In this final chapter, the Committee considers more strategic issues related to Australian research investment, including long term planning, research performance, and levels of investment. The costs associated with publishing research are also discussed.
Long term planning
Submissions to the inquiry suggested a more strategic approach is needed to the management of Australia’s research investment, including long term planning and coordination.
For example, Macquarie University called for a research landscape that balances and supports different types of research, and stated that ‘long term, stable and coordinated planning and resourcing are vital to maintaining the national research capability and competitiveness’. Similarly, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) identified ‘agreement on a long term national vision for research’ as a key structural issue, specifically, that ‘vision and investment must be long-term and insulated from the vagaries of election cycles’.
The value of such long term planning was noted by Innovation and Science Australia:
Longer term policy and investment settings are important and enable researchers and their institutions to focus on delivering outcomes.
Professor Bronwyn Harch from the University of Queensland also pointed out that long term planning and infrastructure aids in attracting and retaining research talent. This is because people are aware of the research priorities and can see where investment is being made. Researchers can then make informed decisions about their research endeavours.
Australia enjoys a reputation for producing world class research, and is often described as ‘punching above its weight’. Universities Australia cites the Scimago Journal and Country Rank which notes that ‘in 2017, Australia was responsible for 2.7 per cent of the world’s scientific output, while being home to only 0.34 per cent of the world’s population’.
Australian research has contributed to significant innovation and development including including Wi-Fi, solar technology, the cervical cancer vaccine, the cochlear implant, antibiotics and ultrasound. In addition to the obvious benefits of such life-changing research, there are some other indicators that are used to measure research performance. These indicators include publications and citations, and Australian Research Council (ARC) assessment measures – Excellence in Research for Australian (ERA), and Engagement and Impact Assessment (EIA).
The relevance of these indicators to the Committee’s inquiry extends beyond the solid picture it provides of Australia’s research capability. These indicators also highlight further areas of inefficiencies identified in evidence.
Australia’s annual published research has more than doubled over the past decade. Between 2006 and 2016, Australia’s publications grew by 112 per cent. This is significantly more than comparable countries such as the United Kingdom (UK) (49 per cent), the United States (US) (30 per cent) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
(39 per cent).
A similar trend was reported for research citations. Between 2006 and 2016, Australian publication citations, increased from 17 per cent to 37 per cent. Again, these figures are above the OECD total (10 per cent), and are comparable with the UK and US.
The importance of publications and citations to the research sector was emphasised by Professor Andrea Bishop, Director, Office for Research at Griffith University:
Research publications are part of the currency in which we trade within our disciplines. How you become influential in your discipline and how you become a thought leader is by pushing the ideas that you have through peer reviewed literature. The numbers that we’re talking about are not just about the volume of ideas that are being shared; it’s also about how those ideas are being picked up.
While Australia clearly performs well internationally with regard to its publication and citation outputs, the costs and inefficiencies associated with the current system of publishing research were raised with the Committee.
In submissions to the inquiry, the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group (AOASG) and Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) describe the predominant model for publishing research in Australia. In particular, they note this is largely through subscription journals which is ‘a multi-billion dollar commercial industry, mostly of non-Australian for-profit publishers’.
The system of subscription journals was further described as ‘largely closed, complex, costly, and non-competitive’ and represents a ‘fundamental inefficiency in the system’ when every university that wants to provide access to specific journals has to subscribe to those journals. For context, CAUL provided the following subscription costs:
To put the cost of access to research outputs into perspective Australian university libraries spent approximately $281.76 million on access to journal subscriptions alone in 2017 … a cost which continues to increase. In addition to this, researchers may also be asked to pay Article Processing Charges (APCs) by publishers to make their work openly available, these fees can range from $1500 to $8000 per article.
The Committee heard that the costs associated with subscription journals differ between countries and lack transparency, with individual countries negotiating their own subscription costs.
An emerging model within scholarly publishing is open access publishing. Open access journals provide free online access to anyone wanting Australian published research. It is considered more cost effective than subscription journals because open access journals only incur a one-off cost at the time of publication.
