Australia to redraw its science priorities

Bigger focus flagged on Indigenous knowledge, climate science and critical technologies

September 27, 2022
Source: istock

Climate, Indigenous knowledge, robotics and quantum computing could take centre stage in Australian research funding and strategy after the federal government pledged to “revitalise” the country’s science priorities.

Science minister Ed Husic said the nine priorities, published in 2015, would be revised to “reflect our modern society and provide vision for the Australian science system”.

Mr Husic said much had happened in the past seven years. “We need to ensure our priorities are up to date and relevant. The current priorities do not mention First Nations knowledge, do not properly acknowledge climate change and fail to adequately engage with emerging critical technologies which are essential for national prosperity and our well-being,” he said.

He promised “extensive consultation” with scientists and researchers, industry stakeholders, states, territories, overseas partners and the public, and said terms of reference would be released “shortly”. Chief scientist Cathy Foley will lead a task force developing the new priorities over the next year.

It caps a busy few days for Dr Foley, who has also been enlisted to lead a 15-person committee tasked with producing Australia’s first national quantum strategy. Mr Husic has also announced a review to encourage women and minorities to train for careers in science and technology.

The science and research priorities were developed by former chief scientist and Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Chubb, who had long argued that science resources needed to be allocated more strategically. His team identified nine fields warranting favourable funding treatment as areas of critical national importance.

The priority areas, which include broad fields such as food, transport, energy and cybersecurity, were whittled down from an earlier target of 15. Professor Chubb had criticised Australian research for putting its eggs in too many baskets, partly to keep all fields “happy”, and for comparing its output with the entire world – rather than peer nations in North America, Europe and East Asia – to justify its claims that it “punches above its weight”.

But in the furore following the 2017 vetoing of funding for 11 humanities research projects, the then government issued a veiled threat that research outside the priority areas might no longer attract any taxpayer funding.

Representative group Universities Australia said a review of the priorities was timely. “Having a modern, fit-for-purpose framework and evidence-based priorities is important in the face of a changing global and domestic environment,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson.

“A lot has changed since the current priorities were published in 2015, so we welcome a conversation around how they can better reflect our modern society.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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