Comment—Australian science and technology–the science base

The following comment was prepared by Dr N K Boardman, AO, FAA, FTSE, FRS for the meeting of the Prime Minister's Science and Engineering Council, 13 September 1996.


Knowledge, especially technological knowledge, is the main source of economic growth and improvement in the quality of life. Nations which develop and manage effectively their knowledge assets perform better (The OECD jobs strategy - technology, productivity and job creation, OECD, Paris, 1996)

The contributions of the science base to national welfare

The increasing recognition worldwide of the vital contribution of science and technology to economic growth, quality of life and environmental sustainability is reflected in the above quotation from the OECD. The OECD study on jobs strategy concluded that nations which develop and manage effectively their knowledge assets perform better.

The research which produces the knowledge base for innovation includes basic research, technological or applied research and engineering research. An important component of research in the universities is the training of students in research project planning and execution, creative thinking and initiative, and the use of up-to-date instrumentation and technology. Students who acquire these high-level skills are a vital resource for achieving a more competitive industrial sector, and improved environmental management and living standards.

The Australian Academy of Science emphasises the importance of high quality basic research and training to the knowledge base in science, which is referred to as the science base.

The science base includes fundamental research for the advancement of knowledge, often referred to as blue-sky research, and strategic basic research. The latter utilises the same techniques and instrumentation as fundamental research and is often long term, but it has the objective of contributing to definable problems.

The main research role of universities is the performance of fundamental research, although universities also perform much strategic basic research as well as some shorter term applied research. The balance between fundamental strategic basic and applied research is influenced by funding sources.

Medical research institutes perform both fundamental and strategic basic research with the aim of understanding and developing solutions for particular health problems. CSIRO and other government research agencies make a major contribution to the science base in their performance of strategic basic research which underpins and is essential to their shorter-term applied research.

The objectives of fundamental and strategic basic research of high international standard are to provide:

  • the latest knowledge, including new instrumentation and technical advances
  • high level skills and skills training in research
  • access to global networks and front-line researchers internationally

What does the science base need?

Published Australian research accounts for about 2% of the world's total. Effective international links are essential to provide access to the leading edge of world research and technology. Conducting high quality, internationally recognised research in Australia provides the entry ticket into the world community of researchers. Invitations to actively participate in international conferences and symposia and to visit leading research institutions overseas depend on the reputations of our scientists. International collaboration in research is also recognised as important for the visibility of Australian research.

A high quality science base needs:

  • talented researchers
  • an adequate and up-to-date research infrastructure
  • adequate funding

Talented researchers

The recruitment and retention of talented researchers are essential for the establishment and maintenance of research groups of high quality as benchmarked against world standards and performance. Employment conditions should be comparable to those in the USA and Europe. An issue for Australia is the proportion of researchers in tenured positions, compared with those on five-year renewable contracts or fixed-term appointments. Not everyone retains their research effectiveness for their whole working life, but in the universities the teaching, research and administrative loads can be varied.

Nurturing young talent in universities as well as in public research agencies is very important for the future health of the science base.

Research infrastructure

A good infrastructure for research, which includes laboratory space, equipment, libraries and computer facilities is essential for the performance of internationally competitive research and to attract talented individuals. A report (1) by the national Board of Employment, Education and Training (NBEET) concluded that research infrastructure, in all its dimensions is coming under increasing pressure due to expanding research activity in the universities.

A key problem in the university system is the unrealistic expectation that adequate research funding and research infrastructure will be available across all sections of higher education teaching. Should research resources particularly in some of the more expensive scientific disciplines be concentrated in fewer established institutions? Is critical mass important for the performance of internationally-competitive research?

The Academy of Science strongly supports the system of peer assessment of researchers and research projects and believes that the most gifted and able people should have adequate resources to enable them to perform research that is of high quality and significant in the international context. It is important that research resources also are provided for newly-appointed junior academic staff who, at the start of their career, often find it difficult to compete successfully with senior researchers with established track records.

Adequate funding

The Academy of Science supports the continuation of a plurality of funding sources for research in universities while emphasising processes of peer assessment of research proposals and evaluation of performance and outcomes. There is concern, however, that the present success rate of 23% for applications for research grants from the large grant scheme of the Australian Research Council (ARC) is putting enormous pressure on the selection process and denying opportunities for many talented researchers.

A popular belief in the universities attributes the decline in research performance to inadequate funding so that researchers do not have adequate resources to undertake high quality internationally-competitive research.

In actual dollar terms (at constant prices) the total level of funding in the higher education sector has increased across all fields over the period 1984-1992. Across the period 1981-1990, there has been little change in the total research expenditure per research scientist and engineer indicating no change in the intensity of funding. This analysis does not take account, however, of the significant escalation in the costs of performing top quality internationally-competitive research in many areas of science during the same period.

Important elements in the strength and reputation of Australia's science base are centres of research excellence, such as the Research Schools and Centres of the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Australian National University, the ARC Special Research Centres and medical research Institutes. Such centres bring together a diversity of skills and a sufficient number of researchers and state-of-the-art equipment to tackle difficult research topics and mount long-term research programs in an internationally competitive way.

