Australia’s new research direction is a road to nowhere

Pushing the ARC to focus on commercialisation neglects the complex interdependency between basic and applied research, says Duncan Ivison

January 7, 2022
A road in the Australian outback
Source: iStock

The importance of publicly funded research to support our social and economic well-being has never been so self-evident.

Biomedical researchers laid the foundations for the development of new vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. Public health experts have provided almost daily guidance for managing the impact of the disease. Social scientists have modelled the consequences of different policy settings. And historians, philosophers and media experts have helped us grapple with the moral, political and cultural dimensions of the crisis.

Both conservative and progressive parties in Europe, North America and Australasia have also rediscovered industry policy and often put universities at the heart of their economic reform agendas. We have seen a variety of policy responses intended to disrupt the standard university research model, supposedly driven by citations and “high-impact” journals, and provide greater incentives for commercialisation and industry engagement.

More of each would undoubtedly be a good thing. New drugs to treat debilitating diseases will only be developed in collaboration with biomedical scientists, entrepreneurs and the pharmaceutical industry. Great ideas need new pathways to entrepreneurs and community partners who might see an application researchers often can’t. And researchers who want to spin out their own company, or work more closely with external partners, need more support to do so.

In fact, universities are rising to these challenges. We are seeing more researchers engaging beyond the academy in new ways, and more collaborations (and revenue) being generated between universities and civic, industry and community partners than ever before. The past five years in Australia has seen a “great opening up” of universities in genuinely radical ways.

And yet, Australia is also a harbinger of what could go wrong if we fail to understand the complex interdependency between basic and applied research, and the role of publicly funded research in a liberal democracy.

In a recent “new direction” for the Australian Research Council – the only funding agency that supports basic research for all non-medical disciplines – the acting minister for education, Stuart Robert, laid out a new set of priorities that places the emphasis squarely on applied research. Despite acknowledging the role of “blue sky” research, the directive asks the ARC to align 70 per cent of its applied research funding (which is about 40 per cent of total ARC funding) to the government’s “modern manufacturing” priorities (which include food and beverage, clean energy, defence, critical minerals, space and medical products). It also calls for more industry and end-user participation in the ARC’s College of Experts, which finalises the allocation of grants for all its schemes.

This directive follows the introduction of a new “national interest test” in 2018, which requires every applicant to describe how their project contributes to the national interest of Australia in some tangible way – whether for applied or basic research projects. That might sound innocuous, but the sting in the tail is that the minister has the discretion to reject any grant they feel fails to contribute to the national interest – even if it has been recommended through the ARC’s rigorous peer review process. Indeed, one week after issuing the new direction, Robert cancelled six humanities grants on precisely these grounds.

The greatest risk facing universities in this new era of impact-driven research policy is that research funding becomes hopelessly politicised, as is now happening in Australia. That strikes at the heart of the critical role that publicly funded research plays in a democracy. Moreover, it’s bad policy. A minister today can’t easily predict what will ultimately be useful in the future. Who would have thought back in the 1970s that mRNA technology would have the impact it has had?

Mission-driven research can’t come at the expense of discovery research. We need both. At the heart of every great commercialisation story is transformative basic research. But not all transformative research is about commercialisation. It’s exciting to see governments, universities, industry and community partners working more closely together than ever before. But we need to nurture the complex ecology between discovery and applied research.

This requires taking a systematic approach to research funding policy. Again, we are seeing worrying signs in Australia. Overall, investment in R&D is falling (now at 1.79 per cent of GDP, down from 2.25 per cent in 2009, and well below the OECD average). Applied research accounts for almost half of all research funded, and pure basic research only 23 per cent (down from 34 per cent in 1992). Australian universities also now spend a disproportionate amount of their precious discretionary revenue on supporting the indirect costs of research. At the University of Sydney, we need to find an additional A$1.50 of our own money to support every A$1 we get from government research agencies. This is hollowing out our national research capability at a time when everyone wants it to deliver more.

Finally, governments neglect the humanities and social sciences at their peril. Just about every major technological or biomedical challenge we face has profound social, economic, political and cultural dimensions that require deep engagement from these disciplines. Who would have thought that discovering a new vaccine would be insufficient to stop Covid? Well, a lot of social scientists who have been studying vaccine hesitancy and populism for years did, and their work has been indispensable. Even more importantly, we need the critical perspective that the humanities provide to ensure our democracies are prepared for future crises.

So, by all means, let’s set grand challenges and “moon shots” to harness our research capabilities in purposeful ways. Let’s find new pathways for our researchers’ ideas to get out into the world. But we do this best when we get the balance right between basic and applied research, and trust our best researchers to pursue the biggest questions wherever they lead them.

Duncan Ivison is deputy vice-chancellor for research and professor of political philosophy at the University of Sydney.

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