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We need to fund more than just science priorities for Australia’s future

What about the research that’s not considered a ‘priority’? Flickr/Grant Williamson, CC BY-NC

We need to fund more than just science priorities for Australia’s future

It’s not long to go before Wednesday’s deadline for the 2016 Linkage Projects, another national competitive research funding scheme run by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

I’m trying to complete an application but I’m struggling with one of the questions:

Does this proposal fall within one of the Science and Research Priorities?

Australia’s outgoing Chief Scientist Ian Chubb introduced Australia’s nine research priorities earlier this year by saying “[…] science is both awesome and awesomely important […].”

There is no denying the joint power of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) has brought about many inventions and innovations. Considering the numerous and seemingly insurmountable problems society faces, it is a fair call to expect greatness from STEM.

But this focus comes with consequences that in the long term are detrimental to all Australians and the overall goal of sustaining our livelihood, prosperity and high standard of living.

Academia has long recognised that wicked problems require cross-disciplinary research approaches, yet Australia’s Science and Research Priorities enthral mainly STEM researchers. This divide puts academia back into silos: those on the sunny side of funding decisions and those under a constant rain cloud.

Encouragement and incentives for the hard sciences to collaborate with the social sciences, design, arts and humanities and vice versa are scarce.

Creativity, design and social innovation

STEM usually goes hand-in-hand with a focus on entrepreneurship and start-up businesses. For good reasons, as entrepreneurship makes traditional industries more competitive. This often creates a multiplier effect, leveraging new jobs for the industry as a whole.

But the entrepreneurship community is often dominated by the desire to replicate the success of Silicon Valley, which can blind them to regard only a tech start-up as truly entrepreneurial.

Great promise rests on new approaches such as exploring creative and social entrepreneurship. Some have argued that social entrepreneurship complements the scientific method in solving some of the increasingly complex problems facing modern society.

Consider food. Food is more than the industrial agricultural mass production of commodified sustenance.

The research challenges in food that are not adequately being addressed by STEM alone include:

  • new design approaches to shorten the distance between producers and consumers
  • ways of addressing the main causes of the mental health epidemic among Australian farmers such as adhesion contracts by seed and supermarket giants and the impact of coal seam gas – with the late George Bender being the most recent victim
  • learning from indigenous knowledge and practices of caring for country, such as abriculture.

The list of important challenges that the social sciences, design, arts and humanities are well equipped to tackle is long and nowhere to be found in Australia’s research priorities.

There’s nature, climate change, animal welfare, extinctions and the loss of biodiversity. There is also poverty and international aid, migrants and refugees, racism and xenophobia. Then consider regional development, mental health, women and children, domestic violence, people living with disabilities, LGBT rights and equality, homelessness, indigenous peoples of Australia, the list goes on.

Are these social, cultural and environmental concerns less worthy of receiving priority funding?

The human priority

What about research into our own human condition? Given all the science and technology advances that brought us automation and higher productivity, we often end up being rushed, having less time for family and friends. We work longer hours and wait longer until we are able to retire. We suffer from stress and other preventable diseases, and are less happy overall.

For US President Barack Obama, the “empathy deficit” is a research priority more important than his federal deficit.

Another research priority should be finding new ways to expand the toolbox available to citizens to participate in their community, in their city, in society, in local forms of governance, to take action and bring about change for good.

Can we offer more and better options than the usual array of voting every couple of years, petitioning, protesting, volunteering and donating? Social media to the rescue? How do we deal with the digital walled gardens of Google, Facebook and Twitter that encapsulate everyone inside filter bubbles?

Australia’s cities house not just major infrastructure but also 89.3% of our population, which makes us one of the most urbanised countries in the world. This presents many complex challenges that my research lab is extremely passionate about, and so I declare my bias when I call for the socio-cultural facets of cities to also be a research priority – and not only cities, but population growth.

The biggest challenge humanity faces is figuring out what comes after growth. The late US Professor Al Bartlett superbly demonstrated in his famous lecture that growth cannot continue without bounds. And growth does not equal prosperity. Economists unite and figure out: how do we descend prosperously?

A better way

So what encouragement is there for those researchers – who may be completing their application for ARC Linkage Projects – who want to do their best to better society but have their work not considered a priority?

It’s hard enough to get a grant accepted with last week’s announcements of the ARC Discovery Projects down to a 17.7% approval rate.

If we are serious about encouraging research that will secure and sustain a future for Australia, I encourage the incoming Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to cast his net wider than the current priorities.

We need not just STEM to the rescue, but we need all research hands on deck.