Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Resetting Research Priorities

By Simon Grose

Our latest strategic research agenda reveals marginal changes and a faster pace of renewal.

One of Julia Gillard’s last acts as Prime Minister was to issue a new set of national Strategic Research Priorities. Three days later she was ousted from the leadership and retired from politics.

Of three other names on the announcement, only Chief Scientist Ian Chubb still holds his position. Former Minister Craig Emerson also left politics and Senator Don Farrell’s short time as Science Minister ended when Kevin Rudd regained the top job and gave him the Sport portfolio.

While the revolving door of politics turns quickly, research priorities cycle at a slower rate. The new list of 15 priorities (grouped under five headings) replaced a list of four (with 21 “associated priority goals”) announced 10 years ago when John Howard was PM and Robin Batterham was Chief Scientist.

“So what?” 99.999% of Australians might ask. Only science policy wonks, diligent bureaucrats and researchers focused on fine-tuning their grant applications need care.

But comparing the two lists provides insight into how perceptions of the challenges facing Australia and the research sector’s role in addressing those challenges have evolved over the decade.

Both lists achieve a broad scope, belying the definition of “priorities”, and are couched in sometimes uplifting but often banal officialese that we have come to know and love. The new list defines itself as an “overarching framework” that will “catalyse focused investments in areas for which Australia must maintain a strong research and innovation capability”.

Both mention “climate change” directly just once, with occasional secondary allusions like “human-natural linked systems”.

The most emphatic difference is the 2013 version’s fifth heading – “Lifting productivity and economic growth” – which has no direct forebear from 2003.

Both feature a section on health, but the new list includes a specific mention of indigenous health. This reflects the focus that gave rise to the Northern Territory Intervention and the Close the Gap program.

The new list also has a stronger emphasis on agriculture and other primary industries, reflecting recent concerns over food security and enthusiasm for meeting demand for food in fast-growing Asian economies.

Both have a section on security: “Safeguarding Australia” (2003) and “Securing Australia’s place in a changing world” (2013). The new version uses the word “cybersecurity” and aims to “manage the flow of goods, information, money and people”, while in 2003 the identified threats were “invasive disease and pests”.

A final change of note is that the new list has a shorter half-life than its predecessor: it is only deemed valid until 2015–16 and will be reviewed triennially thereafter, which brings it in sync with the electoral cycle.

Next stop: the hustings. What chance a leader’s debate at the Shine Dome?

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (