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For sale: Refurbished National Research Priorities


Back in 2002, the Howard Government announced four National Research Priorities (NRPs) to focus investment on research in key areas that could deliver significant economic, social and environmental benefits to Australia.

The Australian Government has just unveiled 15 new Strategic Research Priorities; the result of a long-awaited and thoughtful refurbishment.


 
The original National Research Priorities were:
  •  An Environmentally Sustainable Australia
  •  Promoting and Maintaining Good Health
  •  Frontier Technologies for Building and Transforming Australian Industries
  •  Safeguarding Australia 
Each of the NRPs was expanded into a number of priority goals that covered research in a range of disciplines. 
 
The NRPs were never intended to place boundaries on research that would be funded, but they did act as focal points. Institutions and agencies engaged in publicly funded research were encouraged to outline how they proposed to support the four priorities, and the government reported against them.  
 
It was expected that the NRPs would be updated within a few years but, despite a few efforts to make this happen, they survived a full decade including a change of government and the introduction of Powering Ideas in 2009. Powering Ideas was launched as an ‘Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century’. At this time, seven National Innovation Priorities were introduced to complement the NRPs. 
 
Time for a refreshment 
 
In late 2011, the Australian Government commenced a process to update and refine the NRPs, saying that it was never intended to be a ‘wholesale review’. 
 
In early 2012 the (then) Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education published a consultation paper it named ‘2012 Process to Refresh the Priorities’. That process is now complete.  
 
The new and now Strategic Research Priorities (SRPs) were announced on 21 June 2013. There are fifteen of them, three under each of five ‘societal challenges’ presented by Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb last year. 
 
The societal challenges are scene-setters and invitations to think. They highlight the importance of living in a changing environment, promoting population health and wellbeing, managing our food and water assets, securing Australia’s place in a changing world and lifting productivity and economic growth. 
 
In contrast, the SRPs are action items—they call on research providers to identify, improve, maximise and deliver. This active voice will encourage stakeholders to think about research outcomes early in the design stage.  
 
For instance, optimise food and fibre production using our land and marine resources is unambiguous in intent. SRPs like these have a strong research and development flavour that will delight industry groups. Others, such as maximise social and economic participation in society, focus on human capital and wellbeing and are very generic goals lacking specifics. 
 
Warm reception (but a call for investment)
 
So far, stakeholders have welcomed the new SRPs and been eager to find hooks on which to hang their agendas. For example, the National Farmers Federation applauds the focus on food and water.  
 
Inevitably, in a theme-setting exercise such as this, the results will be criticised as being both too detailed and not detailed enough. Universities Australia is satisfied that they are ‘sufficiently broad’ while the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) has commented that they ‘aren’t specific’. Not surprisingly, almost everyone has noted the absence of accompanying funding. 
 
In her National Press Club address, AAS President Professor Suzanne Cory described the Strategic Research Priorities as a ‘roadmap for prioritising research investment’. While it is unclear what, if any, role they will play in the allocation of funding, major players such as the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council have been given 12 months to transition to the new structure.