On 10 August 2010, the Australian Academy of Science made the following statement—Empower science, empower the future—in the context of the 2010 election.
Australia must continue to increase its investment in science, mathematics, technology, and engineering to provide the science capability that will drive our nation's future.
Governments around the world recognize that investment in science is vital for economic growth and international competitiveness. Last year, during the global financial crisis, when President Barack Obama announced the largest US investment in science since the Apollo Project at the US National Academy of Science, he commented that
…there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury…I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.
Many big challenges loom for Australia - in health, energy, water, climate change, infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and preservation of biodiversity.
To tackle these challenges, we need highly creative scientists and engineers, drawn from many disciplines, and a technologically skilled workforce. We need leaders and policy-makers who are scientifically well-informed. We need a scientifically literate community.
As we embrace the challenges and rapid developments of the 21st Century, the Academy notes that past success, policies and attitudes are no guarantee that Australia will continue to deliver exciting and productive research outcomes. Research excellence is a precious entity that requires constant tending and nurturing. We believe that our scientific potential to contribute to world knowledge, national wealth and security, and the health and education of all Australians, has never been greater. For this potential to be realised, ongoing nurture and reform is required.
To sustain and grow Australian science capability, the Academy sees the following priorities for Government in 2010:
Over the last decade, successive Australian governments have steadily increased expenditure on R&D. However, even now, our expenditure is < 2% of GDP and Australia ranks only 13th amongst the OECD nations. Several smaller nations, such as Finland, Sweden and Switzerland, already spend 3 to 4% of their GDP on R&D. Expenditure should be increased in Australia across the entire research and innovation sector, both by government and by business, through a variety of mechanisms, including Government incentives that will stimulate philanthropic investment in research.
Basic research is risky – while investment will increase the knowledge pool, clearly linked economic returns may not eventuate for a decade or more. The private sector shies away from this type of investment because outcomes are unpredictable and may be taken up by others who will derive benefit - which is why basic research is the special responsibility of Government.
Despite the risks, the rewards from ‘blue sky’ research can be very significant. Last year Dr John Sullivan, a Fellow of our Academy, won the Prime Minister’s Science Prize for his work that led to wireless communication. Sullivan’s invention had its genesis in research on sharpening images from optical telescopes. It took over 15 years for the technology to mature to an application that is now used by over a billion people and underpins multi-billion dollar industries.
To maximize social, environmental and economic outcomes for Australia, it is crucial to eschew mediocrity, focus on excellence and maintain breadth. Although transformative advances are impossible to predict, it is likely they will involve interdisciplinary research. Complex questions require effective collaboration across research sectors including, increasingly, the social sciences and humanities and the development of systems-based approaches.
Proposals for public sector research funding appropriately undergo intense scrutiny for intrinsic merit, track record and potential outcomes, and only applications in the top band are successful. Once approved, however, applications should be fully funded, for both direct costs and indirect costs. Indirect costs (such as administration, maintenance of equipment, and IT) can vary according to discipline but are widely agreed to amount to ~ 60 cents for every research dollar. Despite recent improvements in the University sector, funding for indirect research costs is still inadequate and uneven across Australia’s research and innovation sector.
As confirmed by the 2010 Commonwealth Parliamentary review Australia's International Research Collaboration, science is an international endeavour, with a ready exchange of ideas and fluid movement of people between nations. Although a strong performer for its population size, Australia is but a small part of this effort, producing only 3% of new knowledge. To have access to the other 97%, to tackle problems that simply cannot be solved at the national level and to benchmark ourselves properly against the best international competition, it is vital to continue to build international scientific relationships and collaborations.
Australia is fortunate to have a rich scientific heritage, built over generations. Our strong research base is one of our greatest national assets, but without continuing attention, this asset will depreciate - the global market for scientific talent is highly competitive.
To attract and retain internationally competitive researchers, Australia needs further and more considered investment in sustainable career paths. Although there have been welcome Government initiatives in recent years to enhance fellowship support, career structures remain suboptimal. Furthermore, major bottlenecks lie ahead – where will the 1000 Future Fellows find their next 5 or 10 years of salary support when their current fellowships finish? There are simply not enough career investigator positions available in the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council (ARC) systems, and employment opportunities at most levels of government research organizations is also tight. This is an area of great concern to early career researchers and to students contemplating a career in research.
An integral part of a policy of investing in the best people is ensuring that movement between sectors (Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization (CSIRO), universities, research institutes, industry, government) is as seamless as possible and that there is increased awareness of alternative career paths in science, outside academia.
It is also essential to maximize participation by women in our scientific workforce. The 2009 report prepared for the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), Women in Science: Maximising Productivity, Diversity and Innovation, documented the high levels of attrition in the post doctoral phase of women’s scientific careers and the small number of women in leadership positions in the science and technology sectors. It also highlighted the costs in terms of international competitiveness and return on educational investment.
Career flexibility is a major issue in relation to child bearing and rearing for women and, increasingly, for men. There is a need for increased availability of quality childcare and appropriate leave arrangements that support career re-entry for promising young scientists who experience discontinuity for this or other compelling reasons (eg carer responsibilities).
Many critical issues that face Australia today require background scientific knowledge as well as a critical ability to assess scientific judgments, if appropriate decisions to meet Australia’s future needs are to be made.
Relatively few Australian politicians or public service leaders have had formal training or background in science. This potentially compromises the proper consideration of scientific evidence as a normal part of administrative and planning practice.
Despite the emphasis given in recent years to the value of “evidence based” policy by major political parties, new policy announcements and spending initiatives are rarely referenced with peer-reviewed research to substantiate the arguments.
The Academy has long emphasized the importance of school science education and actively contributed to its improvement. High quality, inspirational science teaching is vital to ensure that Australia produces sufficient world standard scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technologists to meet its future needs in industry, government and academia. It is also essential to create a technologically skilled workforce and a scientifically literate community.
The Academy strongly supports the intent and aspirations of the new Australian science and mathematics curricula and looks forward to their effective implementation. Research indicates that inquiry-based science programs are having a significant positive impact on student achievement and interest in science.
Achieving the full benefits from Australia’s investment in R&D requires effective communication and active engagement with the wider community. We aspire to being a nation that is inspired by its scientific stars, knows its scientific achievements, engages with scientific issues and encourages its children into scientific careers.
Issues such as climate change, genetically modified food crops and stem cell science are both technically complex and socially confronting. Yet they are often debated without sound reference to contemporary scientific knowledge. It is essential that the Australian scientific community contributes to debate on key national issues and international issues as they pertain to Australia. It is also essential that the Australian community has the scientific background and knowledge to assess and participate in scientific discussions on these critical issues.
Professor Suzanne Cory AC FAA FRS
Professor Bob Williamson AO FAA FRS
Secretary for Science Policy
© 2020 Australian Academy of Science