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In Conversation Andrew Robb: full transcript

An In Conversation between federal coalition MP Andrew Robb and the director of the Waler and Eliza Hall Institute, Doug Hilton. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Doug Hilton: Welcome Andrew to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. This conversation between me, Doug Hilton, and Andrew Robb is part of The Conversation.

So Andrew, it’s been really exciting in the last few weeks and months to have research policy having a profile in the media. Tell us why you’re interested in that area?

Andrew Robb: I’ve particularly started to focus on research because I have a responsibility – not only as shadow finance minister – but also I am coordinating all our policy development across 49 areas of policy in preparation for the next election.

Now there have been four principles which have driven that policy development process: first, that we’re going to live within our means as a government, if we get the privilege of government. Second, we’re going to seek to reverse the nanny state, the proliferation of regulations. Third, restore a culture of personal responsibility and finally, and very importantly, look to back our strengths.

And I don’t mean a hundred strengths – I mean what are the four or five things that as a country we do as well as anyone, or better than most. In that category medical research is very significant.

So that has led me to look at the quality of spending – not just medical research but across the aboard. If we are going to live within our means, we haven’t got a lot of new money, that’s our expectation, if we do get to government we won’t have a lot of new money in the first few years. So how do we make the most out of what we’ve got?

So the quality of the spend, the efficiency of processes which lead to the spending of government money, the priorities on which that money is spent, to me are all front and square.

Doug Hilton: You mentioned medical research as one area of priority – and clearly we’re delighted about that – but there are other areas of research, development and technology where Australia also excels. Give us an idea of where you think those other areas of excellence lie?

Andrew Robb: The things that we do as well as anyone and better than most and have done are, historically: resources and energy, agriculture, education and medical research. Probably there are a few things that follow-on from those but they are the four key areas.

Now within that you’ve got multi-disciplinary issues. You’ve got physics and chemistry and mathematics and all these things, my argument is that just like a company or like an individual you back your strengths. So again with the limited dollars we’ve got, we should be seeking to make sure that in mathematics, and physics and chemistry and biotechnology and all the rest, that we keep an eye on those strengths.

We don’t exclude everything else but a lot of the money…

Douglas Hilton: It’s a prioritisation…

Andrew Robb: Yes, it’s a prioritisation. I was on the board of Sinclair Knight Merz – Australia’s biggest consulting engineering group – for several years, 7,000 consulting engineers. The work I saw they were doing in resources and energy was just world-leading, spectacular innovation. The work in agriculture, especially groundwater, was world-leading.

And we are known around the world, and yet not recognised often within Australia, for the great strengths that we’ve got.

And all these other disciplines cluster around these strengths.

Doug Hilton: So it seems strange, if you went to the US, there are different tertiary institutions that choose to focus on particular areas. If you went to Caltech or MIT, the major focus is on engineering as it crosses into biosciences and agriculture. You can go to other schools and it will all be biosciences or it’ll be the arts.

Do you think we’re well served by having multiple universities that while they’re improving their rankings are still trying to be all things to all people?

Andrew Robb: No, I have, for a long time been concerned about the “all things, to all people” notion which Dawkins introduced in 1990 and I think it has served the country very badly. Because again, if you go with your strengths certain universities have got great areas of expertise for all sorts of historical reasons and geographical reasons and all the rest.

They should be free to maximise their contribution and their focus and not have their funding threatened and all that. And others, James Cook with tropical medicine and tropical agriculture, why should they feel a pressure to contribute to every discipline when in fact they’ve got a particular focus and expertise that they really should be focusing on.

Doug Hilton: So you mentioned James Cook and I think that’s really interesting in terms of the current government’s focus on the Asian Century. You know we have a couple of institutions that are north of Brisbane, in the tropics, but only a couple.

Is there an opportunity of building, whether its agriculture or a focus on tropical health, that includes those centres that are closest to Asia, that are in our tropical part of Australia?

Andrew Robb: The fact is that that region in Australia from the Tropic of Capricorn up, 40% of the world’s population lives in that same zone. And yet we’ve got a million people out of 22, but an enormous opportunity, both in terms of agriculture and resources but also from a tropical medicine perspective for instance, and from an education perspective.

