Pandemic’s impact on Australian research ‘protracted’

Innovation on the line, as coronavirus unleashes domino effect on research mainstream

May 11, 2020
Dominoes aligned
Source: iStock

The “economic aftershocks” of the coronavirus could strip Australia of the equivalent of 14,000 full-time researchers, diluting its capacity for innovation when it is most needed, according to a taskforce chaired by chief scientist Alan Finkel and led by the Australian Academy of Science.

A “rapid research report” suggests the pandemic will erode Australia’s research workforce on multiple fronts – including university research, business research and development, medical research institutes (MRIs) and government research agencies – with shocks to each sector exacerbating the damage to others.

For example, the report says the slump in business expenditure on R&D (BERD) will be “an order of magnitude worse” than the downturn experienced during the global financial crisis between 2007 and 2009. It cites estimates that some 1,625 full-time research jobs were erased from private sector enterprises over the three weeks from mid-March.

Such impacts could be magnified by losses in the MRIs, which depend on commercial income and philanthropy as well as government grants, and face a revenue decline of between A$200 million (£105 million) and A$400 million over the next two years.

Declining BERD could also jeopardise the ability of universities and MRIs to accept allocations from the A$20 billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), which requires co-investment from other sources.

Meanwhile, plummeting international enrolments will strip billions of dollars from university budgets, consuming the co-contributions required for projects funded by industry, government and non-profit sources. International tuition fee revenue is also used to bankroll research salaries and facility costs, the report notes.

Such problems will be compounded by the absence of some 9,000 of the 17,000 or so foreign research students who comprise more than one-third of Australia’s doctoral students and are concentrated in science-related areas. Postgraduate students constitute 57 per cent of the university R&D workforce, the report points out.

The research activity of the equivalent of 24,000 full-time academics is also being constrained as universities jettison casual employees and foist more teaching responsibilities onto permanent staff.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, which led the report’s production, said universities performed approximately 43 per cent of the applied research conducted in Australia. “A decline…may limit economic growth by slowing the development of new technology, skills and efficiency gains in service and production processes,” warned CEO Kylie Walker.

The report is the sixth produced by the “Rapid Research Information Forum” since its inception in April. The forum brings together 15 learned academies, representative groups and scientific advisory offices in Australia and New Zealand to provide quickfire answers to pandemic-related questions posed by health, science and education ministers.

The report says significant university job losses “have not yet been realised” because institutions have so far cut costs elsewhere. But ultimately, at least 7,000 active researchers are among the 21,000 full-time equivalent university staff at risk of losing their jobs “in the next six months alone”.

Such impacts could snowball, with Curtin University projections suggesting that at least 38 per cent of the 79,000-strong research academic payroll “is at risk”.

Another 3,000 MRI positions could be lost “over the next 12 to 24 months”, the report adds. While the federal government’s JobKeeper employment subsidy programme could safeguard many of these jobs, universities’ exclusion from the scheme “will have a negative impact on some MRIs”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (6)

Again quality will triumph over quantity and good riddance with the international researchers – most of them very in sensitive research projects that would benefit their home countries and even the asio had warned universities about these researchers and sooner they are exits from universities here the better. There will be more quality researches and that will benefit industry cooperation greatly. Most international researcher had supervisors of the same ethnicity and almost no commercially viable product came out of these paper pusher, all they did was strip, cut, paste and extrapolate. The fixation with number must stop and the utterly primitive logic that numbers means more output. look at research coming out the Scandinavian countries and out of Swiss life sciences industry and question why Australia has never had that success and the reason is the latter have tight knit team of cohesive researchers with a long term objective and clearly defined goals and that cannot happen when the international researcher singular goal is to get a job and migration after their PhD. Australia will be forced to change its mindset and focus on quality of output. Name one commercially viable product that came out of the research of Australian universities due to international researchers in the last 10 years when their numbers increased dramatically and there are no examples that are household names around the world. Dr Florey and his associates were a different mental makeup and talent and tens of thousands of overseas researchers would not equal them
Gardasil.
Gardasil concept evolved while the original researchers were at Cambridge and subsequently at UQ in 1991 when it was patented. TGA and FDA approved it in 2006. If even going by 2006 – the timeframe is over 10 years and I say years 10 or 15 years or so because around that time approx. give take a few years is when universities started behaving like corporate raiders and started buying and assimilating under the corporate umbrella vocational colleges and all kind of institutes whether selling shoes or shining shoes metaphorically and they also started the aggressive pitch to “buy” researchers from overseas to produce more peer reviewed research output to improve their rankings and attract more research dollars. Cervarix is effective against more oncogenic strains and Texas and japan have banned Gardasil. I will admit that Gardasil has also saved lives. One will really be agonising to find a significant research output from Australian labs in the last 10 years despite the billions in funding and everyday news of a breakthrough. It’s a stretch to say that Australian research will be affected at all by the covid subsequent cuts to universities and by falling international student numbers. In fact if any a reduction in international students numbers by 90 per cent which now is certain to happen will allow high quality researchers like the Gardasil researchers to find each other and continue their research and that will happen regardless. If billions is what it takes to produce basic science non research as is the case currently then current generation of researchers should be embarrassed by the output of the curies, Rutherford etc.
With fewer research projects it may be possible for academics to focus on the real issues instead of those on the peripheral.
well said. indeed it may be also possible to focus on issues affecting people at home and the local community and country rather tha foreign agendas
To alan sha1: International researchers have contributed massively to research no matter from which country they originally are. Have you ever been to Scandinavian countries? more than half of the researchers are international students!

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