BASIC RESEARCH IS WHERE APPLIED RESEARCH SUCCESS STARTS

Everything old is new again, at least in the Morrison Government’s attitude to research funding.

Last week the Education Minister, Alan Tudge, gave a speech in which he declared that the Government wanted “academics to become entrepreneurs, taking their ideas from the lab to the market. We want them to be properly rewarded for their breakthroughs and their engagement with business …”

The minister’s remarks spruiked a $5.8 million scoping study for a University Research Commercialisation Scheme, which is expected to be announced in the Budget in May.

The prospect of more research funds of any kind has understandably been welcomed by a higher education sector that has been stripped of them, apart from the one-off allocation of $1.2 billion to compensate for the funding changes legislated last year.

But whether the government’s approach will solve the problem of securely funding university research in the longer term is another matter.

Indeed, the emphasis on funding translational research at the expense of other kinds of research is unlikely even to achieve what Mr Tudge hopes it will do.

Since 2013, under successive education ministers, the government’s clear and overwhelming preference has been for commercialisation – for research that turns a quick dollar. Mr Tudge’s speech is just the latest attempt to push universities further in that direction.

Like his predecessors, Mr Tudge appears not to understand the relationship between basic research, applied research, and commercialisation. Which is another way of saying that they do not understand the history of science, and of scholarship more broadly.

Simply, if you do not do basic research, and public-good research, then over time you will erode your capacity to do applied research effectively.

Without also increasing investment in both basic and applied research, talk of funding commercialisation is pointless.

There is no shortage of examples that show how the relationship between the different kinds of research works for the advancement of civilisation, but one noted Australian instance will suffice.

WiFi, the great transformational technology of our times, was discovered by CSIRO scientists who were conducting research into black holes.

It is curiosity-driven basic research that creates new knowledge, and without engaging in the quest for new knowledge we will struggle to reach the point where academics can be “properly rewarded for their breakthroughs and their engagement with business”.

None of this means that building more effective relationships between researchers and industry can be ignored.

That is what has to happen if the national research and innovation systems are to be fully integrated into a productive modern economy. But it will not happen if we do not understand how research works.

Science and research form the bedrock of a healthy innovation system. Without a pipeline of basic science and research, there will be no Australian ideas of the future for us to commercialise.

This should not have to be a partisan point, but it has become one because of the narrow focus taken by the coalition government.

Other countries take a more strategic approach to science and research funding. Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour, commonly known as the Nurse review, and Canada’s Fundamental Science Review both accepted the necessary relationship between basic and applied research.

The understanding of the importance of research contained in these reviews, and the consequences for research funding, have survived changes of government in their respective jurisdictions.

It should be possible to have a similar bipartisan understanding in Australia, with inevitable disagreements on details. But the hostility to basic research that has persisted through seven years of coalition government has made that kind of bipartisanship impossible.

The notion that a research sector can be kick-started by throwing some more money at commercialisation alone would have struck Paul Nurse, the authors of the Canadian review, and the governments that commissioned them as fundamentally wrong-headed. Yet here in Australia it barely raises eyebrows.

There has been no root-and-branch review of Australia’s research sector, akin to the Nurse review, for more than 20 years, which is why the Labor Party took to the last election a commitment to establish one.

We do not have a comprehensive stocktake of our research needs or capabilities, so we cannot confidently say what they are. Yet Mr Tudge is supremely confident in proceeding on the assumption that all we need to do is boost commercialisation.

As well as undertaking a fundamental review, we pledged to lift the nation’s investment in research and development – by governments, the universities and the private sector – from the present lowly 1.8 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent by 2030.

That is an ambitious goal but not an impossible one. Achieving it requires a change of attitude from that expressed in Mr Tudge’s speech. It requires an attitude that places science and research at the heart of government.

A government that had such an attitude would commit to establishing a fund to provide for the long-term, secure resourcing of Australian research: a fund like the Medical Research Future Fund, but much broader in scope.

And, a government that had this attitude would also be acting on good advice it has already received but has inexplicably allowed to gather dust on the shelf.

The so-called “Three Fs” review of the Research and Development Tax Incentive, for example, proposed a premium rate of the incentive for collaboration between researchers and industry.

The R&D Tax Incentive is the most important measure integrating the taxation and innovation systems. Worth nearly $3bn, it pumps more money into R&D than either the Australian Research Council or the National Health and Medical Research Council, or block grants.

Yet the government introduced legislation to cut $1.8bn from the value of the Incentive. That plan was abandoned in last year’s Budget, but nothing has been done to stem the decline in Business Expenditure on Research and Development (BERD).

The 12 per cent decline in BERD admitted by the government at estimates hearings last year is a massive understatement. A close reading of the Science, Research and Innovation Tables indicates that in the previous three years the decline fell short of the government’s own BERD targets by $5.3bn. That is a cut of nearly 30 per cent.

Adoption of a premium rate of the Tax Incentive as recommended in the Three Fs’ review would directly boost applied research and the commercialisation that the government purports to care about.

It would forge the close relationships between industry and researchers that an innovative economy requires, and it would do so without the narrow constraints likely to be imposed on the mooted University Research Commercialisation scheme.

All this could be done without jeopardising investment in basic science – or the funding of research in the humanities and social sciences, which does not even seem to be on the Tudge radar.

If we want university researchers to contribute to national prosperity, we cannot do it by clinging to the narrow focus on one kind of research that now prevails.
 
This was first published in Campus Morning Mail on Tuesday, 2 March 2021.


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  • Kim Carr
    published this page in Opinion Pieces 2021-07-05 15:16:52 +1000