I do feel that with the emergence now of literally billions more people – billions not millions – billions more people in the region around us with the wherewithal of a middle class. And those people are going into the middle class with disposable income, the opportunity for the first time really to pay the high cost for services and product out of Australia.

We’re a high cost country, we always will be. So you need high-quality, high margins so that we can get a return on investment.

That opportunity has arrived. And I do think there’s an enormous capacity across the north to capitalise on that with medical research, with education, with agriculture, with tourism, with resources.

Doug Hilton: So how is that funded, obviously that sort of perspective is of particular interest to countries in our region, countries that we have a natural affinity with, countries like PNG, Indonesia the Pacific Islands. So are there areas of current spend that you see could be re-deployed to get a bigger bang for our buck if you like?

Andrew Robb: I do feel that when I look, again, we have a desire to live within our means so part of that is – can we make better use of the existing resources?

Foreign aid spend is, for instance, deployed all over the world in all sorts of regions. I do think a greater priority needs to be given to the islands, to PNG, to Indonesia.

We have a responsibility to increase our contribution in that area and not only that, but it will help us in the longer term. Because as a country, we will then build critical mass and an expertise in that region which will become very sought after, in my view, by all parts of Asia.

So I think we could be using some of that foreign aid money immediately to start to build a capability, well, enhance a capability.

Doug Hilton: And a collaboration…

Andrew Robb: And a collaboration. So at the pre-eminent medical research precinct in the southern hemisphere that you’re at the centre of, have you been focusing in any way at those sorts of opportunities?

Doug Hilton: We see PNG a natural partner. As you know we’re celebrating the opening of our new building and we have three of the leading researchers from PNG down here to be part of that. For exactly the same reason, we see PNG as being a real area of collaboration and it sounds very paternalistic, but responsibility as well.

So the idea that we can help build medical research infrastructure and develop what they already have there is really exciting and if we want to help cure diseases like malaria we need the researchers in PNG as partners.

So I really like the idea that while participating in aid in places like Africa and South America is important and we have to carry our international responsibility there. If we’re not helping in the Pacific and PNG, then people are going to look at us and think we’ve been derelict.

Andrew Robb: In this context, I’d like to get back to an area that I’d really like some guidance on. And that is this current situation where something between 30 and 50% of the time of our researchers, both medical and others is taken up applying for grants or peer reviewing.

What can we do to reduce that because clearly there’s a lot of money being wasted requiring that huge resource to be tied up in that sort of thing.

Doug Hilton: It is a huge amount of money and I was really heartened by Brian Schmidt, the Nobel Prize winner’s comments in the press recently where he said exactly the same thing that we’re experiencing in health and medical research is also being felt by the physicists and other researchers that are being funded by the ARC.

So there was a really nice piece of research done out of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane by Nick Graves and his colleagues, which basically calculated the cost to the sector in simply applying for and reviewing grants for funding.

Simply accruing the resources that you need before uyou can even start being creative and doing experiments. And his answer was really staggering, it was, as you said about 30 to 40% of a researcher’s time but also the cost to the sector is hundreds of millions of dollars. And given the entire NHMRC budget is $750 million a year, give or take, that’s a big burden.

I think part of the problem is, we’ve become very, very risk averse as a sector. We’re only funding the research that is the safest.

It will seem silly to the community, but in order to get a National Health and Medical Research Council project grant funded, you really have to have done more than half of the research you say you’re going to do.

So in many ways it’s a bit of a sham, you do most of the research, you understand what the answer is going to be – and that almost defeats the idea of doing research in the first place – you get the grant, then you finish it off, you get the publication then you move to the next state.

So what it discourages is first, young investigators because they are in a catch 22 situation. You need grant funding to get the preliminary data in order to be compelling to get grant funding. So if you haven’t got grant funding at the start then there’s no way you can be competitive in the grant system.

You know, that really hamstrings people and also is what it does, is it makes people safe. They’re going to be looking at incremental questions that will develop little gains in knowledge but safe gains in knowledge.

The sort of research that we would want to try and do here is, we want to try and do research that really changes the way people think about the world and have that revolutionary impacts on disease, prevention and diagnosis.

We know they’re not all going to be revolutionary but at least you want that starting point. Yes, some of them are going to be published in second and third rate journals because that’s life and research is unpredictable – they’re not all going to be blockbusters.

