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Securing Australia’s future: science and research

What does the future hold for research funding under an Abbott government? AAP/David Crosling

SECURING AUSTRALIA’S FUTURE: As the Commission of Audit reviews government activity and spending, The Conversation’s experts take a closer look at key policy areas tied to this funding – what’s working, what’s not and where current funds are best spent.

According to Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, in the first half of the 20th century Australia was a “mendicant nation” for science and research where:

…we contributed little to the world’s stock of knowledge but we hoped to get what we needed when or whenever we needed it.

Today, through long-term government backing of Australian science, a vibrant, world-class research culture has emerged, producing a string of breakthroughs in diverse fields from cancer to solar cells to Wi-Fi.

Just one example of excellence is in quantum computing. A group from UNSW has developed the world’s first working quantum bit. These types of breakthroughs will profoundly shape not only Australia’s future prosperity, but also the world’s.

Despite the importance of innovation in the years ahead, government expenditure on science and research as a proportion of GDP has fallen by more than a quarter since 1993, with current public expenditure (~0.55% of GDP) putting Australia near the bottom of the 22 advanced nations.

With the new Abbott government looking for budget savings in a tight fiscal situation, we should take the view of Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize-winning physicist. When hearing the news that Cambridge University was going to stop funding his research in the early 1900s, Rutherford supposedly walked into his lab and said:

Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It’s time to start thinking.

Science and research is too important for all of us to stop thinking about how we can make it as productive to future discovery and innovation as it can be, no matter what funding environment or government is in place.

What’s working

The old idea of a “brain drain” where scientists had to leave Australia to find quality labs overseas has dissipated. Australian research is now world-class and salaries – particularly for young PhD graduates – are the best in the world. In the US, for example, average post-doctoral research salaries are about US$40,000. In Australia, the average starting salary from most universities is about A$75,000.

Research excellence, along with world-best salaries, means Australia is in fact having a big “brain gain” for the world’s most brilliant younger minds. In 2013, young foreign national scientists applying to the Australian Research Council early career fellowships (Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards, or DECRA) have increased to be 35% of all applicants.

Australia has successfully started to become a magnet for brilliant young researchers around the world. With high mobility, immense creativity and high productivity, those early career researchers are the engines of future prosperity. Australia should embrace them.

But the success in creating the conditions for young scientists to be attracted to Australia comes with big challenges. For the vast majority of them, we can’t find funding.

Australian research is now world-class and salaries are among the best in the world. AAP/Lukas Coch

Waste and inefficiency

Each year, thousands of proposals are sent to the funding bodies, which then commission expert reviewers and panellists to award grants and fellowships of between three and five years to researchers at universities and medical institutes across the country.

There is waste that occurs every year within this competitive system of funding. Over the last few years, success rates for grants are about 20-25%. A recent study calculated a total waste of 550 working years of research time applying for unsuccessful grants just in the NHMRC, equivalent to $66 million in salary.

The NHMRC, at least, is considering halving the paperwork and lengthening funding terms to help reduce this hidden inefficiency.

But the waste that occurs through the grants system is insignificant compared to the immense long-term waste and missed opportunity of losing a high-quality young researcher who may have the next idea to cure cancer. The hidden bias against younger researchers in the competitive, peer-reviewed funding schemes is immense and at a crisis point.

Critiquing the current grants system, Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt noted:

People with track records, such as myself, are almost always successful.

The psychological bias towards rewarding established and experienced researchers means that younger inexperienced scientists are the ones left out.

According to UK Royal Society research, about 30% of the thousands who graduate with PhDs continue in research after their studies. However, after the first five to ten years of their PhD, only about 10% will end up staying in research permanently. The 90% opt-out rate is not a choice: it’s mostly a problem in the system.

Young researchers live in completely uncertain times, without the luxury of secure tenured employment from a university or research institution. Living month-to-month and applying for short-term, post-doctoral positions wherever they are, the first ten years after a PhD is the exit point for talented, creative and productive researchers in the system.

Losing a young researcher is the number one biggest long-term waste for taxpayers. Why?

It’s not just generational continuity of research or that we spend huge amounts of dollars and time training PhD candidates at publicly funded institutions. In fact, it’s also because this young demographic is when a scientist is most creative and productive.

The vast majority of the greatest discoveries in science, whether it was DNA or E=mc2, have come from younger researchers. Instead of developing the next clean technology, sequencing a new genome or probing stem cell regeneration in the brain, insecure employment means most of those talented researchers are lost to securely paid service industries.

Some choose to take this pathway. However, there are thousands of talented young scientists who want to stay in research but have to leave. This is an immense waste. Allowing these immensely innovative and passionate young scientists to fall through the cracks is a waste of taxpayer funds today and for the future.

There are thousands of talented young scientists who want to stay in research but have to leave, citing funding issues. AAP/Julian Smith

Area of priority: early career researchers

Early career scientists have very limited options for support since they can’t apply directly to the general pool of projects and grants at the ARC or NHMRC.

Early career fellowship schemes are the only avenue for young scientists to receive independence and certainty over four years. Since 2011, some 4908 proposals have been considered with 677 being awarded, with success rates of just 13.7%. These early career fellowship success rates are the lowest in the system.

Beyond that, it’s important to realise that the near 90% of unsuccessful applicants don’t have any funding security or the tenure that provides security to other mid-to-senior researchers. A large proportion of those high-quality applicants will leave science altogether, meaning Australia is materially losing the knowledge and innovation rewards that come with highly productive and gifted young researchers.

The longer we can keep early career researchers in labs, the better for innovative productivity.

So, where could the ARC and NHMRC make cuts to provide a big boost to early career researchers?

The ARC and NHMRC currently award a number of mid-to-senior fellowships to researchers at universities and research institutes. Depending on the individual agreement between fellowship applicant and university, many of these fellowships fund salaries that are already paid by universities, as many are tenured academics. This type of salary subsidisation scheme is not the most productive use of funds for research.

Between 2008-2013, for example the government funded $239 million for about 75 ARC Laureate Fellowships, which are five years of funding to the most distinguished researchers. But more than a quarter of this funding supplements or replaces salaries in the hope of attracting world-leading researchers from overseas to Australia.

These were worthy goals. But of the 66 Laureate Fellows that have been awarded, 85% of them (55) were domestic professors, with tenured salary already secured at their respective universities.

Mobility for senior researchers is very low, particularly when they are already well-supported at their institutions anyway. Instead of the ARC and NHMRC spending tens of millions subsidising domestic professor salaries, wouldn’t it be far more productive to use those funds to attract and retain the most vulnerable early to mid-career researchers from both Australia and overseas?

Most of the senior fellowship schemes have this inefficient salary subsidisation scheme. Therefore, there is the potential to unlock tens of millions of dollars each year to be re-allocated to boost both the success rates for the early career researcher fellowships and the general pool of projects in the competitive granting schemes, which also indirectly support vulnerable early to mid-career researchers.

As William Bennett, a postdoctoral researcher at Griffith University, eloquently put it:

We’re not asking for a salary increase, or more holidays, or less working hours. We’re not asking to be handed a career on a silver platter. We’re just asking for better than a 14% chance at a research career. We have so much to give, but limited opportunity to do so. Give us the chance, and we won’t let you down.

Young scientists have never let any nation down. It’s the system of funding that generally does.

This is part three of The Conversation’s Securing Australia’s future series. Stay tuned for more instalments over the next three weeks.

Part one: Energy and climate change

Part two: Governance and state-federal relations

Part four: Health care

Part five: Education

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