Workshop for national committee chairs – Summary of proceedings
13 April 2006
Rapporteur – Dr Roger Gifford
The group reported that it had a broad ranging discussion which focused most on Question 1. In a preamble discussion, it was suggested that the history of the National Committees was identified with moving away from unknown and less recognised and sometimes more or less moribund committees and towards a better position with strategic plans such as those led by the earth system scientists and astronomers. This indeed forms the recommended model that would ideally lead to an affirmative role in moves that develop the committees as peak bodies. This will mean working towards this goal rather than assuming that national committees are necessarily the peak body.
The committees could harness the energy of younger people to determine their own future. Financial resources would grow as the committees were taken more seriously by government.
The question was raised regarding – what is a peak body? The point was made that it is not automatically determined and a National Committee has to earn respect of their associated constituency by activities and composition to become the natural place for decisions for constituencies to turn to for assistance. To achieve this, even more care and detailed consideration of who is to become chair and membership is needed. The members must be willing and able and have sufficient time and energy so that it becomes well-recognised by the national constituency of the committee. It was suggested that groups should be more proactive in selecting chairs than has occurred to date.
It was mentioned that National Committees need to be well-defined (quite difficult sometimes); however, this recognises at the same time, that there will be some overlap between interests. Thus it is necessary to define the constituency of each group by identifying a list of members or body of people who look to the committee for advice and assistance, particularly for big decision points of call. It must position itself as an automatic point of contact. It would therefore be prudent for chairs with overlapping boundaries to be in communication and perhaps meet to discuss how to deal with overlapping areas among their clientele. International links may even be of practical assistance to committees by helping to bring people together and gain the attention of government.
Nationally, committees like those involving health-driven initiatives can be used to bring people together to direct government attention to resource needs, knowledge and expertise. The committees can certainly play an important role at this point. They can impress government that the field has ideas, knows where it is going and is therefore worthy of support.
International links do not naturally link with top-level large unions. At present, it seems that formal ties are less important than the collection of individual informal links that foster strength. With regard to upcoming important activities, the groups involved with these apparently proceed with developing their own strategic plans. So, there is a need to work enthusiastically towards longer-term strategic plans, including a need to assist with an investment plan for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). Another initiative was to organise a major conference – a Quaternary Science Conference to act as a stepping stone for the field and establish new major players before the current ones retire. For the space people there was the need for better collaboration on specific missions. Another focus for the earth system scientists was to form a subcommittee and fund terrestrial carbon cycle research which is in need of much stronger support to draw together the disparate groups involved in threshold carbon research.
Rapporteur – Professor Iain Hay
The principal questions were seen as:
- What does a peak body mean for the Academy compared with the meaning that might have for the constituent groups?
- Do committees as peak bodies have the 'ear' of policy makers?
- What are the difficulties associated with positioning or organising fragmented groups/constituencies as peak bodies? How amenable are these groups to such positioning as peak bodies?
The ideas are as follows:
Chairs of National Committees should be included in discussions to make sure they are involved in strategic directions (if not already the case).
The National Committees need to have the confidence and authority to be the 'peak authority'. This will be difficult in fragmented areas and will need resources. In this case, it will also be important that the committee has the backing of the Academy. There is also the need to add value over the top of the activities of constituent groups. Again, the authority and voice of the Academy backing the committee is needed to support this position and available to be drawn upon.
Question 2 – ensuring the 'health' of each discipline and area
It would be useful for National Committees to make representations to appropriate bodies (including universities) to help maintain the scientific disciplines. For example, there was a case of a chair writing to a university vice-chancellor in the case of a dubious dismissal. There can be other contributions regarding decisions such as promoting Nobel Prize winners, Australian of the year, lobbying, making sure evidence-based and nationally balanced policy representations are made. Constituents must know that the National Committees exist and function. They should not be seen as a 'secret society'. Websites could be used to meet public interest groups, e.g. extend the Nova website to include initiatives such as 'meet an archaeologist'. There could be national coordination and overseeing (by committees) of professional registration in some cases if it is seen as appropriate. This could encourage activities relating to ethics and probity where there is a need/interest.
In relation to the interaction with the International Council for Science (ICSU), there may be lots of opportunities that have not been followed through. These could be examined further in terms of possible means of capitalising on these by discussing such opportunities (like making international meetings known) at national association meetings. Such meetings can be used to stimulate discussion. For example, the Geography Institute made a profit from their congress that is now used to support the attendance of early-career researchers at subsequent meetings.
National Committees need to be more productive. They need to shift from reactive positions to more proactive responses. Government ministers do listen and are responsive to visions and representations so it is not as though committees are pushing against closed doors. Vehicles for this approach could involve press releases from the Committees (approved and released through the Academy), letters to newspapers and papers could be prepared for Ministers. Clearly, there are some dangers if increased numbers of people are engaged in public communications.
How do we position committees as peak bodies? We are currently working through strategies.
There is an International Geographical Union regional congress in Brisbane July 2006 that will attract over 1000 representatives.
