‘National interest’ funding tests ‘bad for science’

Conference hears that nationalist politics could hamper efforts to tackle pandemics

February 20, 2019
National interest
Source: Jacquie Manning
John Thwaites and Raina MacIntyre

Governments risk harming their own interests and holding back scientific progress by attempting to align research funding allocations too tightly to their domestic agendas, a conference heard.

Speakers at Times Higher Education’s Research Excellence Summit: Asia Pacific, held at the University of New South Wales, debated whether global research goals were compatible with local priorities in the wake of the Australian government’s introduction of a “national interest” test for publicly funded research.

John Thwaites, a professorial fellow at Monash University, said that while he had no problem with governments setting priorities for where they wanted to spend money on research, “the problem we have seen in Australia is when, having set priorities, a government minister secretly then interfered with the process and threw out the recommended projects”, referring to the events that preceded the introduction of the national interest test.

He warned that national interest “doesn’t refer to international benefit, it seems to be limited to Australian national interest, and that is so short-sighted. The international benefit is Australia’s benefit. We are a country that is totally reliant on our international relations.”

Professor Thwaites, the former Labor deputy premier of Victoria and chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, said that although the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were focused on global issues with real implications for people at a local level, “unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily translate into real political support within countries”.

To counteract the surge in the political “sugar hit” of short-term nationalist policies, he said, it was vital that academics and universities make the case urgently that “international interests are the national interests, and are your family’s interests”.

Professor Thwaites said that one way they could do this was by helping the public understand that internationalism directly improves their own standards of living: “to be very practical about it, if it wasn’t for our international students here in Australia, we wouldn’t be living as well as we do”.

Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at UNSW, warned that political oversight of research could affect academics’ engagement in public debate.

She said that relying on public funding – as opposed to the financial independence of some of the wealthy US universities – meant that “we are more beholden to government…and that does make it more difficult to speak out”.

Professor MacIntyre, who leads the biosecurity programme at UNSW’s Kirby Institute, also warned that nationalist politics could directly undermine attempts to control global pandemics in future.

“We saw issues arising during the Ebola epidemic in 2014, when Australia itself was reluctant to commit support in the affected areas”, she said, warning that “infectious diseases do not have passports or observe national borders” and that things “could go catastrophically wrong” if the global response to a pandemic was not appropriate.

An example, she said, was the way in which vaccines were being stockpiled by the World Health Organisation. The WHO holds a stockpile of more than 30 million smallpox vaccines, in case the disease re-emerges “which it could, because it can now be synthesised in a lab and we have had a declaration of intent by certain terrorist groups – so there’s both intent and capability”.

However, the bulk of the stockpile is held by the US, and Professor MacIntyre warned that if an epidemic were to break out, there is every chance that in countries “going through this nationalistic phase…there could be a reluctance to release the vaccine to the countries with the greatest need – that’s quite a realistic scenario”.


Video: Universities are often too caught up in politics, says John Thwaites

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