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In Conversation with Andrew Robb: research must ‘back our strengths’

The research funding system needs to be changed to make it more efficient says coalition member Andrew Robb. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

It’s hard to argue with the importance of research, particularly medical research. It leads to breakthroughs and can change people’s lives for the better.

But there are some crucial questions about how we fund research in Australia – who gets the money? How much? And are there ways to get more bang for our buck?

In a tight fiscal climate, these questions become all the more important as governments and research funding groups seek to stretch their dollar further.

Shadow finance minister, Andrew Robb chairs the coalition’s Policy Development Committee and has been speaking out lately on the party’s policy direction in research funding.

Today the Conversation presents a discussion between Andrew Robb and Doug Hilton, Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute – a medical research institute based in Melbourne – on Australia’s research priorities and some of the problems with the current system.

Read the full transcript here.

Doug Hilton: 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.

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 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.

Doug Hilton: 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.

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.

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