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Issue #1652      August 20, 2014

Fund R&D – unis

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane wants universities to be more supportive of industry, but without significant funding into research and development, that’s a big ask.

Macfarlane let his discretion slip in a speech to the Queensland Media Club when foreshadowing an upcoming report on research funding and competition. Distancing himself from the awarding of funding based on prior researcher publications, he signalled a distinctly different approach that is likely to inform policy in the near future.

Noting that research grant funding “can work better”, he suggested that:

“The current arrangements are based on the number of papers [researchers] produce, which is great if you’re into producing papers, but I’m into producing jobs and producing products that are commercialised from an IP that a scientist or researcher might have developed.”

It cannot be denied that the minister has a point – some academics, when they write, primarily have an audience of other academics in mind. This is probably most true in the social sciences, and increasingly less true in the physical and medical sciences. However, to suggest that this phenomenon is prevalent – in any field – is simply overstating the point.

In other respects, the minister misses the point. Current arrangements acknowledge and reward researchers who garner industry buy-in (through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Projects, for example) and those that address defined national research priorities. Generally, the experts at the ARC and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) finally decide which applications are funded (prior, that is, to any ministerial veto). They would be unlikely to fund any research that lacks relevant application.

More broadly, the minister’s over-simplification of the current arrangements and his linking of patents and job creation (in the absence of more basic forms of research) does not square with much that we know about research, innovation, economic growth and job creation.

The minister has in mind, one suspects, a more innovative economy where research spurs innovation and the creation of well-paid jobs for highly skilled workers. As a vision for Australia, such an approach has much to offer.

Australia certainly lags the OECD in relation to patents, but also in relation to aggregate research and development spending. Notable among OECD nations with higher aggregate R&D spending are the Nordic nations of Finland and Sweden and other nations including Israel and Switzerland. Their governments have long adopted an activist industry policy to support high-technology industry emergence.

Common among all of these exemplar nations is a strong commitment to government investment in research and development. This commitment is sorely lacking in Australia.

Industries in other countries have more involvement with university researchers – but they also have higher R&D spending.

The big issue, regardless of how the research pie is sliced, relates to the ongoing retreat of the Commonwealth from adequate funding of research – in universities, at the CSIRO and through funding agencies.

The processes of cutting funding started under the previous Labor government. The cuts have continued under the Coalition with gusto.

Research tends to be seen as a soft target when tough cuts are required. Researchers’ contracts simply are not renewed. They head off to other work, losing for the nation the accumulated capabilities that have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop.

If the minister is serious about creating jobs, his leadership is needed to ensure that these cuts are reversed and Australian investment in R&D increases. In the current political context, researchers should not hold their breath on this.

John Rice is employed by Griffith University

Next article – Political Prisoner Liliany Obando on hunger strike

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