Australia’s science capability is severely limited by changing policy and resource settings – and it’s time that changed – say our Nobel Laureates Brian Schmidt and Peter Doherty.
Research will dry up without funding stream
Brian Schmidt and Peter Doherty
The Australian – June 19, 2013
ON Monday, for the first time, the major organisations that represent Australia’s research and innovation sector came together in Parliament House to ask politicians to support a strategic national research policy.
While lacking the intrigue and fascination of leadership debates or the immediacy of refugee policy, the political response to this call will have an enduring legacy.
The decisions on investment in research activities and infrastructure have long-term implications, with the effects compounding year on year. A strategic approach that facilitates the greatest advances for the dollars invested could boost gross domestic product growth by an extra 1.5 per cent a year, making our children twice as well off 50 years down the track.
The present approach is anything but strategic. Programs are tossed around like footballs on a Saturday afternoon. Too often funding to support continued operations is cut while new investments are announced without any commitment to supporting long-term operations. New administrations and ministers have to make their mark. Short-term political expediency and bombast too often trump sound planning.
An example is the Australian Synchrotron, a $200 million facility that is a leader in our region and one of the best performing globally. Its applications range across science, from understanding the structure of viruses to fundamental analysis in particle physics. But it was born of an ad hoc political process in 2001 and there has been a scramble to find funds simply to operate the facility; hence, despite intense demand, its potential is far from realised. Despite a capacity of 38 beam lines (stations enabling different uses of the high-energy photons), not a single new one has been built (or is planned) since the initial nine commissioned when the synchrotron was turned on six years ago.
Of particular interest is a notional geoscience-specific beam line that has the potential to directly translate innovations in the mining sector. The lack of strategic planning means we are not taking anywhere near full advantage of this extraordinary, but very expensive, resource. It is as if Australia has invested in a $200m car and decided to drive it only around the block because it is too expensive to put out on the road.
Spending research money smarter, by including the whole life cycle when new facilities are built, will provide a lot more bang for each buck.
Because of the long-term nature of investigative work and the constant changes in technology, our science capacity is severely limited by continually changing policy settings and an expenditure landscape that reflects abrupt changes in political philosophy and expediency. Especially in the area of sophisticated instrumentation (such as the synchrotron), expenditure will lead to the best return if planned across a 10-plus year innovation cycle.
The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy was announced in 2005 after two one-off competitive major national research facility rounds in 1996 and 2001. Research groups were asked to plan their infrastructure needs across a five-year horizon and to include operating as well as construction costs in their planning. It was widely heralded in the science community as a great way to do business, and researchers planned strategically under the assumption the program would be continued beyond 2011. It wasn’t – leading to the wholesale constriction of the nation’s $2 billion worth of research infrastructure across the past two years. The closure of many facilities has been averted with NCRIS receiving two more years’ funding in the present budget. It’s hardly strategic when it covers only basic operating costs for a limited period. Until there is again some long-term commitment, even our best research facilities will be under-resourced and under-exploited. The inevitable consequence will be a loss of international competitiveness, with these cutting-edge facilities needlessly facing a rapid fall into obsolescence and irrelevancy.
For some disciplines, such as optical astronomy, the situation is dire. Astronomy relies on shared international facilities – such as the big telescopes that led to Brian’s Nobel prize for discovering the accelerating universe. Because negotiations over these facilities happen years in advance and Australia has no long-term program for research facilities, this nation is poised from 2015 to drive one of its most productive scientific disciplines into the abyss. Its demise will be neither planned nor intentional, just another casualty of a disastrous stop-go approach to resource allocation.
The lack of a strategic approach to research and innovation has consequences that go beyond the science. While Australia invests 2.2 per cent of its GDP in research and development, placing it near the OECD average, there is widespread concern about how this translates into commercial outcomes. Part of the problem is that too many researchers struggle to translate their research into economic returns when most are stuck in volatile one to three-year funding cycles. Peter’s 1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine, which broke a 30-year drought and acted as a catalyst for Australian biomedical research, was supported by a much more stable funding model.
Steady funding streams, such as five-year program grants, across the past 17 years have translated into industry growth. The medical industry exported more than $4bn in goods last year, making it our largest manufacturing export industry after the smelting of aluminium. It may well have been greater had we not been hampered by the shortcomings in research infrastructure.
There are many calls on the public purse, but long-term strategic investment in R & D pays a huge dividend. A strategic framework is being drafted by chief scientist Ian Chubb for release at the end of the month. To be useful, though, his recommendations need to be adopted and acted on for a decade.
The political assessment may be that there are few votes in this but, in a time of great disillusionment with politics, it is an opportunity for elected representatives to demonstrate their integrity and commitment to Australia’s long-term wellbeing.
Brian Schmidt was the 2011 Nobel laureate in physics and Peter Doherty the 1996 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine.