A national science and research strategy for Australia
- To avoid falling off the pace set by international comparators, Australia must design a system to support research that is fit-for-purpose: coherent, sustained and supported.
- To develop a new system first requires a whole-of-government review to identify the optimal operation, funding arrangements and architecture to support Australian research.
Over time, ad-hoc interventions, various departmental initiatives and overlapping state and Commonwealth priorities have led to a system that is spread over 202 programs and 13 federal portfolios, with multiple ministers and departments having key responsibilities: an overly bureaucratised and inefficient system.
Australia’s approach is now simply the sum of multiple, rarely coordinated interventions with the obvious result: fragmentation, duplication and gaps.
Australia and international comparisons
Most national systems are complex and subject to interventions over time that shift the focus and blur the purpose. Australia is not alone in that regard. But several key ‘comparator’ countries have taken the initiative to redesign their systems to generate more focused and coherent support for research.
- The European Union coordinates the science systems of member nations through the European Research Area, including shared research policies and priorities through programs like the European Research Council and Horizon Europe.
- Japan is seeking to reclaim leadership in innovation and science through establishing an $82 billion research endowment fund to provide focused support for both fundamental research and innovative start-ups.
- The UK has created a central research funding council – United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) – to provide better coordination and quality of science funding as a component of the nation’s industrial strategy.
- China’s latest 5-year plan includes annual increases in funding for science (7%) and fundamental research (10%) to develop greater scientific self-reliance.
While none of these recent designs are directly translatable to Australia, the idea of building a coherent approach to research support is.
The base for Australia’s existing system is thirty years old, and while it may be recognisable in some respects, multiple interventions over three decades has diminished its fitness for the role it should play. It requires substantial review and plausible redesign; it needs renewal, refurbishment, recasting and in some cases re-imagining.
Australia’s new research system should be designed to recognise the value of the essential building block – deep knowledge of our world – while supporting its application to enhance productivity, build sustainable economic growth, facilitate job creation and new industries, and improve national wellbeing. A new research system should develop and sustain scientific knowledge as a national asset.
Role of science
Science will be at the heart of many of the choices Australians will make as we seek to build prosperity and security in a changing world.
Multiple attempts to ‘commercialise’ research outcomes has arguably meant that science has been more affected by the multiple efforts to turn universities, in particular, into the research arm of Australian industry. There have been successes such as the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program. But the same argument that started more than thirty years ago continues to this day. And that continues to lead to small-scale interventions and small-scale thinking.
There is much we could learn from approaches in other countries, primarily to consider the whole of the research and development pipeline in one strategy. That would involve dispassionate assessment of the role that universities and research agencies, government and business should play. It will mean a different attitude, and some cultural change, in all parties. It will require real incentives to change, not exhortations combined with sets of rules that make it difficult.
If Australia is to benefit and prosper, Australians should demand that it be done.
Questions to stimulate discussion
- How does the fragmentation, incoherence and duplications in the Australian science system impact science and innovation?
- Does Australia need a new national science and research strategy?
- What should a new national review of Australian science address?
This topic’s links to the Sustainable Development Goals:
This document has been produced by the Australian Academy of Science to stimulate debate. Read the official position statements of the Academy.
This feature article from the Australian Academy of Science is part of the ‘Science for Australians’ series where experts are asked to shed light on how science benefits all Australians and how it can be used to inform policy.