Statement—Science and technology priorities for the next Australian government

On 23 January 1996, the Australian Academy of Science made the following statement regarding science and technology priorities for the next Australian Government.


Contents

Statement by the President

I would like to focus the attention of the Government that takes office in 1996 on several matters that the Academy regards as of the highest importance. Few of them are new; science is a long-term enterprise. Many of them are well understood and can be expected to attract bipartisan support. Unfortunately, familiar problems do not always attract effective solutions. Here are a few key matters on which Australians can reasonably expect that any government that accepts its responsibility to invest in our future will take action in the course of the next Parliament. We urge all Parties to commit themselves to this program, or, better still, to improve on it.

The Academy's chief concern is the quality of Australia's basic and strategic research in science. It is a resource on which our community must draw for a number of purposes that are crucial for our future: to support innovating enterprises, to help us maintain the quality of our environment, and to support the intellectual development of the population and its capacity to function as a democracy in a world of growing complexity.

Like most countries, Australia produces only a small fraction of the science that it needs and must build links to overseas laboratories to have access to the latest knowledge and skills. There is some evidence, which the Academy is currently testing, that Australia's standing in global science has been diminishing over the last decade. We must therefore work harder to maintain our position. Only the best science will serve the needs of Australian users of science, and maintain our position in the global "club" of leading researchers.

Many scientists feel threatened and undervalued at a time when their commitment is more important than ever. The Academy proposes to involve scientists more closely in preparing advice to government through a re-structured ASTEC.

G J V Nossal

Summary

The next Government should give priority to

  • the maintenance of a high Australian Science and Technology (S&T) capability and the strengthening of the S&T base
  • strengthening of the research infrastructure of the higher education system
  • adequate funding of the Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to enable an increase in the number of research grants and the nurturing of young research talent
  • a commitment that postgraduate scholarships will remain non-taxable
  • giving the ARC greater independence from the Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) in the administration of ARC's research funds
  • a clear statement that the main role of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is the performance of strategic research
  • allowing the agencies concerned to determine the balance between strategic research and short term contract research in CSIRO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS)
  • setting broad directions for CSIRO and clearly demonstrating its confidence in the Organisation
  • continuing the tax concession for private sector R&D at 150% or higher
  • retaining the grants for industrial research and development
  • devising appropriate ways of assisting start-up and emerging companies such as concessional loans or deferment of taxation
  • maintaining support for the Rural R&D Corporations
  • a commitment to continue the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) scheme
  • re-examining the conditions for syndicated R&D to allow public and private tax-exempt research bodies to be partners in R&D syndicates
  • fostering greater interaction of researchers, both in the public and private sectors, with their counterparts overseas
  • science education from the beginning of primary school through secondary school and beyond
  • expanding greatly the in-service training of science teachers to maintain their subject knowledge
  • re-focussing the Australia Prize to provide greater recognition for major scientific achievement by Australians and to encourage outstanding younger researchers
  • retaining the Prime Minister's Science and Engineering Council, together with the Coordinating Committee for Science and Technology and the position of Chief Scientist
  • reconstituting ASTEC to be more independent of government. This may be achieved in a structure similar to the National Research Council in the USA.

The science and technology (S&T) base

The next Australian Government should highlight its strong commitment to the maintenance of a high Australian S&T capability of world standard, and to the strengthening of the S&T base.

Pure basic and strategic basic research, and the associated training of students, are the principal components of the S&T base.

Universities

Most pure basic research is performed in universities for the advancement of knowledge, to maintain linkages to the international research community and for the training of students.

The abandonment of the binary system in higher education resulted in the doubling of the number of universities as well as the amalgamation of a number of former colleges of advanced education with universities which existed in the binary system.

There has been a significant increase in the number of graduate students enrolled for research degrees.

A matter of some concern is the amount of funding for infrastructure (equipment, libraries, computer facilities) in universities for research training and the performance of internationally competitive basic research. A report by the National Board for Employment, Education and Training (NBEET) concluded that research infrastructure, in all its dimensions, is coming under increasing pressure due to the expanding research activity in the higher education system. NBEET recommended a substantial increase in funds for infrastructure. Although a modest increase has been provided it was inadequate.

The next government should acknowledge the importance of further strengthening the infrastructure of the higher education system and make a commitment to implement the NBEET recommendations.

Research funding

The Academy 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 of high quality and significance in the international context. It is vital 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.

Nurturing young talent in universities as well as in public research agencies and the private sector is very important for the building of an enterprise culture.

The next Government should support the continuation of a plurality of funding sources for R&D in universities while emphasising processes of peer assessment of research proposals and evaluation of performance and outcomes.