While there are moves internationally and locally within Australia to shift to open scholarship, Australia lacks a national coordinated approach. In its submission, the AOASG sets out a proposal to establish a national coordinating body, funded for five years, to oversee the development of a strategic approach to open scholarship in Australia. It suggests that such a body could either be situated within an existing government agency or be constituted separately. The Committee supports these recommendations.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government develop a more strategic approach to Australia’s open scholarship environment.
ARC assessment measures
To provide information about the quality and impact of Australian university research, the ARC manages two performance programs in parallel:
Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) program which ‘measures performance within each discipline at each university’ to give a ‘detailed view of the research landscape in Australia’; and
Engagement and Impact Assessment (EIA) program which will ‘assess the engagement of researchers with end-users, and show how universities are translating their research into economic, social, environmental and other impacts.’
Evidence to the inquiry suggests that while there is merit and value in the ERA and EIA exercises, universities consider the processes to be costly and labour intensive.
For example, the University of Melbourne estimated that the cost of the ERA to its institution was $1 million. It suggested moving the ERA from a three-year to a six-year cycle.
In its submission, Griffith University not only noted the diminishing returns from ‘an exercise estimated to cost between $60-80 million’ per ERA round but suggested conducting the ERA and EIA cycle every six years would free up universities’ time:
A six-year ERA/[EIA] cycle will deliver cost savings and free up considerable academic and administrative resources, benefiting both the Government and the university sector, to engage more effectively in peer review ranging from internal scrutiny of grant applications prior to submission to that conducted on behalf of the granting bodies.
The same view was shared by Macquarie University who highlighted that the ERA ‘cost the sector tens of millions of dollars, as well as significant opportunity costs in the diversion of academic time towards service for this exercise’.
In its submission, the University of Sydney focused on the administrative burden of these exercises :
[The ERA and EIA] require a huge investment of staff time and resources to complete. This inevitably increases our operating costs and diverts researchers away from their research. While we believe both ERA and [EIA] are important, care needs to be taken to ensure that the administrative burden they impose is commensurate with the value of the information they [deliver] about the quality and impact of Australian university research.
At a public hearing, Professor Duncan Ivison, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, University of Sydney reinforced the point made in the written submission, noting particularly that much of the information is now publicly available:
… can we get the same outcomes, which I think are very important for the government, from the Excellence in Research Australia assessment exercise in a more light-touch way? A lot of the data that is driving that process is now publicly available through other means and that would relieve, I think, some of the administrative burden on the system, and also, frankly, on the ARC.
The University of Wollongong also noted that a lot of the ERA reporting data is ‘significantly redundant’ and available through other indices. In supporting previous comments made about the ERA and EIA, Professor Timothy Marchant, Dean of Research at the University of Wollongong, also noted the burden on universities and that there are ‘significant overlaps with other exercises that are already taking place on an international basis.’
The Committee recommends that the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) and Engagement and Impact Assessment (EIA) programs be reviewed to consider ways to reduce the cost and administrative burden on universities. In particular, the Committee recommends:
universities no longer be required to provide any information or data that is already available; and
in recognition of the amount of data already in the public domain and the labour-intensive nature of the ERA and EIA, that the timing of the data collection be reduced from three to five years.
Quantum of funding
In 2015-2016, Australia’s total expenditure on research and development (R&D) was estimated to be $31.2 billion or 1.88 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Australian Government funded approximately one third of this expenditure.
The Department of Education and Training noted in its submission that ‘Australian Government investment in R&D has steadily grown in real terms over the past decade, and has remained relatively stable as a proportion of GDP.’ On average, this investment is 0.62 per cent of GDP.
Increasing expenditure on R&D was a general theme in evidence to the inquiry. During discussions, the Committee’s attention was drawn to four broad funding issues:
overall investment in R&D;
international opportunities for research;
a non-medical future fund; and
inequity across the research sector.
Each of these is discussed more fully below.
