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Shaping 2015: The challenge for Australia’s new science minister

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, seen here with the Anglo Australian Telescope at Sidings Springs, is known to have a deep interest in science. So what should expect now the word science is added to his ministerial title? AAP/Alan Porritt

Shaping 2015: The challenge for Australia’s new science minister

“What’s in a name?” was essentially the Australian government’s response when concerns were first expressed about dropping “Science” from the ministerial portfolio titles back in 2013.

That same response also applies to its inclusion late last year, so the science community remains unsure about what the government intends by its reinstatement.

What we actually need is a science ministry that can bring vision and coherence to the broad sweep of science and its connections with society and the economy. Will we get that by changing the name of the Department of Industry to the Department of Industry and Science?

The biggest challenge that Australian science policy faces is how to maintain a competitive Australian research effort that, among other things, translates into innovation, industry and a competitive economy that benefits its citizens.

Both basic research and industry innovation need to be supported and brought into symbiosis, neither living separate lives nor, at the other extreme, being merged.

Perhaps because Australia has never got this connection quite right, it remains somewhat careless about the maintenance of its basic research effort. The recent cuts to research budgets are just the latest example.

Collaboration is the key

The bigger picture is well documented by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), whose figures on total research expenditure show Australia spent approximately 2.2% of GDP in 2008 which fell just below the OECD average of 2.3% of GDP.

A more detailed explanation of this data by the advocacy group, Scienceogram, shows this expenditure is skewed towards universities and government organisations, leaving investment from business lagging.

The Australian Innovation System Report 2013 adds to this picture, reporting that:

[…] Australia’s overall levels of collaborative business innovation and business-to-research collaboration on innovation continue to compare poorly with other OECD countries.

The collated indicators ranked Australia at 23rd or lower out of the OECD on collaboration to innovate. Collaboration appears remarkably good for business . Strong national leadership is needed to drive this and engage all players.

Divided leadership

Australia needs to bring university research and innovative industry together in new mutually supportive relationships. This is what national schemes in other countries do, such as the Catapults scheme in the UK and the Top Sectors scheme in the Netherlands.

Some will say that Australia doesn’t have these schemes because it can’t afford them. But it’s more likely that division of the drivers of science between federal ministries, and potentially placed in cabinet competition with each other, creates impediments to schemes like these or undermines the will to pursue them.

Industry has its own Department of Industry, which now has Science attached, while universities and university research funding are the responsibility of the Department of Education.

In its 2014 annual report the Department of Industry (pre addition of Science) made only the most cursory mention of universities.

The drivers of science, from its perspective, seem to be the agencies for which it is responsible, such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), GeoScience Australia, Questacon and others.

And yet the lion’s share of Australia’s basic scientific research is conducted in its universities: 60% in 2008-2009. Schemes such as the Co-operative Research Centres provide a glimpse of the untapped innovation potential in Australia’s universities.

So, how can symbiosis rather than competition be achieved between university research and industry when they are split between two ministerial portfolios? National leadership is needed to ensure agendas are constructively aligned.

While on the subject of splits, what impact does a growing split between teaching and research in universities have on their capacity to support translational research, particularly in science, health and engineering?

Some commentators have argued that there is no measurable impact of research culture on teaching outcomes. But many science academics in Australia and internationally strive to actively engage undergraduates with authentic research to build inquiry skills and understanding of science.

Who among those who have watched the technology explosions of the last 30 to 40 years would be brave enough to argue that science is best taught divorced from contact with its cutting edge?

There is something wrong with a regulatory and funding environment that segregates leadership in learning and teaching from leadership in research. Science undergraduate students need strong interaction with industry and research. Leading researchers and innovators also need access to young minds.

So, what is in a name?

It is reassuring that the Science title has been given to Ian Macfarlane MP, the minister most vocal in championing the cause of science and its connection to innovation and industry.

Same minister, same responsibility just with Science added to his portfolio name. The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-NC-ND

In particular, Macfarlane welcomed the Chief Scientist Ian Chubb’s strategy paper Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future, launched at Parliament House last September.

That paper demonstrates the kind of holistic strategy for science that Australia needs, covering economic competitiveness, education and training, research and international engagement.

In this and previous publications, the Chief Scientist has pointed out that other countries have already taken a broad strategic approach to science, drawing attention to the fragility of Australia’s current excellence in basic research, and to the poverty of its translation into innovation.

During the time that the “science” word wasn’t mentioned, the Chief Scientist served two masters whose departments covered university research and industry, despite that his office was located in the Industry portfolio. What connection does he now have, and does the Commonwealth Science Council have, with the university sector?

There’s more to having a Minister for Science than just giving someone the title. We hope that the government will think more deeply about this, and empower the new minister with the organisational support and resources needed to generate significant cultural change.

As Australia’s economy embarks on a difficult transition, more than ever we need to enrich the well-spring of basic science research, reward the truly adventurous industry innovators, and give them space and incentive to work together.


Catch up on the rest of The Conversation’s Shaping 2015 series here.

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