Tim Brennan, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources
Australia has a well-performing research sector but has consistently been less successful translating research outcomes into commercially successful products and services.
In relation to spending on research and development, Australia is well behind international leaders and middle ranked among developed nations. Many stakeholders, particularly in the university sector, believe that the research funding system needs reform, both in terms of the quantity of funding and how it is invested.
Parliament is often required to consider issues involving
complex scientific concepts and where future impacts are uncertain. Similarly,
the Australian Government relies on access to a strong evidence base for the
development of policies to protect health and wellbeing and foster economic
growth. It is therefore imperative that parliamentarians and government have
access to expert advice on a wide range of issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the rapid development of
vaccines, have highlighted
the critical role of science in protecting social wellbeing. Ensuring that
policy frameworks encourage the research and development (R&D) that can
address challenges, such as the pandemic, helps underpin the long-term
resilience of Australian society. Additionally, Australia’s prosperity will
increasingly be linked to its ability to commercialise R&D into new
innovations and industries.
The development of successful new products and
services is the last step in a process of knowledge generation and transfer
that can take decades. The funding of this R&D and commercialisation
process by governments and industry in Australia is well behind international
Despite research commercialisation being a focus of
Australian Government policy for decades, Australia continues to perform
relatively poorly in this area. Additionally, there are emerging concerns that
the long-term focus on commercialisation may be coming at the expense of the
basic research that forms the foundations of the innovation ‘pipeline’.
Scientific advice to Parliament
The provision of advice from the science sector to parliamentarians
can occur through a variety of mechanisms, including via direct engagement with
researchers, and through Science
Meets Parliament and the Australian Council of
Learned Academies (ACOLA, which includes the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and
Engineering). The Parliamentary Library Research Branch also provides customised
information, analysis and advice on any subject of interest to parliamentarians
and their staff and to support parliamentary committees.
Parliamentary committees due to their
smaller size and more informal procedures (relative to the 2 chambers)
are ‘well suited to the gathering of evidence from expert groups or
individuals’ (p. 641). Committees undertake inquiries on matters of policy
and public interest and seek input from stakeholders to inform their
deliberations. This input regularly includes evidence from the academic
community and other experts provided through written submissions and oral presentations
at public hearings.
Advice and policy support for Government
The new Minister for Industry and Science, Ed
Husic, will be the 11th
minister to hold the science portfolio in the last decade. In the new Government,
science policy will sit within the Department of Industry, Science and
Resources (p. 28). In addition to the department, there are several major
sources of science policy advice to government, as outlined below.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research
Organisation is Australia’s public sector applied research
organisation. CSIRO is a statutory authority constituted under the Science and
Industry Research Act 1949 (SIR Act). CSIRO describes its
purpose as ‘solving
the greatest challenges through innovative science and technology’ and its functions
under the SRI Act include undertaking research to support Australian
industry and the Australian community. An example of these functions are the roadmaps
that CSIRO regularly publishes, which investigate opportunities for Australian
industry to take advantage of new and emerging technologies. In 2021–22,
the Australian Government provided $949 million in funding to CSIRO (p. 253).
The Chief Scientist
Scientist provides independent advice on science, technology, and
innovation to the Prime Minister and other ministers. The Chief Scientist’s
role also includes advocating for Australian science internationally and
championing the importance of scientific evidence to the Australian public. The
Chief Scientist holds the position of Executive Officer to the National
Science and Technology Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister and
is the ‘preeminent forum for providing scientific and technological advice for
government policy and priorities’.
Dr Cathy Foley is Australia’s ninth Chief Scientist.
She commenced in the role in January 2021 (replacing Dr Alan Finkel). At the commencement
of her tenure as Chief Scientist, Dr Foley identified the 4 foundational
issues she hoped to work on: digital capability; science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM) education; diversity in the research
community; and open access to research (p. 6).
Industry Innovation and Science Australia
Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) was established
in 2015 as part of the National
Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA). ISA is an independent statutory board
of entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and educators tasked with
providing advice to Government as well as coordinating innovation policy across
multiple portfolios. ISA has published many reports
on innovation policy.
