Funding Australian university research

June 25, 2020
 

Australians have put their trust in science as a way forward to set our path out of the COVID-19 pandemic and meet the challenges arising.

Science can solve the problems of the twenty-first century, but not alone. Whether it’s the quest for a COVID-19 vaccine, the emergence of artificial intelligence or the challenges of adapting to climate change, scientists worldwide are working side-by-side with colleagues of other disciplines—including the humanities—to come up with the research and solutions to the problems our world faces.

As we come to grips with the implications of the Australian Government’s Job-ready Graduates Package for universities, and the challenges of the recovery from COVID-19, the Australian Academy of Science is ready to engage with government to ensure that Australian science education and research can play the role government has outlined for it.

New places and a focus on STEM welcome

The Academy welcomes initiatives to increase university places by 39,000 within three years, boost regional research capability, uncap places for Indigenous Australians, and establish a National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund.

Reducing the loans students will incur undertaking science and mathematics are to be commended, but it is important that the measures do not cause unintended consequences. Students must be encouraged, when selecting subjects to study, to undertake as broad a curriculum as possible.

The Australian Academy of Science stands with the nation’s other learned academies in expressing concerns about the implications of the announced package across all scientific and academic disciplines. Our society needs scientists, but it would be poorer if not for people educated in the arts, social sciences, management, commerce, law and the humanities. Scientists know that all knowledge is multidisciplinary, and a system that silos knowledge and values one sort of knowledge over another will fail Australians.

Reduced resources for science and engineering concerning

The proposed changes are complex and, ironically, while reducing fees for Australian students undertaking a science degree, thereby encouraging them to choose science subjects, they also decrease the government’s contribution, leading to an overall decrease in the funding for science and engineering. Unless this is addressed in the design of the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, this has serious implications for the capacity of universities to enrol more science students.

The government’s policy ambition is for Australian universities to educate more STEM graduates. This would be a good outcome for our nation, and for individual students. However, we are concerned that the current design of the package could create perverse incentives for universities to enrol fewer STEM students, as this package asks universities to educate more new science students from 2021, for 16 per cent less funding per student.

Securing the future of scientific research is key

The pandemic has exposed multiple deficiencies in Australia’s historic approach to its economic base. One of these is that Australia’s system of funding research, and in particular funding basic or fundamental strategic research, is broken.

The Academy encourages the government to turn its attention to safeguarding the future of Australian science research post the pandemic, by:

  • examining the sustainability of Australia’s funding model for research, which is overly dependent on cross-subsidies from student (domestic and international) fee revenue
  • funding the full costs of research
  • addressing the decline of funding for strategic fundamental, basic research
  • encouraging new partnerships and cultural change to reverse a decade of decline in business investment in research and innovation
  • taking action to prevent the loss of up to 7000 researchers as a result of COVID-19 revenue losses. Research careers of early- and mid-career academics cannot be turned on and off like a tap—they require constant nourishment to maintain the pipeline of essential research capacity.

As Australia comes to grips with the recovery from the pandemic, and minimising any second wave, it is imperative that the science and research system that has served the nation well is put on a more sustainable, and secure, basis.

There is an opportunity for government to develop a wholistic response to the funding of Australian research, and the Academy looks forward to assisting the government in this endeavour.

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science

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