Rapporteur – Professor Hyam Rubinstein
The profile of the disciplines needs to be raised e.g. mathematics in universities and industry.
Relations between the academies and industry need to be reinforced.
The positioning of each committee will depend on the nature of the area/other major bodies e.g. The Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) and industry links.
A role can be to assist and work with organisations associated with each discipline, such as RACI. This is important to boost intakes to study these subjects at early levels of high school. Science education is a key consideration.
There should be increased representation of the structure arising from the university research community to address questions of balance and priority e.g. Antarctic research.
Benchmarking – there are questions relating to priorities within different groups. Mapping these and setting targets would be a useful exercise. In this context a roadmap might be more useful than a decadal plan. For example, the crystallography group could work with other groups in working on Synchrotron issues thereby assisting professional societies and connecting to international bodies. This may also help overcome the difficulties associated with managing the costs of running small societies. There are other such examples – spectroscopy; the physics committees could become more active because the Institute for Theoretical Physics is not really active. This is an important field with a real need for more physics education in schools. Nanoscience and risk assessment of new developments in this field are other emerging areas that require attention.
In terms of interdisciplinary areas – there is great potential for a very large role for the Academy to play in terms of assisting with 'brokering' new useful linkages via the National Committees. One notable area for closer collaboration between the biological and physical sciences is in the area of nanotechnology. There was a recent article in 'Science' covering the health and safety aspects of this field that outlines these issues in greater detail and is suggested reading. A subject like nanotoxicity certainly requires attention from multiple committees.
Indeed, perhaps many of the greatest advances in science are coming from such interdisciplinary areas and thus particular attention to these areas of overlap is warranted. Perhaps there should be more 'forwarding' of materials and discussion papers to other related committees to encourage such linkages.
Particular attention should be directed towards the physical sciences, especially education in high schools. There is presently a decline in these fields of study. A trend that was first observed in Western Australia and is now emerging in Queensland and other states. There must be a brisk move towards stemming this tide in the decline of education in this area.
Working groups should involve younger people.
There should be dynamic and interactive communications between the chairs.
It may be helpful to organise and lobby for projects – for example the construction of the Synchrotron required some considerable agitation by the interested parties including NC members.
For some projects, it may be necessary to merge two committees. As a model, the Synchrotron approach could be used as the basis for how it might be appropriate to connect disciplines such as the physical and biosciences. It would be an idea to pick up the suggestions outlined in the report and move forward from there. An area for specific attention is the need for a formal linkage with crystallography and bring the Synchrotron back under the Academy. Should there be a National Committee specifically for the Synchrotron?
The boundaries and areas of overlap need to be clearly identified. (e.g. the formation of a committee for biomedical science related activities).
It should be recognised that there are economies of scale in terms of efficient merging of fields. All decadal plans require resources – where do these come from? We need to realise that there are possibilities for ARC funding.
From an industry point of view, there is zero correlation with the work they do. This perception needs to be addressed urgently. Of particular concern is that industry relies upon people adequately trained in maths, physics, and chemistry. Without these skills, poor decision-making becomes much more likely.
Afternoon Breakout Discussion Session
Productivity Commission Review of Public Support for Science and Innovation
Introduction – there are some particular points that can be noted with regard to the economic-type of perspective as outlined in the documents to be discussed:
- There is the possibility that analyses may not be making use of a correct timeline. There can be a lag effect in R&D which means that it may take 10 years for the full flow-on effects to be realised. If this is the case, the process starts a lot earlier and economic modelling may not be fully accounting for these situations.
- Quantitative arguments are favoured over qualitative arguments.
- It is a concern that there appears to be a strong uncoupling of concepts.
- Industry groups have benefited from R&D and 'science' in subtle as well as obvious ways. For example, some analyses have shown that BHP saved $300 million per year from R&D.
Rapporteur – Dr Brian Boyle
In response to the question – more questions can be asked – such as: 'What is innovation?'
There is no precise policy relating to innovation and the definition is unsatisfactory.
There is a vacuum in this area that can be seen as an opportunity to provide a policy on innovation and a plan for how to get innovation to market as well as for educating students, the public, and particularly policy makers and government in basic concepts such as Intellectual Property (IP) and the role of scientists. Such courses already exist and could be developed. Of course this education works both ways, and scientists can be educated in getting their innovations to market earlier.
In terms of evidence:
- Hard data is difficult to extract but there are examples. For instance, the CRC for predictive mineral discovery – 6 months investment in a post-doc yielding a multi-billion dollar return. There are also the social impacts that post-doctoral students can have on society generally.
- There has been a traditional underestimation of the positive influence of science and innovation on society because there is little estimation of the impact of not having options. Without local experience, there may only be the option of adopting the 'predator approach' where the necessary innovation and expertise must be bought-in. However, some countries that have taken this approach for a while, like Japan, have learnt that this very soon becomes expensive and unsustainable and then must spend considerable resources and effort reinvesting in the structure and people required to support national R&D.