The report of the 1995 Joint Review (2) of the Institute of Advanced Studies of the ANU, commissioned jointly by the ARC and ANU, and the joint review reports of the individual schools and centres provide ample evidence for the high standing or research in the Institute of Advanced Studies and the important contributions to knowledge, and the science base in Australia, made by researchers at the Institute. The following quote is from the review report of the Institute as a whole.

'The Institute has acted as a magnet for talent. Its social, cultural and scientific environment has been such as to attract scholars of the highest calibre from all over Australia and indeed from all over the world. As a result the IAS is now a world player in every field in which it has well-established scholarly and research activity.'

Public funding

Governments fund a large proportion of the research conducted in universities in most nations. For example, in 10 out of 14 countries of the OECD public money accounts for more than 80% of all funds going to university departments for research (3). The private sector, particularly in small and middle-size economies, is reluctant to fund long-term, blue-sky research and even strategic basic research because of the high risk and the inability of a company to appropriate the benefits of the research for competitive advantage. The results of university research are published in the open literature, although there is now a tendency in most universities to examine manuscripts for potentially valuable intellectual property before submission for publication. Even in the event of a delay in publication to enable patent application, the results become freely available to the scientific community as a knowledge base for further work and discovery.

In Australia, a substantial proportion of CSIRO's strategic basic research is long-term and high-risk and much of it is broadly applicable to a range of private sector activities. Research in areas of community interest such as the environment and public health is of increasing importance and clearly the responsibility of government.

Measuring the health of the science base

An internationally accepted method of measuring the performance of basic research is by the quantity and quality of publications in international peer-reviewed journals.

Analysis of published Australian research papers in journals of the Science Citation Index as a share of world publications confirm the strength of Australia's basic research. Australia contributes 60% more papers to published science than its population or GDP would suggest (4).

Citations per paper in the international scientific literature are a measure of the visibility of the research and, with reservations, an indication of quality. Australia performs well across most scientific fields but with particular excellence in fields related to our national resources and competitive export industries: earth sciences, agriculture, plant and animal sciences and the environment. Australia also performs well in certain areas of medical research (5).

A disturbing feature of the analyses of Bourke and Butler (1993) and confirmed by the BIE (1996) is the declining share of world citations in a large number of fields of Australian research since the mid-to-late 1980s.

The importance of international networks in research

In a recent study, yet to be published, funded largely by the Australian Research Council, the Australian Academy of Science examined possible causes for the decline in citation share. Some evidence was obtained to support the view that the decline in the visibility of Australian science in the international scene is related to a reduction by Australian scientists in the tapping of international networks.

Overseas experience particularly at the post-doctoral level, or for PhD training, is an important way in establishing and maintaining networks. The proportion of academics in Australian universities who obtained their first degree in Australia and their PhD overseas has decreased from 21.5% in 1970 to 11.7% in 1994 (a decrease of 45%). Although it is difficult to obtain reliable statistics on post doctoral training overseas by Australian graduates, the opportunities have declined because sources of adequate overseas funding are more difficult to obtain. There are very few funding schemes in Australia to support overseas postdoctoral experience.

The Academy of Science believes that the lack of post-doctoral fellowships for study overseas is an important policy issue which has a bearing on future successful international collaborations.

Effective management of national knowledge assets

The effective management of the knowledge assets of the science base requires a stronger R&D effort in the private sector and the establishment of stronger links between universities, government research agencies and industry. It is important not to put at risk the performance of the science base in universities and government research agencies by a confusion of research roles.

The public sector should not be coerced into doing research which is much better performed in the private sector because of its closeness to, and understanding of, markets.

The Academy of Science strongly supports the Cooperative Research Centres Scheme which is proving very successful in drawing together researchers from universities, government research agencies and industry and strengthening links with the users of research. Another objective of the scheme is a concentration of research resources for leading edge research in areas of national importance.

Priorities of the science base

The Academy of Science puts forward the following as its priorities for the science base.

  1. Maintenance of a strong internationally-competitive science base by providing adequate resources, including infrastructure, to the most gifted and able researchers and ensuring a sufficient concentration of effort for the performance of high quality internationally-competitive research.
  2. The nurturing of young talent by providing adequate resources to newly-appointed junior academic staff at the start of their careers.
  3. The resources available at least to keep pace with the real cost of doing research of international standing.
  4. Provide much better opportunities for post-doctoral training in overseas laboratories to establish new international networks and promote future successful international collaborations.
  5. Ensure that an appropriate balance is achieved between long term strategic basic research and applied research in CSIRO, other government research agencies and the Cooperative Research Centres.
  6. Develop better methodology for the allocation of resources between the disciplines in the science base.

Footnotes

  1. National Board of Employment, Education and Training (1993). Higher education research infrastructure. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service.
  2. Joint Review of the Institute of Advanced Studies. Institute Review Committee (1995). Report. Canberra, Australian National University, September 1995. (2003/1995).
  3. Pavitt, Keith (1996), “Road to ruin”, New scientist, 3 August 1996, pp32-5
  4. Bourke, Paul and Linda Butler (1993). A crisis for Australian science? Canberra, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, n.d. (Performance Indicators Project, Monograph no. 1)
  5. Australia Bureau of Industry Economics (1996). Australian science, performance from published papers. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, January 1996. (Report 96/3).

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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