Another concern is the limited amount of funds available to the Australian Research Council (ARC), and universities and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) for the support of higher quality research and researchers. Such research involves the training of students to think conceptually and use the latest equipment and techniques which are essential for a more innovative and competitive industry.

The present success rate of 23% for applications for research grants from the ARC is putting enormous pressure on the selection process and denying opportunities for many talented researchers. Funding should be increased so that at least 33% of qualified proposals receive funding.

The next Government should consider granting ARC greater independence from DEET in the administration of its research funding, while recognising the advantages of a good ARC-DEET relationship. As an example, ARC should be free to contract-in program administrators from the research community for limited terms.

It is important that postgraduate scholarships or stipends for research students should remain non-taxable at least up to the remuneration of Australian Postgraduate Awards.

Centres of excellence, such as the Research Schools and Centres of the Institute of Advanced Studies, ANU, the ARC Special Research Centres and the Medical Research Institutes bring together a diversity of skills and a sufficient number of researchers and state of the art equipment to tackle difficult research topics in an internationally competitive way and time frame.

The next government should strongly support such centres as an important element in the strength and reputation of Australia's science base.

Space science and technology

The next government will need to decide how much to spend to establish a capacity in space science and technology, bearing in mind the importance to Australia of remote sensing and communications. In our submission to a recent government enquiry into this subject, we argued that a minimum of $20 million should be spent by government per annum. This level of government funding is needed to stimulate private investment.

Government research agencies

The next Australian government should give a clear guidance on the role of CSIRO and the other government research agencies. The Academy considers that the main role of CSIRO is the conduct of strategic research which is applications-oriented but with emphasis on a longer time-frame. This is consistent with the view expressed by the Industry Commission in its report on Research and development (May 1995). The infrastructure and research expertise of CSIRO, which are essential for its main role, enable the organisation to perform shorter-term applied research by contracts from the private sector, including the rural industries R&D corporations. It is imperative that CSIRO maintains an appropriate balance between strategic basic research and short-term contract research for each broad research area. Decisions on the balance should be the responsibility of CSIRO and it should not be necessary for the Government to impose external earnings targets.

The government should set broad directions for CSIRO and clearly demonstrate its confidence in the Organisation to make decisions on management structures and program research priorities, with appropriate consultation with potential users of research. The Academy considers that communication and management would be served by incorporating on the Board a small number of senior managers in addition to the Chief Executive.

Private sector R&D

The next government should recognise the critical and special role of private sector R&D in international competitiveness and economic growth. It should support the continuation of the tax concession for R&D at 150% or higher, and continue the Grants for Industrial Research and Development, which are of particular importance to emerging companies unable to take advantage of the tax concession. Consideration should be given by the government to other policies to assist start-up and emerging companies, such as concessional loans or deferment of taxation. It should encourage financial institutions and superannuation funds to establish expert teams to evaluate the potential of emerging technology companies to become internationally competitive.

The next government should give strong support to the Rural R&D Corporations as a successful scheme for strategic and applied research for the rural industries and give a commitment to the continuation of present funding arrangements.

Linkages

Cooperative Research Centre Scheme

The next government should maintain the CRC scheme and ensure its continuation beyond the initial contract periods. Two objectives of the scheme are to achieve a critical mass of research resources for leading edge research in areas of national importance and to strengthen cooperation between universities, government research agencies and industry or other users of research results. It is essential to maintain a high quality of research in CRCs while increasing the scope for potential application of research results.

Syndicated R&D

Syndicated R&D arrangements were introduced in 1987 to encourage institutional investors such as financial institutions, which have no direct means of using R&D results, to invest in R&D projects. Most syndicated R&D projects are "not at risk" arrangements whereby the investors are not bearing the financial risk associated with investment in R&D.

Tax exempt bodies, whether public or private, have now been excluded from participating in "not at risk" structures. This has excluded universities, CSIRO and other government R&D agencies from competing for syndication funds.

The majority of Australia's research institutions, and certainly the best of them, are thus excluded, and a significant opportunity to establish better linkages between public sector research and industry is lost.

The Academy strongly believes that the conditions for syndicated R&D should be re-examined by the next Australian government with the goal of allowing public and private tax-exempt research bodies to be partners in R&D syndicates. We consider that appropriate syndication would enhance the prospects that valuable R&D results in public and private tax exempt bodies are commercialised without a crowding out of tax-loss companies.

The Academy would support syndication arrangements with the following limitations to ensure that tax-exempt research bodies are included in the syndicates:

  • a fraction of the actual R&D expenditure is matched by an "at risk" contribution by an industry partner or partners with interest in the commercialisation of the R&D
  • there is a minimum ratio between the tax shelter available to financial investors and the actual R&D expenditure.

