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Turning off the lights on Australian research


The PM handing a fading torch to an Australian researcher

Successive governments have positioned Australia poorly in the areas of research and innovation. With the sector depleted by significant cuts and having no champions from within the sitting government, the outlook is bleak, and the morale of those in the area is low.

The Gillard government had proposed 'efficiency dividends' on universities that have significant consequences for research infrastructure. The Abbott government maintained these cuts and is now implementing significant others, including those which have forced CSIRO to close whole sites, let hundreds of staff go, and shut down entire areas of research. Coupled with this is Education Minister Christopher Pyne's threat that he'll slash research funding should his deregulation of university fees not get through. 

Treating research as an expendable element has a greater effect than a few scientists losing their jobs. It runs down the country's research batteries. Only when these are regularly well-charged can you count on them to enact change and progress. 

This 'charging' of the batteries does not only consist of funding, but also a consistent baseline requirement for a strong and confident research culture that can support good research. Good research does not happen in a vacuum or spring from nowhere. It relies on consistent, often unglamorous, gains made by smart, experienced workers who are generous and energetic with their intellect and resources. 

The improvement of a society's quality of life, and its ability to compete internationally as a political and economic power, depends heavily on its capacity for research, innovation, and fresh thinking. How do you equip your community with better ways to live, work and connect without research? Where do answers to society's persistent problems come from, if not from piloting solutions derived from research? 

There is a persistent myth that Australia 'punches above its weight' in research, mainly in terms of cited work. Even if this were true, it does not mean that Australia compares favourably to other developed countries when it comes to having the capacity for producing leading international research. 

Research institutions, including universities, are offering diminishing resources and opportunities for researchers to be employed in larger, field-changing projects. Fixed-term appointments on shrinking 'soft money' do not lend themselves to keeping experienced, excellent staff on board in the sector. They will leave, and take their insight and creativity with them. As Paul Jensen and Elizabeth Webster have observed, '[In Australia,] we reward short-termism and incrementalism.'

While it is true that research investment in Australia has increased at a rate of 3 per cent each year in the last decade, this level of investment is consistently below the OECD average. It is a huge margin behind emerging research nations in Asia such as South Korea and China, or established Asian research hubs such as Singapore, where the amount of funding invested in research activity is extremely high.

The current government may have mothballed the Asian Century White Paper, but it cannot ignore what drove the Paper's (somewhat gauche) exhortations for engagement and collaboration with Asia. In all projections for research over the next decade or two, traditionally very strong research nations such as the US and UK, along with Australia, are falling behind – if not out – of the global research race. To stay in the race, let alone aspire to leading it, Australia needs to prioritise and fund research and research development.

Defunding research institutions at this time is a regressive, counter-productive move. A stop-start approach to funding leads to severe set-backs in staffing and a failure to develop buoyant, energetic research sectors. Research cuts bite into infrastructure and institutional funding blocks, and it affects large communities of research workers and their families. Researchers in Australia are being given less and less to work with, yet persist as far as they can in creating and producing excellent results with diminishing resources.

The research sector in Australia is increasingly one marked by casualisation and disappearing career paths. The depressed nature of working in this environment means that the very people who we'd want to solve our society's most crucial, pressing issues are the ones who will be looking elsewhere to establish their careers. Without a well-charged national research battery of properly resourced and quality researchers, there's only so far we can go, only so much we can do.

This steady draining of research resources from an already-underfunded sector can only lead to a nation that loses its ability to solve its own problems and has less to contribute to the world. Are we there yet?


Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer in the Research Education and Development unit at La Trobe University and co-creator of The Research Whisperera blog focused on research cultures and funding. She tweets as @tseenster.   


Topic tags: Tseen Khoo, research, funding, CSIRO, Asian Century, efficiency dividends



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Existing comments

This is a tragedy for Australian scientists. It happened in NZ over 13 years ago. The currents scientific research in NZ is so small the country suffers. My sympathies to those involved.

Noeline Champion | 09 September 2014  

There is, indeed, a serious lack of good faith about research and its importance in the present government. It is bad enough that there no minister for science (or research). Even worse is the cynicism of proposal for a medical research fund to make the "Medicare" co-payment politically- palatable (but which, to meet its funding target would require every one of us to consult a doctor once a week, in contrast to the current rate of once every 10 weeks). The government is, in short, deeply ignorant about the wider importance of research (which is, incidentally, far more comprehensive a matter than simply health research, important as that unquestionably is). Research should be undertaken not simply to acquire economic benefits (though these often emerge from it): it is certainly a reflection of the importance of human creativity and, therefore, an aspect of our cultural fulfilment (and our attempt to understand our place in the natural and social worlds). No less important in universities, it is crucial for keeping ourselves intellectually alive and honest. It follows therefore, that the current drive (sponsored by the government, as well) to create two classes of university staff -- those who do research (the presumed "elite") and those who simply "teach (as opposed to "educate"), a second-rank group who draw on the work of that "elite" -- must have seriously damaging consequences for the intellectual calibre (and, inevitably, the international renown) of our universities and their graduates.

Dr John Carmody | 09 September 2014  

The emasculation of research is simply another example of the dumbing down of Australia's Universities and research institutes by dumb politicians. In its $7.00 co-payment scheme the government has carefully disguised the bottom line and has failed to explain what it really means. An example is the easiest explanation: Say, for example, the doctor charges $50.00. The govt pays him $40.00 through Medicare and the remaining $10.00 is foregone by the doctor who bulk bills (over 80-odd% GPs) or is paid by the patient to the doctor who does not bulk bill. With a $7.00 co-payment the government will simply reduce its payment to the doctor by $7.00 to $33.00. The bulk-billing doctor is then paid $7.00 less i.e. he suffers an uncontested reduction in his pay from government, something that no other worker in this country would accept without a massive strike action. The bulk-billed patient is now responsible for paying the doctor the $7.00 difference and if he/she does not pay that difference it represents a bad debt for the doctor who, while few are likely to do so, could quite properly sue the patient for the debt.The patient who is not bulk-billed now pays the doctor $17.00. When the co-payment comes into being, the government already has in its hands a $7.00 saving against the cost of Medicare. That money is taken from the pay of doctors and should be immediately available for medical research. They are not going to explain what the co-payment means and will prolong the deception until they grab the money and hide it in some nebulous future "research fund". There'll be no flamin' researchers left to use it by the time that comes to pass!

john frawley | 09 September 2014  

In 2000, I and an arbitrary 10% of workers (but not a single manager) in a previously outstandingly good CSIRO division were "let go" as a result of "efficiency dividends" and similar weaselly concoctions by budget numerologists. Nevertheless, as a casualised researcher, my creative output quintupled for some years after. But no longer - fife is too short to remain enslaved to the vagaries of this country's academic-research "policy". The latter never turns further than the squeaky ephemeral wheels that it prefers to grease ad-hoc. This is but one reason why I refuse utterly to contemplate an Australian republic. I am unconvinced that we are not, chronically, a vassal colony of our big Anglophone brothers in the North. For all its huge problems, even Brazil has learned how to get shot of its masters and stand on its own.

Fred Green | 09 September 2014  

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