But at least when we start out, we want it to be exciting. And I think the current funding system is encouraging people to submit multiple grants to support their groups.

We calculate that to support a modest sized lab with six or eight researchers, requires each of them to put in multiple grants each year. What we should be thinking about, in my mind, is funding people for longer.

Perhaps you give your young investigators five years’ worth of funding to make a mark. You know people that we know are highly educated, that have served their research apprenticeship, who are passionate and articulate about what they do. Give them five years to get going.

And then after five years ask them, have they come up with the goods, assess them absolutely rigorously, make them responsible for their own destiny and having reviewed them and put the flame to their bellies, then give them perhaps five or seven years in the next funding cycle.

And have an agreement with them that they come up once, so they get enough research money to sustain their group and do it once rather than reviewing the same people multiple times for small ideas. I think there would be a lot of excitement about that sort of possibility and also a lot of efficiency within the money we’re already spending.

Andrew Robb: And I suppose, that sort of model would also mean that a lot of researchers, even more senior ones would think if I do the job, I’ve got 12 years, that’s a career.

Doug Hilton: That’s exactly right, so if you’re thinking five and then seven and the person is still doing it at the end of seven and has their fire in their belly, I’m happy to give them another seven.

And I think that is what we’ve got to get to, we’ve got to get to the point where we’re not nickle and diming people in terms of review at every possible, every few months or every year.

We understand that people require time to make big discoveries and make a big impact and that’s certainly our philosophy here. We want lab techs to be working together for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years that are really going to change the nation.

Andrew Robb: Brian Schmidt, the Nobel Laureate, who you mentioned he talked about some of those sorts of approaches. He also raised something that I had been aware of and that is, that in the UK they’ve got rolling grants – five year contracts – that are aggregated on the basis of the collective track record of a group over the previous five years.

And so it’s more of a collective and then as I understand it, allocate money within that group to where they think they can get the best bang for their buck.

Doug Hilton: So it’s a devolving the responsibility to more local groups to make strategic decisions about where funding goes. I like that model as well, and what that model does also is encourage people to collaborate because with that sort of model as a biologist I realise that I now need a mathematician to wade through and make sense of all of the new data we’re generating it’s not easier for me to prioritise that sort of recruitment

So I think anything that can stimulate long term collaboration where decisions are made at a local level. I think Brian is on the right track there.

Andrew Robb: One other thing that I’ve observed as I go around some of the universities and other research precincts, there’s much greater involvement now in inter-disciplinary collaborative work. And you can see that turbocharging in lots of areas of research. Could you give me a sense of how quickly that’s accelerating, what’s holding it back, what we could do if we got government?

Doug Hilton: So I can give you a really tangible example. So we have a mathematics department here at the Walter and Eliza Institute, Suzanne Cory set that up 15 years ago and it seemed a bit out there. At the time, it was a brave sort of an appointment.

Now we have somewhere around 10-15% of our staff with a mathematics and computational science background – we think that’s underdone. You know, I sit on the scientific advisory committees of a lot of medical research institutes in Australia and the people they most want to recruit, the people the directors of other medical research institutes most want to recruit are mathematicians and computational scientists.

And that’s a really interesting challenge, and I’ve been talking to people that are part of the mathematics teachers’ association in Australia, that are trying to encourage kids to go into maths. I think part of the problem is describing to kids who are good at maths in high schools and at universities that there are jobs in a lot of areas for kids that are good at maths.

I think that kids probably think that the only thing you can do is become an actuary or an accountant. We would love to have a conga line of kids stretching out onto Royal Parade in Melbourne knocking on the door wanting to take their maths skills and use them in biology.

So I think a lot of it is talking about the options but it’s also having the right incentives, whether in secondary school or university to get the right teachers in and then to encourage the kids to stay with maths through university.

So a bit of better communication by the users of those skills but also a recognition that there has to be some carrots there as well.

Andrew Robb: On the issue of priorities, I like the idea very much of giving a greater opportunity, at a local level, for groups of scientists or researchers to make decisions amongst themselves about priorities. At a national level, I think we do have to support all sorts of research – basic research and applied research but also the humanities and all the rest.

