The state of Australia: science innovation and research

Australia playing its part in the world of science with the planned SKA Australia survey telescopes to be located in Western Australia (artist image). SKA Organisation

In the lead up to the budget, the story of crisis has been hammered home, but there’s more to a country than its structural deficit. So how is Australia doing overall? In this special series, ten writers to take a broader look at the State of Australia; our health, wealth, education, culture, environment and international standing.

Australian higher education institutions are nervously anticipating this week’s federal budget that in the words of the Prime Minister threatens to “shift” university funding and give them “more freedom to innovate”.

But what will this mean?

How we’re doing now

Currently Australia is an excellent place to conduct fundamental research.

The Office of the Chief Scientist says Australian research in several key areas of science performs above a European average, based on a study of citation rates for journal articles.

The black circle shows Australia’s position and how it compares against the European averages in a selection of science disciplines. Office of Chief Scientist

Australia is also third in the region (behind Japan and China) in the Nature Publishing Index for the Asia-Pacific, although one can always find a ranking system that compliments your nation/institution is you search through enough of them!

In my own sub-discipline of astronomy we are blessed by access to world-class infrastructure such as the telescopes owned and operated by the Anglo-Australian Observatory and CSIRO.

We are also playing a leading role in developing the Square Kilometre Array and Giant Magellan telescopes, both billion dollar projects and the former to be partly housed here.

I know that my students and postdocs can compete internationally and find good jobs both here and abroad, with last four to leave Australia going to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech, the Max Planck Institute and two to Harvard.

And yet there are issues, the most fundamental being funding uncertainties and lack of planning at the federal level. The funding for research infrastructure is a case in point.

There is no plan.

State and federal governments are often keen to fund the construction of iconic pieces of equipment but steadfastly refuse to provide running costs.

The Australian Synchrotron is the most painful and obvious example. Rather than being built as part of a national strategy it was claimed by Victoria to thwart Queensland’s desire to host it and it now struggles to remain open.

The Australian Synchrotron - should have been part of a national strategy. Flickr/Tom Paton, CC BY-NC-SA

Competitive research funding needs urgent reform but the Australian Research Council (ARC) is burdened with providing meaningless statistics back to the government at the expense of our researchers with only about 21.9% of applications being successful.

There are concerns too following the recent Audit of Commission report on research and development funding which recommends abolishing the Cooperative Research Centres.

How we got here

In the good old days there was the group of eight universities and CSIRO. The former trained research students and the latter concentrated on areas of research thought to aid our national priorities.

CSIRO budgets were largely consistent from year to year and university researchers looked almost solely to the ARC for their research funding.

Then, as the nation prospered we rapidly grew the higher education sector and encouraged more students to gain tertiary training and greatly expanded the number of universities. But the ARC budget didn’t expand at the same rate as the sector and researchers got grumpier as success rates declined.

Meanwhile CSIRO was told it had better earn 30% of its own income and to make it more “efficient” it would have its budget cut by 1% per annum.

It introduced an unpopular matrix management and other confused policies that left scientists and engineers doing menial tasks instead of research. Many CSIRO scientists departed and there are still concerns over further cutbacks to the organisation.

Our politicians have realised that research infrastructure spending has no electoral value. Their main verbal slanging matches seem to revolve around petty issues such as compulsory student unionism, as if they were still the presidents of the Young Liberal and Young Labor on campus, not dictating a coherent strategy for our research future in our federal parliament.

The next ten years

The only way for Australia to remain a research innovator is to invest in, and have a long-term plan for the sector. But this is unlikely to happen when the budget is in deficit.

Ironically our economic prosperity and budget future will depend upon the research investments we make now, but this will only hurt the budget more, so the government is faced with some unpalatable choices.

It seems almost certain that our children will face higher fees and larger debts to help fund the sector. But avoiding taxation reform to hit graduates seems somewhat “un-Australian” to me.

Asking students to pay higher fees is not the answer. Flickr/Michael Coghlan , CC BY-NC-SA

I’d like to believe that we invest in our youth and they repay their debt via the taxation system when they’re at the peak of their earning powers, not as they struggle to buy their first home and cot.

A national research infrastructure plan performed in conjunction with the state governments and research institutions is a must. This must look at the total cost of ownership and operation of a facility.

Universities need their red-tape cut so we can invest more in research than reporting on it. We need to scrap stupid bean-counting exercises such as the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) and just fund research infrastructure based on simpler metrics that don’t require an army of support personnel and the game-playing associated with ERA.

Research grant applications need to be simplified and be for longer duration to avoid boom and bust cycles that cripple researcher morale and their teams.

The freedom to set fees may make some institutions richer and able to fund better research leading to a Darwinian survival of the fittest scenario but might have some unexpected outcomes.

But should we really care about having an institution in the top ten in the world if it means the total number of Australians educated falls? These are not easy questions to answer.

Research and innovation should not become a political football, it should be a matter of national pride. Politicians should respect what research is telling us – about our health, our environment and our climate – and they should not denigrate scientists when they tell them what they don’t want to hear.

Finally, programmes to allow research and innovation to diffuse into the private sector will ultimately be to our nation’s benefit, enabling future governments to invest more back into higher education and research.

This is one area in which we can learn extensively from the US where there is a greater connection between universities and the private tech sectors when it comes to technology and innovation. In Australia there is still too large a gulf between industry and university researchers, with the latter often having an unhealthy disdain for companies and entrepreneurship.

Further reading: The State of Australia series