Statement—The future of Australian science

On 18 February 1996, Professor Sir Gustav Nossal, President of the Australian Academy of Science, made the following public statement.

Australia is blessed with an excellent science base. This is the result of investment by previous generations combined with continuing expenditure on research. International comparisons of the published outputs of research show that our researchers publish at about double the global rate in the respected journals. In most fields our researchers are accepted as colleagues in other world-class laboratories, an essential pre-condition for staying up-to-date in science.

Why does our standing in science matter? There are three answers: the national need for innovation, our national obligation to be good stewards of the unique Australian environment, and the need to access the leading edge of world research and advances in knowledge in science and technology.

A decade ago the economists were liable to describe science as an 'exogenous variable' in the economy, something industries would suck in when the real drivers of economic growth created the demand for it. Today we understand much more clearly the central role that innovation plays in economic growth. This is not to say that innovations flow from the laboratory. Companies innovate, but without a strong national science base they will lack the access to skilled people, the specialised knowledge and the links to the latest technologies available overseas, all of which are essential to innovation.

This is well known to the 'tiger' economies, old and new, which are investing heavily in their science bases and in fostering innovation. They know they will need new industries to replace the manufacturing jobs that are being transferred to lower-cost countries.

The current government can point with some satisfaction to a 50% increase over 13 years in the proportion of our national economic output that goes to research and development. R&D covers the whole spectrum of activities from basic research to product development and design. Much of the new money has gone to three areas: industrial R&D (by definition mostly short-term) through tax concessions; funds aimed at creating links between our public laboratories and research users; and support for the research costs associated with the striking growth in the number of university students and staff.

At the same time, those researchers whose task it is to produce our basic research have experienced some real worsening in the conditions for basic research. Today's publicly-funded researchers, especially the younger ones, find they are spending more time on relations with research users, and the academics among them have heavier teaching loads. More time must be spent on performance reviews, writing applications for research funds, and so on, all in an environment that often provides insecure employment, and pay rates below those available in comparable countries. These may be some of the reasons for the observed decline in recent years of the high publishing rate of our researchers.

Our goal for the future can be stated simply. We must maintain and enhance the quality of our science base as an investment in our future. The Academy has a number of suggestions as to what should be done in the immediate future.

What I have called the research base, the research done in our universities, publicly-owned laboratories and research institutes, is in urgent need of assistance. The government's National Board for Employment, Education and Training established that universities need more than $100 million to restore their laboratories, equipment and computers to an acceptable standard.

Meeting that need should be delayed no longer. Considering that most research funds available to university researchers require competitive applications, the current success rate of 23%, and declining, is an intolerable discouragement to highly capable younger researchers. A reasonable short-term target is 33%, with the urgent need for special support for investigators earlier in their careers.

CSIRO remains one of the strengths of Australia's research base. What it needs, above all, is a clear statement from government of what its broad goals are, and an equally clear declaration of confidence in the capacity of its management to get on with the job.

There has been a substantial increase in research by companies over the last decade. The Government deserves credit for that achievement. One of the instruments of that change has been the 150% tax concession for investment in R&D. Another scheme, R&D Syndication, was showing great promise as a means of funding the commercialisation of good inventions coming out of research. With good reason, the Government has been concerned about the potential cost to tax revenues, and has introduced new restrictions. The Academy believes the new arrangements have not yet achieved the right balance. Some of our best laboratories are excluded, and the appeal of the scheme to investors has been so reduced that its potential benefits may be lost. The next Government should revisit the subject as soon as possible.

Science education is the basis of the whole R&D edifice, and an essential support for innovation in the economy. Many have complained over the years about the lack of systematic science education in primary schools. Through a program called Primary Investigations the Academy has demonstrated that systematic science education can be introduced to primary schools, in a form that is received enthusiastically by teachers and students, at an annual cost of less than ten dollars for each student. It is time for national and state governments to commit themselves to the achievement of universal science education from the first year of primary school on.

Another achievement of the present Government is the Prime Minister's Science and Engineering Council. It is essential that whoever is Prime Minister commits himself to using the Council to make sure the role of science and technology is recognised across the departments of state. The willing assistance of the S&T community should be harnessed more effectively to national needs through a restructured Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council. One model worth close examination is that of the USA, where the Academies, at arm's length to government, form a National Research Council. This uses its great prestige to elicit voluntary work from top scientists to forge independent advice on a great range of specialised subjects.

The condition of our science base is, I am happy to report, one cause for optimism about our future. It would be folly not to build on it. I look forward to a time when our leaders, at election time, abandon their competition to spend more on our current needs and desires, real as they are, and ask us to support them for their willingness to invest in the longer-term generators of wealth such as science, technology and innovation.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science