In 2021, ISA’s name
was changed to Industry Innovation and Science Australia (IISA) to
emphasise the Government’s efforts to increase the links between science and
Evolving science and innovation policy frameworks
Since the 1980s, Australian innovation policy has
gone through several
distinct phases. Policy settings have ranged from more ‘interventionist’
approaches that attempted to build collaboration within an innovation system
(including between government and industry) and more ‘free market’ approaches
that aimed to use incentives to increase the pace, rather than change the direction,
of innovation (pp. 182–184).
Some major science and innovation programs and
reports within the last decade include:
- The 2015 National
Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) was a $1.1 billion program of 24 measures
across 4 areas (p. 18). The measures included funding for the Square
Kilometre Array telescope system, the creation of the CSIRO
Innovation Fund, and the Biomedical
- ISA’s 2017 report Australia 2030:
prosperity through Innovation, a strategic plan for the innovation
system, made 30 recommendations across education, industry, government,
research and development, and culture and ambition (p. 4). In May 2018,
the Government released its response to the 2030 Plan- which included support
for 17 of the recommendations.
- The Australian Government’s $1.3 billion Modern
Manufacturing Initiative in 2020 marked a move towards assistance targeted
at specific areas of competitive advantage. These areas, known as the National
Manufacturing Priorities, are resource technology and critical minerals
processing, food and beverage, medical products, recycling and clean energy,
defence, and space.
- ISA’s 2021 report Driving
effective Government investment in innovation, science and research
recommended the development of whole-of-government priorities and a 10-year
investment plan, which would include investments balanced over the short,
medium, and long-term.
Should science advice to Parliament be expanded?
There have been suggestions that additional
mechanisms are required to increase the provision of independent science advice
to Parliament and all parliamentarians. For example, a 2021 Senate
Committee recommended a ‘Parliamentary Office of Science’ be established
and modelled on the UK’s Parliamentary
Office of Science and Technology (POST). The Australian Academy of Science
is continuing to stimulate
this debate, and highlighted the Parliamentary Budget Office as a successful
example of another body providing advice to Parliament.
The Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) 2021 National
Platform states that the ALP will establish a Parliamentary Office of
Science to ‘provide independent, impartial scientific advice, evidence and data
to the Parliament, and all Members and Senators’ (p. 68). The Australian
Greens are also committed
to the establishment of an independent POST.
Open access publications
Australian researchers are largely funded by the taxpayer. Despite this, a significant proportion of Australian research is published in paywalled academic journals that are not accessible to the public. For many years there have been attempts to increase the amount of research provided in ‘open access’ formats that can be accessed freely. The Australian Research Council and NHMRC both have open access policies requiring outputs from publicly funded research to be openly accessible within 12 months of publication. However, partly due to caveats related to legal and contractual obligations, the majority of Australian publications remain published in formats that are not open access.
The Chief Scientist has stated that supporting the development of a national open-access policy for academic journals would be one of her priorities and has developed an Australian Model for Open Access. Under this model, a single national body would negotiate a fee with publishers. This fee would provide research papers free of charge to all Australians and ensure papers by Australian researchers are published internationally as open access.
Spending on science, research, and innovation
innovation index (GII) is an annual report providing statistical
benchmarking of national innovation systems. The 2021
edition of the GII ranked Australia 25th of the 132 countries assessed (p. 47)
and 24th of the 51 high-income
As in previous years, Australia ranks well (15th)
on innovation inputs including education and research, but less well (33rd) on
innovation outputs, suggesting a weakness in translating research into
commercial outcomes. Further analysis of the performance of Australia’s
innovation system relative to other countries can be found in the Australian
Innovation System Monitor.
In 2019–20, Australian gross
expenditure on research and development (GERD), which includes research spending by business,
government, higher education and the non-profit sector, was $35.6 billion. This
amounts to 1.79% of GDP, placing
Australia 20th among 132 countries for this metric (p. 47). GERD as a
proportion of GDP has been falling
since 2008 (p. 40). In 2019, business expenditure on research and
development (BERD) in Australia was 0.92% of GDP, which is approximately
half the OECD average (1.81%; p. 33). The ALP
has committed to increasing investment in research and innovation to levels
closer to 3% of GDP (p. 7)
Figure 1 shows spending on R&D since 2011–12
converted to 2021 prices. Although total spending remained relatively steady
(in 2021 prices), business and government spending dropped, and higher
education spending rose over this period.