In terms of impediments:
- There is a lack of clearly defined policy.
- A pattern of a longer lead-time from innovation to market is emerging possibly due to: overwork in universities, administration loads. Difficulties in accessing ARC linkage programs due to the issue of multiple-leverage; 50% ARC funding that leads to too much time spent seeking partners to support projects (the 10% phenomenon). Proto spin-offs held too closely to universities and CSIRO; there is a loss of skilled workers to take up opportunities associated with new discoveries.
- There is no appropriate market scale for some inventions that exists locally e.g. GPS system Galileo (Australia has only 5% of the market share of China).
- Need to attract venture capitalists to Australia and perhaps adjust the economic system to encourage this.
- Not training people in the basic sciences which ultimately underpin innovation systems over the long term, and lead to informed decision-making.
Rapporteur – Professor Bob Williamson
To whom should the response by the Academy be directed? Treasury? Prime Minister and Cabinet? Several good reports already on innovation, such as that by Robin Batterham (5 years ago) and another by David Miles, none of which are referred to – so what is the purpose of revisiting this subject?
Is the objective to put the view that science and technology innovation leads to a low return and thereby prompt an opposing view? To prove the value of the investment?
In terms of evidence:
There are some possible 'answers'.
It can be answered specifically. For instance, the deliverables in agriculture and mining (relating to the enormous growth observed in recent years), depend specifically on science and technology some of which have been Australian innovations. Innovation makes Australia economically competitive on the global scene. This is true both for dollar returns but also for less tangible concepts like those associated with a 'green country' such as through water use and agro-genetic resources.
More generally, in terms of the view which is more like the 'World Bank' – the value is enormous in terms of maintaining a healthy educated community which equals a prosperous community that is able to respond appropriately to pressures. According to this view, microeconomic reform only works in a context of scientific and technical excellence, health and literacy. The World Bank is implementing these concepts in the context of Third World Countries.
In terms of problems and impediments:
There is a real need for a scientifically literate community with a focus on commencing this at primary and secondary levels of schooling. This is not the case at the moment. Tertiary education also needs to be considered and the system modified to move away from short-term fast collection of degrees rather than intensive knowledge and skills development that leads to students without breadth and multi-disciplinary skills. The Research Quality Framework (RQF) actually should be beneficial in terms of helping to focus attention on this issue but here is a need to preserve 'blue skies' and innovation.
Perhaps immigration policies should be re-examined (difficulties related to overseas post-docs).
Need to improve commercialisation and patenting systems (gap in Australian expertise in this area).
Over-regulation can be a problem (for example genetically modified organisms that are widely known to be safe can become overly restrictive with six month procedures so there needs to be some measure of focussing on 'real risk' not 'imaginary risk').
Rapporteur – Professor Gerard Milburn
Question 1. There is a shortage of skilled people available to undertake innovations
People need to be well-trained and a strong knowledge base needs to be maintained to capitalise on innovation.
There are some short-term decisions being made about a number of areas of research that are being cut back now, that could in fact become important areas of innovation. For example, the effect of climate change - an area in which decisions need to be made right now for agricultural policy because decisions take so long to implement and benefit from these changes so that agriculture can benefit in the longer term.
Should the knowledge required be 'bought-in' or 'publicly funded'? Do we really know everything there is to know using the expertise and knowledge available overseas? Is there a need to tailor information to Australia and Australia's needs? Could the choice between 'buy in' or 'develop it locally' be a crucial decision that could if not correctly made, reduce the capacity of Australians to respond to change? What would happen if the wrong choice was made? A suggestion is that nothing would happen for 5 to 10 years but then after that, it would not be possible to recruit good staff. Also, the overview of the appropriate avenues to pursue and develop would be lost.
Case studies and national studies written in a form and language that is comprehensible to politicians and the public should be used.
The ARC put in place intellectual property agreements but there was no venture capital to do anything further.
There may be an important role for the states – e.g. Smart State initiatives of Queensland, Victoria.
Needs to be a return in some of the funding to basic research and single investigator research.
In the mining industry, production processes have improved in South Australia and Western Australia and these have directly benefited from innovations.
Summing up – overall comments and contributions
There can be a gap between good basic research and venture capital investment. In order to minimise investment risk, there can be increased communication and checks, to identify early, the direction that research is likely to take.
There is presently more emphasis on product and process innovation rather than conceptual innovation. Care must be taken that Australian research is not limited to curing symptoms rather than taking a more holistic approach that can ultimately handle much larger problems.
Science and innovation and an education in these processes are investments in healthy good decision-making that informs smart choices. Two-way communication between scientific community and industry needs to be enhanced.
In some cases, economic gain can be indirect, for example – how is a dollar figure placed on the improvement to people's lives and their work productivity gains resulting from the discovery of Helicobacter and then the resulting possibility of developing treatment?
It was noted that the due date for submissions to the Productivity Commission was 28 July 2006 and that the Academy would welcome further contributions and input from its National Committees by 30 June 2006.