Overall investment in R&D
The significance of R&D investment to Australia and indeed globally, cannot be overestimated. It underpins new knowledge and innovation and informs the way we live. As stated by Universities Australia:
Research and development is not simply a competing demand in budgetary consideration—it is one of the most productive mechanisms that we have as a society to invest in the future prosperity and wellbeing of both ourselves and future generations.
As noted earlier in this chapter, Australia is recognised for ‘punching above its weight’ when it comes to research performance and enjoys a world class reputation. Australian investment in R&D is widely recognised as money well spent. Ms Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive Officer of the Group of Eight highlighted the significance of research funding when quantifying the (near) ten-fold return on public investment. Ms Thomson told the Committee:
We know that research funding delivers bang for its buck, and we know that from the economic impact analysis that the Go8 released last week, but it’s true for the whole sector; we just took a cut from us, of course. We know that for every $1 of taxpayers’ money that’s invested there’s nearly a $10 return. So it’s not wasted, and it’s a very important investment.
Similarly, Macquarie University notes that research conducted by universities has been estimated to contribute around $160 billion (10 per cent) per annum of GDP (2014).
The Committee was told that compared to other OECD nations, Australia spends less on overall R&D investment. For example, in 2016 the average overall expenditure on R&D was 2.38 per cent for OECD countries, compared to 1.88 per cent in Australia. These comparisons are shown in Figure 5.1.
Figure 5.1: Gross expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP.
Source: Universities Australia, Submission 27, p. 4.
Further, Australia’s gross expenditure on R&D has declined from a high of 2.25 per cent in 2008-09 to 1.88 per cent in 2015-16.
Improving success rates
In its submission to the inquiry, QUT identified increased funding as the most effective means to address problems with Australia’s research funding system, including grant success rates. Rather than changes to process, QUT suggests that changes to funding levels will drive effective change:
The single most significant impediment to the effectiveness of the national research enterprise discharging its obligations is not efficiency or process, it is the inadequate quantum of funding.
… Restoring funding to a healthy level will help with success rates and go some way to address the cost/benefit issues that apparently concern Committee members and that most submissions have raised. More money won’t solve everything, of course, but the lack of it is definitely a factor hampering the system’s effectiveness, and adequate funding will go far further to rectifying any concern the Committee could point to than could relatively minor tweaks to processes.
A consistent point to the Committee was that low success rates are a result of a limited pool of funds, not a limited pool of quality applications.
Professor Frank Gannon from the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences (AAHMS) also linked low grant success rates to low levels of funding, telling the Committee:
Low levels of success are because either there are too many people applying or there isn’t enough money in the system for it. I think the analysis would say that there aren’t too many people applying compared to internationally, but Australia is spending down in this area.
Similarly, Professor Annette Woods, President of the Australian Association for Research in Australia said:
… there’s much evidence to suggest that the applications that are going into schemes are of quality. We’ve seen an increase in that. They now are quality applications that are going in. So it’s not about quality, as to why particular disciplines, or a large percentage of the grants that go in across all disciplines, are not being funded. It’s about research funding.
International opportunities for research
Research is conducted in a global environment. The development of ideas, fostering of research partnerships, and sharing research findings all occur within an international community. Universities Australia highlighted the value of international research, particularly collaboration, in its submission:
International collaborations are increasingly the most successful model for creating ground-breaking new research results to tackle global challenges and harness huge opportunities.
The Committee heard that despite Australia’s standing as world class researchers, it does not maximise its opportunities to engage internationally. Professor Brigid Heywood, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, University of Tasmania told the Committee:
Australia benefits from and contributes to an international arena of intellectual inquiry—that, with the knowledge creation processes that Australia benefits from, Australia draws benefit in part from its relationship through and with international collaborations. With many of the key problems for Australia, we share and gain experience by being part of other schemes internationally, yet our systems are not lined up to allow us to take best opportunity from those international schemes.
Professor Heywood explained that this shortcoming is introducing an inefficiency of cost and process, as well as missed opportunities for Australian researchers. She further noted that in the long term Australia will become less competitive internationally in terms of recruiting talent and joining large international collaborative projects.
