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What research needs in Australia is a plan for the future. Flickr/Nomadic Lass, CC BY-NC-SA

Planning for survival is not enough for success in Australian research

After a few years of increased funding, Australian research has recently started to face cutbacks and job losses. This boom and bust cycle for science is nothing new but is it time to take a new approach to our investment in science and research?

Research is just like many other fields when it comes to funding – to make any progress you need investment in the future.

Take transport, for example. Australia last year ranked second in a sample of large western economies for traffic congestion which added an extra 27.5% to average journey times.

A previous analysis of traffic congestion has shown it leads to a significant loss of productivity for business and yet the challenges in improving road infrastructure are substantial and difficult to address.

Infrastructure is also critical for Australian research, for example:

But the massive returns to society from investments in scientific research generally take place over long timescales (sometimes decades) and are not easy to explain in a simple analysis. So, when road infrastructure presents challenges, should we wonder that Australia has no long-term strategic plan for science and research? Probably not.

The boom-and-bust cycle of support for research has been well documented and it’s been going on for a while. This is certainly not a problem we can uniquely attribute to the current government.

The boom years

In Australia’s response to the global financial crisis (GFC), large amounts of money were quickly directed to science.

One of 128 tiles of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope prepared during the boom years. Flickr/Australian SKA Office/WA Department of Commerce, CC BY-ND

Within my own sphere, astrophysics, the Pawsey and new telescopes like the Murchison Widefield Array were built.

A large number of fantastic young scientists were awarded Fellowships under one-off schemes through the Australian Research Council.

But it was a very short-term response to non-scientific considerations – it was highly opportunistic. Beyond the immediacy, there was no particular long-term strategy.

The bust years

After this spending surge, research is now taking a cut. The senior and entrepreneurial scientists among us used the post-GFC spend to build new infrastructure that is the world-class training ground for Australian and overseas students and young scientists. But we are now scrambling to keep the new facilities alive.

The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), the fund that has established much of this infrastructure and also funds ongoing operational expenses, has been fitfully supported.

Following the initial multi-year round in 2007, an emergency interim round was announced in 2012 and a two-year scheme for 2013/2015 is currently in effect. A one year extension for NCRIS into 2016 was announced in the last federal budget.

Year-to-year extensions, emergency schemes, and constant reactions to short-term considerations make it very difficult for government departments to administer research and for researchers to plan.

The administration and planning cycle is sometimes longer than the extension duration! How do you attract good staff if you can’t tell them how long they will have a job and when the funding will start and stop?

The money problem

A few young stars have risen quickly through the system due to the post-GFC golden period, to grab a career toe-hold. But for the bulk of young researchers that have entered our system, things now look pretty grim.

Perversely, brief periods of plenty create as many challenges as the lean times, without a long-term strategy.

Long-term positions are not available in universities at the rate required for the high-achievers awarded short-term fellowships.

National research organisations such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Geoscience Australia (GA) and the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) are losing jobs.

This cycle in research funding prompts questions like those posed by Matthew Bailes, in his recent Conversation article:

[…] what is an appropriate amount of money to spend on pure science for a given economy?

So what are the factors governing the success or even the survivability of Australian research? Is it dollars? Or something else?

Mostly these questions are debated around the increase or decrease in the number of dollars spent or where we sit relative to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) averages. But these measures describe inputs, only part of the story.

The need for stability

I argue that more important than the level of support (within limits) is the stability of support. Difficulty in forward planning creates significant waste over the long haul.

A long-term strategy, allowing considered planning cycles, drives higher levels of research efficiency at any given funding level. This boosts the output per unit input. It also drives true scientific competition between researchers and research fields.

Another driver that is rarely acknowledged is simply the raw passion and ambition of researchers. A great many of my colleagues work far more hours than they are paid for, because they are fundamentally motivated to discover and achieve.

When times are tough, such as they are likely to be for the next few years, a substantial fraction of us buckle down and work harder, longer, and for fewer funding opportunities. Researchers generally do not give up on themselves, or their science, without a fight.

I believe that this very simple characteristic keeps our research system afloat and as healthy as it is. You see it prominent in the stories of great scientific achievements over history. Einstein famously couldn’t find a teaching job after graduating but kept working on his research as a clerk at a patent office.

Can research survive into the future?

Since Federation, the political party in government has changed on average every five years or so (the Liberal-led coalition from 1949 to 1972 holds the record), with seven changes since 1945. You need quite a run of very poor policy/funding to kill the base of Australian research. It hasn’t happened yet.

So, I have no particular fears for the survivability of the core of Australian research. We can trade heavily on passion for a long time before real damage is done.

But wouldn’t you want to spend precious taxpayer dollars at any level for success rather than survivability? Wouldn’t you want all those extremely motivated individuals, who are the most highly educated in our workforce, expending their passion, creative energy, and unpaid hours with a long-term strategy in mind?

As in any highly competitive sector, better planning will give better results, in scientific research or for our hard-working business people – from tradies to executives – struggling with the congested traffic on the roads.

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