Chemistry at the University of Tasmania, will be advising the ARC on its strategic research direction. He said he’s looking forward to engaging on a political level and working out how best to win government support.

“The Commonwealth Government has talked about having a surplus, that’s driving a lot of the constraints,” Professor Yates said, but added: “there shouldn’t be long term doom and gloom about this.”

The appointment of Professor Yates to the ARC came as the University of Melbourne released a report on its research strategy for the next five years.

The report’s author, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research James McCluskey, writes that in order for the Melbourne University to achieve material growth in its research business, it will need to consider alternative funding sources such as international schemes, philanthropy, corporate or industry research funds, and business partnerships.

Professor McCluskey said while he didn’t expect any increase in untied scholarship-driven funding, purpose-driven funding within government and industry was likely to grow.

He cited the ARC’s Industrial Transformation Research Program as one example. “It may be a victim of the cuts, but it will come back.”

However, Professor Julie Campbell, director of the Wesley Research Institute, said she couldn’t understand the thinking behind the freezing of research grants.

“If they froze the funding of grants for six months, which is what we’ve been hearing, what do they think happens to the research assistants, to the research officers whose salaries are paid from these grants, what do they do for six months? You lose them and how do you get them back again?”

Professor McCluskey said Melbourne University’s research plan was aimed at getting scholars excited about working with industry, something that had not traditionally been the university’s great strength.

“I’m confident we can do that. We’re not saying to them drop what you’re doing, you must work with industry, we’re saying continue what you’re doing, but here’s an opportunity we’re creating that will give you a chance to put a proportion of your effort in this direction.”

Professor Yates said it was important all researchers be encouraged to engage with industry.

“As researchers we’re all going to have to think very carefully about the impact of our research. It doesn’t have to be short-term impact, it can be long term.”

He added that as a result of this focus there would be an inevitable flow-on with industry, or some commercial impact.

“The Australian community does expect that research, even fundamental research, will have some impact at some point,” Professor Yates said.

He added that there were plenty of existing examples where pure research in physics led to real technology that was useful in people’s everyday lives.