Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Are Research Priorities Useful?

By Peter Laver

Research priorities can place a greater emphasis on inputs than the potential outcomes.

Most government research funding programs are ostensibly guided by some set of priorities, mainly based on the National Science and Research Priorities or potential linkages with one of the Industry Growth Centres.

The basic rationale for defining priorities is recognition that the research budget is finite, so expenditure should be directed to areas where Australia is seen to have a comparative advantage, either actually or potentially. This allows a critical mass of research activity – people, training, infrastructure and other resources – to be built up rather than seeing the investment spread thinly, making it difficult to reach world leadership status.

This aim is laudable, but are research priorities useful in practice?

Applicants under the broad range of government programs aimed at supporting research and, in some cases, commercialisation will invariably be asked to identify into which of a program’s priorities their proposal falls. Unfortunately this presents a series of dilemmas for those called on to assess the applications and determine which should be funded.

Generality versus Specificity
There are very few STEM-related proposals that could not be fitted into one or more of the very broad National Science and Research Priorities, or the subsets of these used for particular programs. This immediately begs the question: why bother with the priorities to start with?

A way around this might be to expand the number of priorities and define them more exactly, such as “low emission/renewable energy” rather than “energy”, or “additive” rather than “advanced” manufacturing. However, progressing down this track will make the system even more complicated and lead to disputes as to why one field is included but not another.

Quality versus Compliance
By imposing priorities to be addressed in research grant applications, the issue of how to balance excellence with the extent to which the work meets the requirements of the priority area arises. It would be highly undesirable to exclude a proposal covering a world-class piece of research, or having potential for very attractive commercial or other outcomes, in favour of a more pedestrian submission that adheres more closely to the priorities laid down.

A criterion could be adopted that compliance with priorities (or linkage with an Industry Growth Centre) only becomes a factor in the assessment if all other factors are ranked virtually equal. But again the question arises: why bother with priorities in the first place?

Competing Priorities
As well as priorities defined for research and Growth Centres, the government has a series of other high level economy-wide priorities. These include such things as creating (and maintaining) jobs, economic growth, export performance, climate change mitigation and adaptation (meeting international obligations), and skills development. While there is some alignment of these, it needs to be asked why the long-term potential of such things as jobs and growth do not weigh more heavily in assessing applications for government support of research.

Interdisciplinary Research
Many future research breakthroughs will cross traditional discipline boundaries. It’s already a struggle to break through the established faculty/department/division structures in research (and research funding) organisations, so imposing another potential set of boundaries by requiring any proposal to fit a national priority could present another hurdle to jump for this type of work to be initiated.

Research Infrastructure
Careful consideration of priorities would be justified when it comes to planning high-cost research infrastructure. The argument for using priorities to avoid fragmentation of effort is far more compelling if it builds the case for a large infrastructure investment (or better utilisation of an existing facility).

The problem is often that infrastructure such as synchrotrons, NMR machines and large-scale 3-D printers often crosses the boundaries of the national research priorities, making the case for capital investment more difficult to develop. Surely what level of utilisation is likely or what contribution the equipment makes to improving the productivity of the research undertaken is just as important as which national priority it supports?

Unquestionably Australia needs to identify, publicise and celebrate where its existing and potential research strengths lie. Processes such as the ERA and the work on engagement and impact are important to better understand the research system and to justify the public investment it requires. Equally important is to define the major challenges that the application of STEM research can help address.

However, to use these strengths and challenges to establish priorities that guide the allocation of government support for research can undermine the required focus on excellence, discourage “thinking outside the box” and place a greater emphasis on assessing the inputs to the research system rather than the potential outcomes.

Peter Laver AM FTSE is a former Director of ATSE and Chancellor of Victoria University.