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The science song remains the same

31 March 2014

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Professor Brian Schmidt AC is a Nobel Laureate and ANU Public Policy Fellow in the ANU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences.

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Science and innovation policy are too often the afterthoughts of Australian Governments, writes Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt.

Every year in the 19 since I emigrated here, like a skipping record Australia’s science and technology policy turns in an endless circle.

Without fail the science community complains about a lack of funding, the business community complains about a lack of translation of research to commercial outcomes, and the government promotes our many achievements, offering up new programs paid for from the termination of previous ones.

There are years with large influxes of new money. Physical, human, and intellectual capital are built up, only to be lost in the bust years when programs are cancelled or curtailed. The cost is not just the loss of large amounts of capital built up in the previous boom, but also damage done to the enthusiasm, goodwill, and commitment from researchers and industry so necessary for success.

More than anything, this cycle demonstrates the lack of an overarching vision about how Australia should achieve a sustainable improvement to our capacity to undertake science, research and innovation.

Science and innovation, which happens on a multi-decadal cycle, benefits tremendously from a long-term planning environment. Some of easiest gains to be had in science and innovation policy would come from simply having a coherent and steady policy for a decade.

Right now, every year is a surprise.

Take for example the funding of research infrastructure. In 2005 the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) was launched to provide research infrastructure and operations for Australia. In 2007 NCRIS was augmented with the Higher Education Endowment Fund (HEEF), which then a year later transitioned to the Education Investment Fund (EIF). EIF has provided several rounds of funding, each with a different set of goals, but new funding from EIF has been unavailable since 2012. In addition, EIF (and HEEF) provided capital, but no running costs, with running costs to be found from other sources. Even before NCRIS was terminated in 2011, much of this new capital was without sufficient operating funds.

So dire was the situation that Australia’s universities agreed in 2013 and 2014 to forgo funding from the government, instead directing it to the Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (CRIS), which is currently keeping the nation’s research infrastructure operating. While NCRIS has been re-funded to mid-2015, covering the running costs of research infrastructure only, the sector is none-the-wiser about what will happen 17 months from now.

This boom-bust mentality wastes money, incapacitates human capital, and leaves our global reputation in tatters after high-profile international recruits are forced to move on because their research programs are left in a shambles from a lack of resources.

Fixing poor policy is a good place to start. But to be truly internationally competitive, Australia will need to look across the entire education and research sector, to figure out how to support sustained research excellence and build up the structures needed to convert knowledge into future prosperity.

The first link in the chain is primary and secondary education.

Australia continues to have a good education system, but cracks are emerging. Achievement, especially in numeracy, as measured by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests is falling rapidly, fewer and fewer people are taking math and science in their final years at school, and there is an increasingly large tail of under achievement.

Education has been the focus of intense political debate over the past two years, with much attention paid to a national curriculum and to equity of funding. The OECD’s PISA report highlights the importance of improving teacher quality, granting schools greater autonomy and resourcing education equitably. While political debate surrounding the ‘Gonski’ recommendations has focused on the issue of funding equity, far more effort needs to be directed to how this money can drive improvement in the quality of teachers.

The next link is how education takes place within the university sector.

By world standards, Australia has a significant number of medium-tiered, large universities that offer little diversity for prospective students. Funding agreements with the Commonwealth currently allow uncapped entrance, with fees paid depending on the course and number of students.

This system provides incentives to universities to offer large numbers of course places in low-cost areas (not science!), and then teach these areas as cheaply as possible. A university wishing to concentrate on excellence, with restricted numbers of high-performing students, is financially punished for their efforts. With this policy in place, it is hard to imagine how Australia will ever develop a globally top-tiered university.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that for every research dollar earned competitively, the universities need to raise an additional 66 cents from other sources to pay for the overheads associated with research.

Since research excellence is a key driver of both reputation for a university and its ability to foster innovation relevant to the nation, it is unfortunate that it needs to be cross-subsidised by the teaching of large numbers of non-research students - an act which itself limits research excellence. This set of perverse incentives of Government funding will spell the end of my university’s ability to concentrate on excellence, and unless rapidly changed, will doom ANU to international irrelevance.

Finally, there is the very tricky issue of successful translation of research excellence to economic benefits for the nation.

The culture of innovation is absent in large parts of the academic research sector of Australia. There is no contact with industry, no role models for moving ideas out of the academic environment, and therefore few industry players are interested in partnering with universities.

Nor are academics rewarded for moving between industry and academia. Indeed the system strongly discourages such mobility through tenure, hard-to-transfer superannuation, and research quality measures. Universities themselves receive no tangible benefits from working with industry, meaning that all effort in this regard ultimately hurts the bottom line of an organisation.

One exception is within the biotech industry where several major research-driven international-scale companies have emerged over the past two decades. These companies’ success depends on their synergy with the research sector, and this has helped form an ecosystem where research and industry co-exist to the benefit of both.

While far from perfect, the success of this sector (it exports A$4 billion of manufactured goods annually) has resulted in (and is arguably a result of) an environment of relatively stable research funding and policy. Expanding this culture within biotech into other areas needs to be a focus of our science and innovation policy.
In addition to Australia’s university/research institutes, CSIRO has a mission to work with industry, and has successfully translated research findings and discoveries to real-world uses.

But CSIRO can probably do better in its interactions with industry, and there is untapped potential for it to engage the rest of the research sector and play a catalytic role. How CSIRO might best fulfill its mission to the greatest advantage for Australia has received surprisingly little attention over the past 20 years, and should be explored.

As the value of Australia’s natural exports wane over the coming decades, we will need to innovate to create high value goods and services – particularly if we want to retain our high living standard compared to the rest of the world. This process cannot simply be turned on; it requires decades to build the skills, knowledge, relationships, and innovative culture that underpin a high value-adding economy.

These outcomes require a focus on our science and innovation policy covering primary, secondary, and tertiary education, the research sector, and industry. Failure to act will probably not cause an immediate crisis, but rather will see Australia slowly fall behind, leaving our future nation a shadow of its current self.
With the right policy settings (and adequate funding) a culture of innovation can emerge and blossom within Australia that will not just be self-sustaining, but will be the driver that keeps Australia prosperous for the century to come.

And that’s a cycle we’d all like to see.

Read more about Science and Technology policy in Australia at Policy Forum. The science song remains the same was published at - the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society.

This article was also featured in the Autumn 2014 issue of Advance, Crawford School’s quarterly public policy magazine.

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