Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Numbers Don’t Add Up

By Ian Lowe

Researchers spent a combined 550 years writing grant applications last year, yet 80% missed out.

The Australian Budget was not a good one for science and technology. Where the Budget papers once contained a specific Science and Technology statement, references to funding for science and innovation are now deep in the fine print of allocations to government departments, agencies like CSIRO, or implied in the funding of universities. It is a symptom of that approach that I found no mention of science at all in the many pages of Budget analysis by the commercial media. Not one word.

When I did track down the details, I didn’t find any good news. The Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, came out the week after the Budget to call for a science and technology strategy to ensure “we are doing research in areas that are of critical importance”. The Academy of Science and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering backed Chubb’s call for a national science and technology strategy to guide investment in research and innovation, pointing to the fragmentation of spending across a range of departments and agencies.

As part of his pitch, he observed that research funding is “severely rationed”. As if to confirm this, a paper recently published in Nature by three researchers from Queensland University of Technology documented the amount of effort wasted by Australian scientists competing for research grants. They estimated that more than 550 person-years of effort went into preparing 2012 grant applications for the Australian Research Council. Based on average academic salaries, they concluded that nearly $70 million was spent pursuing the elusive research dollars, with 80% of the researchers coming away empty-handed after all their work. It seems bizarre that the funding system fails 80% of the most capable researchers.

Chubb has backed his argument for a new strategy with analysis conducted for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. Comparing Australia with 16 selected OECD countries on 22 measures of science and innovation, the study found that Australia was in the top five on only one measure: the science performance of 15-year-old school students. Given that many of the countries that do better have a government body that coordinates science funding, there is at least a plausible case for the new approach. It would require research agencies and government departments to devote a share of their funds to priority areas. The politics of setting those priorities would be interesting.

I addressed the National Press Club late in May, arguing for a serious debate about the future rather than the political point-scoring and short-term economic trivia that dominate the seemingly-endless election campaign.

There was some interest in my suggestion of funding smart infrastructure. The case is compelling. The Australian Energy Market Operator estimated that it would cost $220–250 billion to provide enough renewable energy to meet our needs by 2030. That seems a lot of money, but the government’s 2011 Energy White Paper stated it would cost $200–240 billion under a business-as-usual approach to expand the old supply technologies to provide the expected power demand.

A similar argument applies to transport. SGS Economic and Planning estimated that investing $50 billion by 2030 would halve the widening gap in access to public transport and jobs between the suburban and inner-urban areas of Australian cities. A further $50 billion would put freight and long-distance passenger rail systems on an efficient and sustainable footing. About $20 billion would set up a smart grid for electric vehicles in major cities and provide every household with an attractive subsidy to switch to small clean cars. I argued that would be money better spent than the bottomless pit of subsidies for the failing petrol-car industry.

There was also some interest in my argument for raising environmental taxes, which have declined as a share of government revenue, to the level in leading OECD nations. This would increase the incentive for clean production.

But the Canberra press gallery seemed puzzled by my suggestion that we should develop better measures of community well-being than economic growth measured by the Gross Domestic Product – even though Treasury said in a 1973 paper that “the pursuit of growth for its own sake misses the point”. I challenged our leaders to tell the community how they will judge progress.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.