Position statement—Priority setting in science and innovation

The Academy's media release of 31 January expressed dismay at the Government's decision to impose priority areas of research on the Australian Research Council. Here is the Academy's more detailed response to the challenge of priority setting in research, published on 12 February 2002.

At the outset the Academy would like to emphasise that it strongly supports the establishment of priorities for Australian research and development. In our policy document Priorities in research and innovation for the next Australian Government we recommended that 'The next Australian Government should set broad directions for government research agencies and funding agencies.' We went on to urge 'that there be put in place robust internal priority-setting mechanisms that include broad consultation with potential users of research'.

The Academy believes that to be effective, both as policy and in delivering desirable social and economic benefits to Australia, future research and development priorities:

  • must be established through a broad consultative process and carry the support of the scientific community;
  • must be based upon an open and detailed assessment of Australia's current activity in any suggested priority area and of any inhibiting factors for its development;
  • must involve a coordinated response by all relevant R&D agencies and Government programs;
  • must involve the university sector and have regard for the planning and time scales of that sector with its responsibilities for education and particularly research training as well as its significant contribution to research in Australia;
  • must articulate clearly with Australia's industry policy and industry development programs. This is particularly critical in emergent areas of science such as nanotechnology, where there is very limited Australian industrial activity at the moment and most of that in relatively small start-up companies;
  • must be implemented in a way that takes account of strengths and weaknesses of each priority area. For example, in an area in which Australia is currently weak an effective implementation strategy would need to include the development of capacity through research training initiatives as well as the attraction to Australia of relevant expertise; and
  • must be sustained over time with funding allocations carefully aligned to the development of capacity and to ensure that a sustained long term effort results and there is not a waste of crucial resources on projects that only superficially address the issue.

In the Academy's view the Government's recent decision concerning the ARC did not adequately address these criteria, perhaps because of the operative time constraints. The policy has a single agency focus and its rationale is not publicly available. We hope that any future priorities for the ARC will be determined after consideration through an improved process.

We are concerned that narrow definitions of the priority areas may be perceived as emphasising short-term applied research over longer term and more fundamental research. As we cautioned in Priorities in research and innovation for the next Australian Government, 'In putting forward thematic areas of national priority…basic research should not be overlooked. Indeed, thematic areas of greatest priority are those where there are rapid advances in basic research, because this is where the greatest benefits from investment in R&D are likely to be realised.'

While the Academy would agree that the four identified areas involve exciting scientific developments, it would hope that any additional priorities nominated by the Government would include environmental science. Australia is responsible for the sustainable stewardship of one of the world's most fragile continents, with its unique fauna and flora. Research into the prevention of environmental degradation, as well as into remediation and conservation/management, must be a national priority.

The Academy is concerned with the significant impact that the extremely high level of initial funding will have on other aspects of the ARC's mission and on the ability of the ARC to sustain the priorities over some years. While we recognise that the establishment of priorities must result in the redirection of resources, it seems at least highly improbable, if not inconceivable, that such a high proportion of available funds could be committed in 2003 without having a significant deleterious effect on the rest of the ARC's programs and hence on Australia's research effort in many other areas of activity.

We are also sceptical that the Australian research system and particularly the university system has the capacity to respond to these priorities in the most effective way on the time scale indicated. Certainly, the advice given to the Minister to change the guidelines so close to the application deadline of the Discovery Grant scheme, seems to have been ill considered. In the case of Linkage grants, it is the ARC's own experience that it can take over twelve months for competitive proposals to be developed.

We note from the Minister's media release of 28 January that it is the Government's intent to extend priority setting to other agencies during 2002. We urged the Minister to take this opportunity to review his directive to the ARC to ensure that deleterious effects are minimised.

The situation might be alleviated by requesting the ARC to commit, say, 10 per cent of its 2003 uncommitted resources to the priorities, foreshadowing an increase in funding in 2004 to say 20 per cent (or such other figure as is sustainable in the light of ARC's changing budget and its other commitments), with a Centre program to be funded from applications called for in late in 2002 for funding say mid-way through 2003. Such a phased timetable would allow an effective interaction with the planning and development activities of other relevant participants in the Australian innovation system.

Unlike overseas agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the ARC does not contribute to the salaries of its chief investigators in the university system. Further, the Research Infrastructure Block Grants Scheme contributes only 20 cents in the dollar to direct infrastructure in contrast to international benchmarks that would suggest a more reasonable figure is 40 cents. This means that effective high quality ARC projects require a very significant contribution from the university sector. Achieving any ARC priorities will consequently require a close partnership between the ARC and the university sector.

The Academy, as Australia's premier science body, stands ready to play its part both collectively and through the individual activities of our Fellows in a wide ranging public debate on priorities and their implementation for the benefit of Australia. We are, for example, working with CSIRO as it develops its priorities and the CEO's Flagship Programs. In part, our interest in working with CSIRO results from a view that CSIRO's initiatives are important for Australia and the achievement of its objectives will only come if the wider science community is aware of CSIRO's plans and is articulated with their implementation.

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