The Academy would support a cap on the total tax shelter from R&D syndication if this is required by government to limit the tax foregone, although the conditions imposed under the dot points above may regulate the amount of the tax shelter.

International links

Most of the international interactions which occur in research are informal contacts and agreements between individuals or small groups of researchers. It is essential for Australia to maintain the linkages to the international research community, but this is becoming increasingly difficult particularly for younger scientists without additional resources to cover the travel costs from Australia.

The increasing globalisation of R&D and the commercial exploitation of new technology in products and services make it essential for Australia to build stronger international collaboration in research and appropriate strategic alliances between Australian companies and overseas partners.

Multi-country S&T programs and many bilateral programs need support from governments for their establishment and maintenance. This is the case for the cooperative S&T programs in Europe and is likely to be a requisite for cooperative programs which may be established in APEC.

The next Australian government should at least maintain the funding for the more formal science and technology programs and ensure that sufficient resources are devoted to the informal contacts between researchers.

Science education and awareness

Australia needs from its governments a clear commitment to science education from the beginning of primary school through high school and beyond. Science education should include the teaching of scientific principles, content and methods with one aim of maximising the options students will have for further education and for productive and well-paid employment.

Building on the achievements of science teachers to date, the next national government should commit itself to ensuring that every primary school in Australia has a program of science education covering all the primary years. The program should be constructed to build students' understanding of science while developing their enthusiasm for the scientific study of their world. The role of governments is

  • to set the goals of universal science education in primary school
  • to provide the necessary resources for classroom use, and
  • to ensure that schools and teachers have access to the professional development they need to introduce a science program.

By 1999, at least 50% of Australian primary schools should have structured, whole-school science programs, with 100% involvement by 2002. One state, Western Australia, is already close to achieving the 1999 target.

In step with the introduction of primary school science programs, support should be provided for the development of more enquiry-based science teaching resources for secondary schools.

Secondary school science teachers are committed to their disciplines, and deserve more support in maintaining their subject knowledge. Opportunities to do so, including in-service training, should be greatly expanded. Science teachers should be rewarded for higher levels of professional competence attained, including knowledge of their subject specialisations.

Many scientists and technologists are willing to assist science teachers in their work of spreading knowledge of science. Many now assist without payment, through science summer schools, courses for teachers and school visits. These successful initiatives should be studied so that they can be extended to benefit more students.

With a sound education in science, the objectives of public awareness programs may be achieved more readily. Expenditure should be targeted carefully. For example, information about the role of science and technology in everyday life, and particularly the work of Australian scientists and technologists, should be made available to schools and the public through on-line services.

The Australia Prize should be re-focussed to recognise major scientific achievements by Australians, and to encourage the ablest of our junior researchers.

Advising government

The Prime Minister's Science and Engineering Council (PMSEC), together with its official counterpart, the Coordinating Committee for Science and Technology, provide a strong focus for advice to government on science and technology issues, which are distributed across several departments. The Council should be retained and the new Prime Minister commit himself and his Ministers to making it productive. The position of Chief Scientist reporting to the Prime Minister should be retained.

The existence of PMSEC, with its mixed membership of Ministers, officials, experts and representatives, provides the opportunity either to restructure the Australian Science and Technology Council or constitute a new body to be a major source of reports and advice on science and technology, independent of government. We recommend that the new ASTEC should be so constituted that it can effectively mobilise the best experts for enquiries and reports on S&T issues of economic and social importance, using scientists, technologists and social scientists in an honorary capacity. This can be achieved in a structure like the National Research Council of the United States.

The new ASTEC would both undertake studies on contract from the next Prime Minister or other Ministers, and conduct enquires on its own initiative. The key elements proposed for the new ASTEC are:

  • the Council should comprise the Presidents of the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering as Chairman and Deputy Chairman, nominees of the other two Academies, FASTS, the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and any others nominated to the next Prime Minister by the Chairman and Deputy Chairman.
  • the Council would appoint a small number of standing committees to advise on topics of enquiry and to recommend to the Council members for the ad hoc groups that would conduct the enquiries.
  • the Council and standing committees would be served by a small secretariat whose role would be to support, but not conduct, the enquiries. The secretariat would be independent of the public service but capable of seconding staff from the public service and other organisations.

Science and technology portfolio

Different governments have used different portfolio arrangements for science and technology, either a stand-alone portfolio or in combination with a senior portfolio such as education or industry. However, whatever the position of the portfolio, it is essential that its Minister have Cabinet rank.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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