Now that we finally have a government in Australia, we need to focus on how we can both prosper as a nation in the new technology-driven global economy and become a fairer and more equitable society.
One thing that was painfully absent from the election debate was any sustained focus on the role Australia’s research capacity could play in helping to meet these challenges.
The government’s existing research policy framework is pretty thin.
Yes, there is the promised Medical Research Future Fund, which should hopefully relieve some pressure on the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). But much detail remains to be worked out and the source of funding secured.
Research funding stagnating
Worryingly, at the same time, funding for the Australian Research Council – which supports a much wider array of research areas – is stagnating.
In the last budget, the government did find some additional funding for some large-scale research infrastructure (such as the Synchrotron, a large machine that accelerates electrons to almost the speed of light), but did so mainly by taking funding from other research schemes.
We still lack a smart, long-term and sufficiently funded strategy for research investment and support.
Slipping further behind
Australia is also in danger of slipping even further behind in the global research and development game.
Figures show that government research and development (R&D) investment remains near the bottom of the OECD. Even total R&D spending (including both private and public sources) places us far behind the very economies we are being encouraged to emulate (US, Sweden, Germany and Finland).
It’s a kind of policy “superfood” – investment that helps secure the health of our communities over the long term.
Efficiency and equity
By investing in high-quality research, governments can generate outcomes that help make societies more efficient and equitable.
Our economy becomes more efficient because of the constant generation of new ideas, inventions and improvements in the materials, processes, techniques and machines that lie at the heart of our productive capacities.
Our society becomes more equitable as we learn how to distribute the benefits of these changes in ways that ensure all of our citizens enjoy genuine equality of opportunity.
Despite enormous economic growth over the past 50 years, there remains significant inequality in our communities and thus the social challenges that come with it.
Hence the benefits of, for example, developing cleaner energy, or more effective preventive health care, become even more important. In fact, according to the International Monetary Fund, inequality is bad for economic growth and we need even greater social innovation to overcome it.
Although we’re used to thinking there is a fundamental trade-off between efficiency and equity, investment in high-quality research helps transform this trade-off into a potential “win-win”. And this raises an important point about the role that universities play in the innovation ecosystem.
Transformative and creative innovation
What universities can provide are the means to generate transformative and creative innovation. The scale of the challenges we face require this kind of ambition.
But we need to find new ways for enabling the research being done in our universities to have even greater impact in the community.
As the Grattan Institute has pointed out:
In real terms, nearly five times as much was spent on applied research in 2014 compared to 20 years before. Despite this, universities are the direct source of only 3% of business innovation ideas.
We need innovative ideas that can help transform our health system, for example, by harnessing technology and the insights of the social sciences to treat the scourge of mental illness, or the burden of obesity and diabetes; new ways of trapping the weird and wonderful forces of quantum mechanics to revolutionise computing as we know it; and the insights of our philosophers, political scientists lawyers and historians to help us understand the consequences of these new developments for our legal, political and cultural institutions.
We need to take the long view and pursue the bold ideas and approaches that will form the basis of the new industries, technologies and policies that will help shape Australia’s future.
Three ideas for the new government
The good news is that there are some things a new government can do almost immediately to help address these problems – and that won’t break the budget.
1) Collaboration in policy and research
Let’s build a broad, bipartisan vision for the future of research and development in Australia. This has been lacking for too long.
We need to bring together universities, state and federal governments, key community partners and industry to map out what kind of research we want to support and see develop in Australia over the next 20 years.
Given the nature of the problems we face today – and into the future – we need to bring together the sciences, humanities and creative arts together to underpin the kind of transformative and creative innovation our society needs.
We’ve got new research priorities for science. We need to broaden this out to include research from across a broad range of disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences. The future is all about breaking down barriers between disciplines and integrating approaches and insights from a range of different domains.
2) Release existing research funds
The government could also release some of the existing funds for research infrastructure set up under the previous Education Infrastructure Fund (EIF) – currently held in limbo – to provide desperately needed investment for research infrastructure.
It’s already there. No need to take it from somewhere else.
The initial round of funding from EIF resulted in a series of highly successful projects already helping to deliver outstanding social and scientific outcomes across the country – including world-class facilities for nano-scale science and technology, marine and Antarctic studies, Indigenous knowledges and neural engineering.
We also need to build a research funding system that sets aside, every year, sufficient funds to invest in the indirect costs of research (such as the equipment, administrative support and running costs) that are vital to achieving high-quality research outcomes.
3) Establish committee of experts to guide strategic investment in infrastructure
We should establish an independent committee of experts, with broad representation from the different disciplinary areas, community organisations and industry, to help advise the government on where investments in research infrastructure can best be made over the long term. We need a stable, long-term vision for research investment. Let’s draw on the expertise we have across the higher education sector and the community to help deliver on that vision.