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Letter from Australia: Research funding heading in the wrong direction

For Julie Hare, Labor plans to increase the percentage of GDP devoted to research and development are a welcome riposte to an national conversation that increasingly feels anti-science.
This article is more than 5 years old

Julie is Wonkhe's Associate Editor in Australia.

In a country where a fear campaign over electric cars reached peak stupidity last week – or as the Sydney Morning Herald’s David Crowe put it “hit a new level of utter shamelessness” – it’s easy to forget that only three years ago science and innovation were being promoted as a good thing.

Malcolm Turnbull’s 2015 National Innovation and Science Agenda promised big things. Suffice to say, it’s long been forgotten, much of it in tatters, like a cast aside ice-cream wrapper on a windy day at the beach.

Australia is not exactly anti-science but it’s not part of our narrative. Sure we roll out the same old hackneyed examples on cue – wifi, Cochlear, the black box – but we still award PhDs to anti-vaxers and climate sceptics and parts of our media sing the praises of those who don’t “believe” in the science of climate change.

In the post-NISA world, funding for science and research has been falling. The most recent data from 2015-16 – not exactly contemporary – shows that R&D as a percentage of GDP has fallen to 1.88%. It’s a pretty crap figure given that it’s significantly below the OECD average of 2.38%. And it’s one that we could expect to see fall again given continued cuts to research budgets.

(On the up side, it’s higher than the UK’s R&D GDP figures, so at least we don’t suck as much as you.)

I’ve been thinking about this recently because Labor has promised to increase R&D to 3% of GDP. It just hasn’t said how or what proportion of that will be borne by government or whether they see business as contributing a greater proportion. But as mentioned last year, former chief scientist Ian Chubb has signed on to run a review of the science, research and innovation sectors and is beavering away in the background, holding informal discussions with every man and his dog, on the assumption that if and when Labor wins the election, he’ll be ready to roll.

Back to business

A story by John Ross in the THE last week revealed that business in Australia has stepped up to the plate in growing it’s R&D spend. Ross calculated based on opaque figures in the 2018 Excellence in Research for Australia showed that competitive research grants from the Australian Research Council fell by $236 million (£129 million), or 13 per cent, between 2014 and 2016, while revenue from cooperative research centres $15m.

“Industry and international funders were left to do the heavy lifting, collectively providing $217m more in 2016 than in 2014. Private and philanthropic allocations grew by$122m. Competitive grants from international funders expanded by another $52m, while revenue from other overseas sources rose by $53m,” Ross wrote.

Vicki Thomson, head of the Group of Eight, agrees.

“It underscores our position on government increasingly walking away from research funding despite Minister Karen Andrews’ rhetoric to the contrary.”

She went on: “The current settings for research deliver a distorted funding model where universities who are research providers have also become research funders. Universities are required to cross-subsidise research to make up for inadequate government funding for the indirect costs of publicly funded research as well as increasing calls for co-contribution of direct funding of public research. This results not only in a distorted funding model but also a lack of transparency of the funding of Australia’s strategic research effort. This issue is exacerbated across the Go8 given we do by far the the majority of the national university research effort in Australia.”

  • The Go8 estimates that over the ERA income reference period (2014-2016):
  • Category 1 income (competitive grants) dropped by $250m or 13.9%
  • Overall income rose by $46m or 1.2% – i.e. relatively steady
  • Major increase was in industry income which rose by $217m or 22.2%.

In recent federal budget, the government was at it again slashing $50m from two NISA “flagship” programs – the Entrepreneurs’ Programme and Industry Growth Centre Initiatives. The cuts have been applied to uncommitted funds from the two programs.

And that’s on top of cuts estimated to be around $328.5m announced last December.

Talking not walking

And it’s not like the government is completely deaf to the innovation and science mantra. A couple of years ago it commissioned a report from Innovation and Science Australia on future prosperity through innovation and then promptly dismissed half the recommendations.

It also held a parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of non-medical research funding.

A key objective of the ISA report was to facilitate a transition in the economy to  knowledge-based industries. To get there meant significantly increasing the nation’s investment in R&D, which would mean encouraging business to get on board the R&D road train. The ISA report calculated that that if all its measures were introduced, Australia might expect to see a boost in R&D spending to 2.7%.

So while business is getting on board, the impact is being negated by government cuts and hysteria over electric cars.

Roy Green, chair of the UTS Innovation Council at the University of Technology Sydney, recently told the website that Australia’s reliance on digging stuff out of the ground was coming to an end and we needed to reimagine ourselves as a creator and maker of knowledge intensive products and services.

“We need to find new sources of income. In particular we need new sources of growth in exports to make up for the diminishing returns from revenue we see for unprocessed materials,” Green said.

Ian Chubb might have the answer. Otherwise we can anticipate another few years of excoriating public debate about electric cars.

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