Two specific issues were identified as contributing to this problem – timing of available funding, and access to international funds.
Evidence to the inquiry identified that Australian deadlines are not aligned with international funding deadlines. This is said to hamper collaborative research efforts between countries.
For example, in its submission, the Australian National University (ANU) highlighted missed European opportunities:
… the German DFG International Research Training Groups program could potentially be aligned with the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centres; however, the vastly different guidelines and timing of schemes does not enable joint proposals that could leverage international investment to create transformational impact.
Closer to home, Professor Heywood raised the same issue in regard to New Zealand funding opportunities, citing the launch of its national science web:
… they’ve put a significant amount of ten-year-based funding in national science priorities, which line up almost exactly with some of the things that we would argue are priorities here. But the alignment of our schemes is not allowing for what I would call genuine collaborative endeavour, which seems odd, given that research is an international collaborative endeavour.
The Committee heard that Australia does not currently have a ‘large scale multilateral government-supported funding scheme’ to support international collaborative research. While there are some schemes that support bilateral research, there is no scheme to take advantage of wider international opportunities.
Similarly, the Committee was told that compared to international counterparts—for example, the German Academic Exchange Service, the US National Science Foundation, the China Scholarship Council, and the European Commission’s Horizon 2020—Australia does not have any schemes to support international mobility. International mobility of researchers was identified as being invaluable for universities to enhance their international reputation, build international relationships, increase exposure to new research areas, and to recruit international students.
Much of the shortfall in international opportunity has been attributed to a lack of government funding, rather than the availability of international opportunities. In other words, there are international research schemes available to Australian researchers but they require government support to participate.
Murdoch University stated in its written submission that Australia’s university grant system is not internationally engaged. It noted that joint projects with an international focus, working on significant problems, require Australia to tap into the EU, US and UK funding. Similarly, Professor Jim McCluskey, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research, University of Melbourne explained to the Committee:
Apart from the administrative alignment and the alignment of national priorities, the single biggest obstacle is that we don’t put money on the table. Eligibility for Horizon 2020 has been hampered by the fact that we are not actually a partner organisation with the EU. To become a partner organisation would require some negotiation at a government level, and it would require us to put cash on the table, which would be at risk, because you put it into a pool of EU funding and it gets competed for.
In a supplementary submission, the University of Melbourne outlines a process for securing involvement in programs such as Horizon Europe. The Group of Eight also emphasised the importance of Australia’s involvement.
Non-medical future fund
In 2014, the Australian Government announced the establishment of a Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF)—a $20 billion investment in health and medical research. The MRFF complements NHMRC funding to support translational research.
Several submissions to the inquiry called for the establishment of a non-medical research fund, similar to the MRFF. For example, the University of New South Wales recommended the introduction of an Australian Research Translation Future Fund; the Australian Academy of Science recommended the creation of a National Science Future Fund; Science and Technology Australia recommended the establishment of a Research Future Fund, and the Group of Eight recommended the creation of a translation fund for non-health and medical research.
A key reason put forward for the introduction of a non-medical future fund was the perceived funding inequity between health and medical research and other disciplines such as humanities and social sciences.
As explained by Professor McCluskey at the Committee’s public hearing in Melbourne:
… it’s certainly the case that at the moment the Australian Research Council is effectively the only real place a scholar in the humanities and social sciences can win a research grant. The ARC allocates about 20 per cent of its budget to humanities and social sciences. Whereas, if you’re a medico like me you can go to the NHMRC—$850 million a year thereabouts—you can go to the Medical Research Future Fund and if you are clever enough you can frame the research grant as basic biological science, which it very often is and go to the ARC. That means it’s a very uneven playing field, and so the notion of having a little bit more funding for the humanities and social sciences I certainly would vote for.
It was also noted that such a fund is not just about more investment, it is about leveraging and signalling to industry that engagement is an important priority.
Submissions calling for the introduction of a non-medical future fund also emphasised that any new fund should be additional research investment rather than replacing existing funding arrangements.