But what’s bothered me is at a time when we’re coming out of the global financial crisis, we’ve got a real productivity problem in the country, we’ve got a structural deficit which means there’s going to be a lot more pressure in our budget as our terms of trade come back to a more normal levels. We need desperately to see productivity jump dramatically.

And yet, my public comments were really predicated on the fact that in the national priorities area we’ve seen $30 million less than we spent five years ago. So there’s been a reduction in research but also a shifting of moneys out of the national priority areas.

And I would have thought productivity in the sort of areas you’re talking about, we need that discretion at a time in the country’s history. We need that time, five or ten years I assume, to shift priorities and give a focus and then when we’ve got more money, we broaden it.

Doug Hilton: Juggling those competing interests is really tough and it must be great to be in government when there’s rivers of money around and there can be lots of things done, you don’t necessarily have to think as hard.

I think that you’re right, you need the core groups that are performing absolutely at the pinnacle internationally, whether it’s in the humanities or the fine arts, or physics or astronomy or in medical research you need those core groups funded properly.

But then in terms of where you then apply more resources, do that in a more strategic way. And I think that allows you to keep the expertise in some of these esoteric areas, but also use a greater share of the funding that is available for things that are going to be strategic priorities because they’re areas of strength that we want to develop.

So I think it’s getting that mix right – that’s no easy task but I think there are ways of doing it. And there’s a lot of, even among the areas you’ve outlined, there’s a lot of areas of overlap.

And in my own area, genomics is the big hot technology that we want to use, clearly the same is true in agriculture, the same is true of environment.

So I think there’s a way of funding areas that are not just within our priority areas that you’ve identified, but across those areas. And I think that’s really exciting.

Andrew, you mentioned that the attractiveness of devolving some of the responsibility for funding decisions, more locally, away from Canberra if you like. And that is something that certainly would be exciting, as I go around the country I can see 8 or 10 areas, 8 or 10 geographic locations that are clearly doing, collectively, fabulous research.

In Victoria, we probably have three, Parkville campus, around the main campus at Melbourne Uni, south of the river down at Monash including the Alfred Hospital Campus, and then up at La Trobe around the biosciences and the agricultural area.

IF you got to NSW, there’s probably the same sort of thing, there’s some great campuses around the University of Sydney but also UNSW. Perth is developing campuses and then we have the tropical campuses if you like, the tropical precincts around James Cook, Cairns, some in Darwin.

I think it’s really exciting to be able to recognise that there are these foci where science and technology is really being done at an international level and support those and make it easier for people in those campuses to make strategic decisions. And to link with each other.

Andrew Robb: So just to finish up perhaps, I think you’re right. I think the cluster approach is exciting and holds potential for enormous advantages for us. But what, if anything, is holding it back?

Doug Hilton: So I think there’s one or two structural things. So the first structural thing is around indirect costs and infrastructure.

So there are multiple schemes that poorly support the indirect costs of research and cross-subsidies. It’s Byzantine in its complexity.

The universities thought that they’d tick the box with government’s Strategic Research Excellence funding (SRE) which would have taken universities to 60 cents in the dollar of funding to cover indirect costs and infrastructure. But that was put on the back burner as part of the Mid-Year Economic Forecast (MYEFO).

For medical research institutes we’re probably 30 to 40 cents short in every dollar of direct research funding that we get. And what that drives is people looking over their shoulder when they want to do a collaboration. Do I want to collaborate with the guys at the university because that’s going to cost me 40 cents in the dollar, I’m going to have to find another 40 cents for every dollar I get federally from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

If we could have a simple transparent system where are researcher got a dollar, and the institution got 60 cents, audit the fact that it’s 60 cents, do it rigorously. It seems to be 60 cents almost every where you go in the world. You could have a system that funded the indirect costs of research in a transparent manner, you would drive a collaborative culture.

It would enable us also to grow the pie because the philanthropy that we try to get as a medical research institute, I can tell you what, the little old ladies living in Baldwin are much more excited about funding cancer research than they are an accountant in our finance department.

So you know, I would guarantee if the government can find a way of funding the indirect costs, as they of in the US for the national institutes, I can grow the pie more.

Andrew Robb: Let’s see if we can have a go at it.

Doug Hilton: Sounds like a great idea Andrew. Thanks very much.

Andrew Robb: Thanks Doug.

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