Figure 1 Gross expenditure on
research and development (GERD) by sector (in 2021 prices)
(a) Higher education estimates
modelled in 2011–12.
(b) From 2013–14 Government, Private
non-profit and Higher education estimates have been modelled.
(c) Where figures have been rounded,
discrepancies may occur between the sum of the component items and totals.
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics
and Experimental Development, Businesses, Australia, 2019–20 Financial Year,
(Canberra: ABS, 2021). All figures have been converted to June 2021 prices
using Parliamentary Library calculations.
The declining level of
business expenditure on research is largely due to changes in Australia’s industry
mix, including a decline in manufacturing and a transition in the mining sector
from exploration and development to operations (p. 37).
Aggregate figures for Australian Government
spending are also provided in the annual Science,
Research and Innovation Budget Tables. In 2021–22, the estimated total government
spending on science, research and innovation was $11.8 billion (note that this
includes support for business and higher education, which in Figure 1 is
allocated to each of those sectors).
Australian Government investment in 2021–22 comprised:
- Australian Government research activities: $2.3 billion, including
CSIRO, Defence Science and Technology Group, and other government R&D
- business enterprise sector: $2.9 billion, almost all of which is
spent on the R&D Tax Incentive, which provides a tax offset for businesses
to undertake R&D activities
- higher education sector: $3.7 billion, including the research block
grants, Australian Research Council grants, and NHMRC grants to universities
- multisector: $2.8 billion, including NHMRC’s non-university
spending, Cooperative Research Centres, Rural R&D Corporations, other
health R&D, and energy and environment R&D.
University research funding
Australian universities receive funding to
undertake research from a variety of sources. The largest source of funding
(56%) is from general university funds. Other key sources of funding include:
block grants, which provide funding for research and research training ($2
billion in funding in 2022)
- various competitive grants programs including: the Australian
Research Council administered National
Competitive Grants Program (which includes the Discovery Program for
foundational research and the Linkage Program for research undertaken in
partnership with industry); NHMRC
grants; and Medical
Research Future Fund grants
- student fees and government support for research infrastructure.
A more detailed discussion on university research
funding can be found in the Parliamentary Library’s quick
guide on the subject.
In 2020, women made up 13% of employees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) qualified occupations. The Australian Government has an Advancing Women in STEM strategy and made investments in related programs in the 2021–22 Budget (p. 50). The Chief Scientist has also made increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce a priority and noted there are barriers for women not just during education but throughout other career stages.
It is estimated that as many as 70% of staff at Australian universities are employed as casuals or on insecure contracts. In many cases, casual academics were the first to lose their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, there have been reports that casual and contract staff being required to do unpaid work, or otherwise underpaid, is endemic within Australian universities, with at least 21 Australian universities implicated in the practices. There are suggestions that these working conditions are contributing to a ‘brain drain’ of researchers out of the Australian university sector.
Research commercialisation agenda
The Australian university sector is generally
highly ranked in international comparisons of research performance. In 2022, there
are 7 Australian universities in the Top 100 of the QS World
University Rankings and 6 in the Top 100 of the Times
Higher Education rankings.
Australian researchers also perform well in
measurements of academic publications, producing
4.1% of academic publications globally in 2020, more than 10 times
Australia’s share of the global population (0.3%). Australian authors perform
well when comparing citations of research publications. Australian researchers
also perform above the OECD average in terms of scientific publications
generated per dollar invested in research.
Despite these successes, Australian research does
not appear to be as effective at being translated into successful commercial
products. This is a long-standing
problem that has been the focus of the efforts of successive governments to
expand the innovative capacity of the Australian economy. It has long been
thought that insufficient knowledge transfer, in part due to a lack
of collaboration between industry and Australian public sector researchers,
contributes to the low levels of commercialisation.
ranks last in the OECD (by a significant margin) in relation to the
percentage of businesses that develop innovations in collaboration with public
sector research organisations. As shown in the Australian
Innovation System Monitor, this
result ‘reflects unfavourably on the ability of Australian
businesses and research institutions to maximise the return on public
investment in science and research’.
