Research top of political agenda

July 30, 1999

PM Howard puts knowledge economy centre stage in green paper.

University research and research training are issues flying high on Australia's political agenda.

More than a decade after the last policy document on HE research, the Liberal government of John Howard last month launched New Knowledge, New Opportunities, a green paper mapping the future direction for Australian research.

The challenges of the "knowledge economy" are centre stage, as is the need to win competitive advantage through the skills and creativity of the workforce.

Issues stressed include greater efforts to enhance the commercialisation of university research, improved teamwork, increased use of priority setting by universities so research effort is not too thinly spread, more collaboration across subjects, greater accountability and better long-term support.

There are some different policies too: portable, transferable research scholarships where PhDs can move after the first year to a different university if they are not satisfied with the support they receive, a greater emphasis on PhD student numbers in funding allocations, a total revamp of the Australian Research Council and its grants system and a rework of how overheads and indirect costs are paid.

Critics of the changes have pointed to the total absence or promise of money in the paper.

"Without an increased commitment from government, the vision outlined in the green paper will be no more than noble rhetoric without substance," said Frank Larkins, deputy vice-chancellor at Melbourne University.

Vicki Sara, head of the ARC, welcomed the restructuring proposed for the council, which will for the first time pay a proportion of the indirect costs of university research. "We have needed to revise our strategies for HE research and research training.

"It's a budget neutral paper and I see it as the first step. We do not currently have a full-cost system for funding research. We don't know the full costs of research, but estimate that between 20 and 60 per cent of the project is being funded by the ARC. On top of that, we have just a 20 per cent success rate in grant applications, lower than the US. We need two or even three times as much for the ARC, if we are to become a knowledge-based economy."

Even some Liberals have called for more money. In an article in the Australian MP Danna Vale said: "It would surely be one of the greatest long-term tragedies of the Australian millennium if support for the Olympic infrastructure were to be at the expense of support for infrastructure for no less a vital cause, and that is our great universities."

The importance attached in the paper to commercialising research and to boosting the economy through research mirrors the UK's competitiveness strategy. However, Australia's universities start from a different position. Here industry invests less in R&D and investment has even dropped over the past few years.

Without changes to the tax system, says Professor Larkins, "the formation of new alliances (between universities and industry) will be extremely difficult for university researchers."

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