Inequity across research sector
The Committee heard that there is inequity in funding across research stages and disciplines. Specifically, there is a tendency for applied research and shorter term research projects to be more attractive than blue sky or longer term research.
Throughout submissions, there was concern that blue sky and basic research is under pressure and being overlooked for more commercially attractive applied research. However, many submissions pointed out the latter cannot occur without the former.
For example, Macquarie University stated that the success of applied research is dependent upon the proper funding of basic research:
Business cases for applied research, particularly with clear end-user beneficiaries, are often more attractive to funders than proposals to conduct fundamental research. However, basic research, as the bedrock of advancement, has led to many important applications that almost without exception, unanticipated at the time that the research was undertaken.
The University of Melbourne made a similar statement:
While basic research does not normally target specific innovations, it plays an important enabling role in the innovation system by providing the theoretical basis for technological and other advances. It forms the sustaining pipeline through which further research innovation and translation can occur as discoveries move further along the commercialisation pathway.
The importance of blue sky research to Australia’s research wealth was described by Professors Jordan Nash and Craig White from the Faculty of Science at Monash University. They said:
Basic, pure, or ‘blue-skies’ research seeks to advance our fundamental understanding of the natural world. It encompasses both the pursuit of new knowledge and the production of new tools and techniques to be used in the pursuit of that knowledge. It is the foundation on which technological innovation and commercialisation rest, and it is the cornerstone of Australia’s scientific reputation. Our daily lives are continually impacted by innovations that can be traced back to basic research; examples include the invention of WiFi, the functioning of the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS), and the development of anti-cancer and other drugs.
Professors Nash and White note the decline in basic research funding over the last decade. While acknowledging that Australia still invests more in basic research than other OECD counties, the Department of Education and Training also noted the decline in Australia’s expenditure on basic research:
While university expenditure on basic research has been increasing in real terms, it has been growing at a slower rate than expenditure on applied research. As a result, basic research as a share of total R&D expenditure has been steadily falling since the early 1990s.
Submissions to the inquiry called for greater balance in research investment across the research pipeline. In his submission, Professor Andre Luiten noted:
Any sustainable research project funding scheme needs to have opportunities at each of the various stages of the innovation pipeline, as well as a sensible method for appropriate projects to transition between each stage.
To support this, Professor Luiten describes the following framework:
Long-term investments into blue-sky research with its potential for breakthrough technologies;
Shorter term targeted investments to bring promising research to the point where it becomes of interest to the private sector;
Co-funding research in academia between industry and government in circumstances where industry sees the technical or execution risk as too high for it to be undertaken from solely industry financial resources;
Government-assistance for industry to undertake research where the financial risk would make the project otherwise unviable.
Similarly, there were calls for longer term grant funding, particularly when considering the nature of scientific or ecological experiments:
… not all research questions can be answered in a three-year time window, which is the length of most major grants currently. This is very true when investigating the dynamics of Australia’s unique ecosystems, which often play out over decadal timescales. That means you need research and data streams at a decade timescale. So we would suggest that Australia explores establishing a new funding scheme that supports explicitly long-term research —research that is answering questions that require time series data on the scale of eight to 12 years.
A similar point was made by the Ecosystem Science Council. In its submission, the Council identified sustainable funding for long term ecological research as a priority issue to be addressed, suggesting the ARC’s Act be amended to add a new funding stream for this purpose.
The Committee’s inquiry has very much focused on research funding processes and ways to improve the administration of funding in Australia. The Committee supports the need for long term planning and investment, as well as the identification of strategic research priorities to maximise Australia’s research investment. It also recognises the importance of collaborative research endeavours, particularly in the international arena.
The Committee recommends the Australian Government provide greater oversight and coordination of Australia’s research investment. It recommends a broader strategic review of Australia’s research and development investment to identify key research priorities, better coordinate national and international research efforts, and ensure adequate investment across the research pipeline.
The Committee recommends consideration be given to the establishment of a future or translation fund for non-medical research.
Given the strength of Australia’s research impact, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government consider investing and participating in international research funds such as Horizon Europe.
Mr Andrew Laming MP
24 October 2018