Australia urged to refocus on quantitative research post-Covid

Australian sector must use ‘radical reset’ opportunity to refocus from grand challenges to the expertise needed to achieve them, says report

September 15, 2020
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Australia must reorient its research priorities away from social goals and towards the quantitative expertise required for post-pandemic prosperity, says research strategist Thomas Barlow.

Dr Barlow says universities should seize the “reset” opportunity presented by the coronavirus crisis to correct Australia’s “deficiency” in technology and the physical sciences. In a new report, he tracks the trends that have driven Australia’s research output in areas such as mathematics, chemistry, engineering and the earth sciences – areas where its universities have “long been underweight” – well below global norms.

Australian universities spend more money researching law than maths, it says. And they spend more researching commerce than the computing sciences – a “striking” comparison, given that information technology has transformed “the entire global economy”.

The report says “strange” research priorities are the inevitable result of Australia’s higher education business model. Universities undertake considerable research in the disciplines that attract high enrolments, because they need “intelligent and stimulating scholars” to teach those courses.

But this has skewed expertise away from fields prioritised in other countries. Physics, maths, chemistry and materials science claim about half the share of national research output in Australia as in typical comparator countries.

Agricultural sciences constitute a far smaller proportion of national research output than in agrarian competitors such as Brazil, Argentina and New Zealand. “This is a vital moment for universities, policymakers and industry to rethink Australia’s discipline mix,” the report says.

It also says Australian research has become too focused on “big, socially relevant goals” – in health and environmental sustainability, for instance – which “seem self-evidently sensible” but can lead to “surprisingly undesirable outcomes”.

Dr Barlow, a former ministerial adviser, said universities’ efforts were being marshalled around their “intentions” rather than their capacity to succeed. “That’s the problem with these big goals,” he said. “So long as what you’re doing sounds intentionally impactful, everything else can get a pass. The whole premise of a university is built on the idea that expertise matters.”

He said that if Australian universities refocused on expertise, they would be well placed to produce at least 50 per cent more research than they do today – an admittedly “bullish” prediction based on long-term trends that had seen research spending double each two decades since the late 1970s, and university research spending steadily increase as a share of gross domestic product.

Dr Barlow conceded that the pandemic could trigger a “massive shift” to online education or undermine middle-class Asian families’ capacity to send their children abroad for study, either of which could torpedo Australian universities’ business model. “I don’t see those as likely scenarios,” he said.

“History stands against them. Natural disasters can have lasting impacts, but the pattern for universities has been one of incredible adaptability,” he added, citing Harvard University’s profile as America’s oldest corporate entity.

The report disputes suggestions that Australia’s universities will become much more teaching focused, predicting that at least 40 per cent of academic workforce time will be spent on research – although more academics will specialise in either research or teaching.

Research will become more concentrated in Australia’s top-ranked universities, although the pecking order may shift.

Pure research will become a “niche activity” constituting well under 20 per cent of research and development, as expanding investment levels had historically fostered an emphasis on applied research.

The report says Australia should allocate more research funding through competitive processes, with a new National Science and Technology Funding Council established to channel more cash to quantitative disciplines. And it says policymakers should consider linking overall research funding to a productivity measure such as GDP per capita.

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