Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Gets a Lifeline with the National Science Strategy

By Tanya Monro

A national science strategy can kick-start research–industry linkages.

Australian science has been thrown a substantial lifeline by the recent announcement that the Federal government is backing a national science strategy, with Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane committing to consult the science sector to agree on research priorities and funding.

This is not just good news for scientists and research institutions. This is good news for the nation and for the interaction between science and industry.

It’s no secret that Australia has some amazing strengths in science. Our research in physics, astronomy and agriculture, for example, is at the forefront of world activities in terms of citations and academic impact.

Australia’s research capacity has largely grown organically, bottom-up, from curiosity-driven research at our universities where, unlike the US, most of our research capacity resides.

Our best research leads the world, but on collaboration we rank poorly – 29th from 30 among OECD countries when you consider the proportion of large businesses and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) collaborating with higher education and public research institutions on innovation. Our science workforce is strongly mismatched with our industry base.

ATSE’s recent work to propose a second dimension to the research metrics space – research engagement with end-users of that research, to sit alongside the established rewards associated with publication and citations – has been noted by government. Its Research Engagement Australia report should be a game-changer in recognising the value of research engagement.

As well as our current gap in collaboration, Australia’s research funding is out of balance.

Our medical research is outstanding. We have a large medical research workforce, and it is an area that captures the public interest. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) budget for 2015–16 is $858 million.

By contrast, the Australian Research Council (ARC) budget is less – at $795 million – to cover all other research, from the social sciences and humanities to maths and engineering.

The issue of balance becomes even starker at the industry base. Australia’s industry is largely SME-based, but SMEs often have trouble translating discoveries into new commercial products.

Australia needs a research ecosystem that drives researcher mobility, with research spin-off ventures providing new career pathways for PhD graduates who then place research projects back in a university – in a virtuous circle. But creating such an environment is much harder if we try to artificially construct it on top of our research capabilities without thought to the industry base.

Australia has a significant numbers of SMEs – in areas including component manufacturing, food processing and engineering services – and some are under enormous stress in current conditions, such as those supplying the almost extinct Australian auto­motive industry.

These companies need a real leg-up to allow them to benefit from working with researchers, but the challenges are significant. It is not always easy for a researcher to identify how they can contribute to a small company working to short-term challenges and time horizons. And the “language gap” is much wider than with the largest companies, which have the luxury of staff with a background in research.

The ARC was established in 1988 to direct support to “fields that have the capacity to contribute to the national industry capacity”. But we have not had the courage as a nation to really focus our investment in science and research before now.

Previous sets of national priorities for research have been broadly framed, so the Commonwealth Science Council’s endorsement at its second meeting of nine specific new National Research Priorities is a great step forward. These priorities are food, soil and water, transport, cyber­security, energy, resources;, manufacturing, environmental change, and health.

We must use these priorities to shift our research base towards the challenges our nation faces and the opportunities we can seize.

We need to create promotion pathways that prioritise industry experience and open up paths for researchers to develop research careers where they spend time both in universities and in industry.

We must evolve our research base into one that supports Australia’s future economic prosperity and quality of life.

Professor Tanya Monro FAA FTSE is a Vice-President of ATSE, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research & Innovation at The University of South Australia, an ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow and a member of the Commonwealth Science Council.