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Scientific research spending lags behind smaller countries

Australia may be forced to rely more on scientific research and development if the mining boom subsides, a report says. AAP/Alan Porritt

Nations half the size of Australia spend more on scientific research, have higher employment levels for scientists, and greater appeal to foreign investors, according to a report on Australia’s global standing in science.

Although Australia’s rate of spending on research and development is greater than in France, Canada and Britain, it remains well below the rate in smaller Scandinavian nations, according to the report, commissioned by Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, and released today.

The author, Alan Pettigrew, an Adjunct Professor at the College of Medicine, Biology and Environment at the Australian National University, compared OECD figures published in September last year for Australia and 12 other countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Britain and the US.

Australia spends about 2.25% of its GDP on research and development. Denmark spends 3%, Sweden about 3.6% and Finland almost 4%. Whereas Australia has just eight researchers per 1,000 workers, Sweden has 10, Denmark 12 and Finland 16.

Although Australia has one of the highest rates of researchers in higher education employment - five per 1,000 - it has the lowest rate in business, two in every 1,000, Professor Pettigrew said.

“The bulk of Australia’s world-class research and development takes place in its universities. Through this effort, Australia produces 2.6% of the OECD nations’ total number of science and engineering graduates at doctorate level.

"The low level of researcher employment in Australian businesses indicates, however, that this research training primarily results in employment in higher education, rather than in industry.”

The report, Australia’s Position in the World of Science, Technology & Innovation, shows that in research outcomes, measured by publications and citations in academic journals, Australia performs relatively well for its size.

It has the fifth highest number of publications in top journals per 1,000 people - placing it ahead of Britain, Canada, the US, Germany and France, but behind Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. “It is of interest that the smaller Scandinavian countries perform best among this group,” Professor Pettigrew said.

The level of funding from overseas for business research and development is highest in Austria, at 23%, the United Kingdom, with 22%, and Ireland, on 21% - and lowest in Australia, at just 1.1%.

Although Australia has one of the lowest levels of international collaboration, its research impact is nevertheless close to the average.

The relatively low level of research activity in business in Australia “is consistent with Australia’s economy being heavily based on the export of natural resources, especially coal and iron ore,” Professor Pettigrew said in his report. “Manufacturing and the export of goods and services, which depend on research and development and innovation for their competitive advantage, contribute less to Australia’s income in comparison to many other developed countries.”

But it is possible that future demand for, and revenue from, Australia’s natural resources could fall “because of declining international demand or volatile commodity prices. The need could then arise to change the balance of Australia’s economy more towards innovation-led productivity. Strategies would be required to build business research and development and innovation. This would be challenging, given the low base … and the time it takes to develop [it].”

Australia must consider whether its research investment in universities and government agencies, such as CSIRO, is adequate “when compared to other small nations, particularly in Scandinavia”.

Suzanne Cory, president of the Australian Academy of Science, and a Research Professor in the Molecular Genetics of Cancer Division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, said the report was a “most welcome contribution to the public dialogue about Australia’s place in international science. In this age of science and technology, advances are rapid. Those who do not stay informed and connected will very quickly be left behind and forgo the economic benefits.”

Professor Cory said Australia faced a choice: it could take the steps needed to engage with an increasingly technology-driven world, or it could continue its present course of retreat.

“Australia produces only around 2% of the world’s science knowledge,” she said. “To access the remaining 98%, we need to be well connected with the global science network. But currently there is no overarching strategy for Australia’s global science engagement. The Academy has proposed an integrated international science program worth $250 million over 10 years - just 0.25% of total Australian Government spending on science, research and innovation.”

Australian researchers had a strong bias toward applied research at the expense of fundamental research, a reflection of a bias in its research funding bodies, and of aversion to risk by the researchers themselves, said Amanda Barnard, Leader of the Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory at CSIRO.

“Although we do have some globally competitive scientists here in Australia, we are not on the whole a country that is generally considered to be a leader in innovation and research. We do good science here, but if we wish to compensate for our small population and low levels of investment, we need to do better – and we need to do more. We can see how the Scandinavian countries are doing more from the report.

"We need to be prepared to take a few more risks, and allow researchers some degree of freedom to explore the cutting edge of science more often. Low-risk research is usually iterative, and iterative outputs do not deliver high impact. A renewed focus on discovery, in addition to refinement, will serve us well.”

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