The funding of research

The Australian Quarterly is 85 this year, and is probably the oldest continuously produced  magazine in our country, certainly the oldest in the field of policy and science. I have a soft spot for it because I wrote its ‘Political Review’ that once drew thousands of readers for each  issue – well, maybe dozens. My summaries of what had happened in the past quarter were noticed by others, and led before long to my writing for newspapers, a practice that continues to the present.

Anyway, to celebrate its birthday the AQ has produced ‘a special edition that no one who is invested [I think the editor meant ‘interested’] in Australia’s scientific future can afford to miss!’ Well, I am interested in that future, so I read the issue.

It starts with a foreword by the Chief Scientist who tells us that ‘Research fuels innovation. It is an investment in our future. And without it we can predict that the future will be bleak.’ They are strong words, and I used them, or words very like them thirty years ago, when I held a set of posts in the area of research funding and policy (though not as Chief Scientist, a post that Prime Minister Hawke created in 1990).

Professor Chubb is followed by several other notable people in this domain, the CEOs of both the ARC and the NHMRC, plus some able academics who have experience of the research funding system, and can write sensibly about it. But the more I read, the more I wanted to cry out – ‘Nothing has changed!’

The Chief Scientist says that we must support Australians pushing ‘the boundaries of discovery. We must offer them certainty even in straitened times’. We used to say things like that then, too. An article entitled ‘The Research Lottery’ goes on at length about the pressure that an increasing number of applications puts on the funding system. I remember just such pressure in 1984, when Barry Jones, the Minister for Science, failed to find the 10 per cent increase in funds that he had promised, but applications increased by more than the promised 10 per cent.

It seems that too many researchers are spending their days and nights writing grant proposals when they should be at the bench or in the library, or doing whatever constitutes their ‘real work’. Researchers said that in 1984, too. It seems that peer review, a mighty fortress for good according to the AGW orthodox, has real problems when it comes to deciding who should get grants. That was said loudly thirty years ago, too.

It seems that we need a new culture in research, where outcomes, especially commercial outcomes, are seen as more important than adding entries to one’s c.v. That too was being said in the 1980s, and for a time I sat as an honoured guest on the Industrial Research and Development Board to see what might be done about it.

In fact, the only thing that has changed is that the whole system is much larger than it was thirty years ago, much better funded, and much more important to the university world. When I last looked, there were about 120,000 equivalent full-time workers in the research ‘industry’. At a rough guess, at least 100,000 of them are employed on public money. Do we have too many, or not enough, or about the right number? How long is a piece of string?

No one can answer these questions sensibly. But I will hazard a guess that, if the research industry numbers a quarter of a million workers in 2050 people will still be saying the same things, and uttering the same complaints. The truth is that we do not have many research-intensive industries, our big companies are mostly overseas-owned, and do their R&D at home, and accordingly the great bulk of our research is funded through the taxpayer.

Most academics would love to be paid for doing the research that fascinates them. But there is only so much money available for this purpose, and success rates are not high. Nor should they be. I can remember the head of the National Institutes of Health in the US telling me that he had asked the President not to give any more money to cancer research: too much of the research already being done was second-rate, in his opinion.

We don’t face any kind of real crisis in research funding, in my opinion, and the methods for allocating the funds are a bit on the rubbery side because they depend finally on human judgment.  I’ve looked at peer review and allocation systems in other parts of the world, and see no obviously better systems. Researchers simply have to accept that research funds are public funds that could be used for a wide range of virtuous ends, and they are naturally limited.

Nor do I think that Messrs Chubb, Anderson, Byrne et al. have been misguided or daft in putting forward the view that more money is needed for research. They have said what they ought to have said, because the roles they occupy demand it. If I were still in their shoes I would do it too. But I’m not, and that does make a difference.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Tony says:

    As a STEM researcher and particularly as somebody interested in improving
    links between academic and industry research I have generally bemoaned the fall
    and fall of Industry driven research in Australia (while applauding efforts by
    Professor Chubb and groups such as AMSI to point out the problems and broker
    linkages, respectively). My own measure of this decline is to point out that I
    believe that the largest industry research and development complex in our region
    is just outside a non-descript town in New Zealand.

    I wonder whether Australian academic research should be targetting foreign
    companies more for funding, just as international undergraduate students have
    been courted for the past decade.

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