The 2016 Review
of the R&D Tax Incentive recommended a collaboration premium be added
to the R&D
Tax Incentive to provide a financial incentive to businesses to collaborate
with public sector research organisations (p. 3). This recommendation was reiterated
in ISA’s Australia
2030 report (p. 104). To date, the Australian Government has not
implemented this recommendation.
In 2021, the Morrison Government announced the University Research
Commercialisation Action Plan (Commercialisation Action Plan), a $2.2
billion investment to drive commercialisation and increase collaboration
between industry and universities. Key components of the plan include:
- $1.6 billion for Australia’s
Economic Accelerator, which will provide grant funding to universities with
projects at proof-of-concept or proof-of-scale projects that have high
commercialisation potential and are aligned to one of the National
- $296 million for the National
Industry PhD Program to support 1,800 students to undertake
- $243 million for the Trailblazer
Universities Program, a competitive grant program that will select universities
to partner with industry to work on research aligned with the National
The announcement of Australia’s Economic
Accelerator was largely supported
within the science and research field. The Morrison Government introduced 2 Bills
to legislate Australia’s
Economic Accelerator and the Trailblazer
Universities Program, which lapsed at the dissolution of the 46th Parliament.
Prior to the election, the ALP
indicated it would support legislating Australia’s Economic Accelerator and
stated in its National
Reconstruction Fund policy that it would invest in supporting Australian
companies to commercialise new renewable energy and low emissions technologies.
The ALP earlier announced it would introduce a Startup
Year program which would offer loans to 2,000 final-year students and
recent graduates to support their participation in commercialisation
Labor has also committed to creating an Advanced
Strategic Research Agency (ASRA) in the Defence portfolio, emphasising that
‘ASRA would be modelled after the United States Government’s ground-breaking
Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’. For further information,
see the article on ‘The Australian Government public sector’ elsewhere in this
Briefing book, and a Parliamentary Library FlagPost about the
There are concerns among some university
stakeholders that the focus on research translation could come at the expense
of support for foundational or basic research that is not suitable for
The Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Brian Schmidt, highlighted that applied research builds on
existing basic research and argued
that the new Government should ensure that the right balance is struck
between basic and applied research.
The President of the Australian Academy of Science,
Professor John Shine, highlighted
the role of fundamental science in gradually building the understanding of
RNA technologies necessary for the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Professor Shine stated that government funding for research should act as
‘patient capital’ and quick or easy returns should not be expected.
Researchers in the humanities and social sciences have
also noted that the Commercialisation Action Plan’s focus on the National
Manufacturing Priorities means that it will be almost
impossible for researchers in these fields to attract funding under the
Calls for reforms to research funding
Many university stakeholders are calling for
reforms to how research is funded in Australia. These range from a focus on specific
issues, such as removing the ability of ministers
to intervene in the approval of Australian Research Council grants, to calls
for broad systemic reform.
Academy of Science stated that Australia’s approach to funding science is
‘not fit for purpose’ and recommended a whole-of-government review to ‘identify
the optimal operation, funding arrangements and architecture of the Australian
science and research system’.
Similarly, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of
Melbourne, Professor Duncan Maskell, stated there is a need to ‘tear
up our research funding model and … start from scratch’. Professor Maskell suggested
that the Government should fund a higher proportion of research so that it does
not need to be subsidised by international student fees. Professor Schmidt
stated that the Albanese Government had a ‘clean slate’ to fix ‘long-standing
problems with the research ecosystem in Australia’.
Industry Innovation and Science Australia (IISA), Driving Effective Government Investment in Innovation, Science and Research, (Canberra: IISA, January 2021).
Tim Brennan, Hazel Ferguson and Ian Zhou, ‘Science and research’, Budget Review 2022–23, Research paper, 2021-22, (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, April 2022), 80–84.
Hazel Ferguson, University Research Funding: a Quick Guide, Research paper series, 2021–22, (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, February 2022).
Tim Brennan and Hazel Ferguson, ‘Independence of the Australian Research Council’, FlagPost (blog), Parliamentary Library, 3 June 2022.
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