What’s Wrong with Australia’s Research System

Two Wesnesday’s ago at work, Nobel Laureate Prof Brian Schmidt spoke at the Vice Chancellor’s forum. He mostly said things he’s on record as having said before. Still, I took almost 5 pages of notes.

Prof Schmidt said that the problem with research in Australia is that there’s no long term planning for:

  • Research strategy — ie how to make best use of the universities
  • STEM teaching
  • University excellence and the planning thereof
  • Engagement with industry and the converse, business investment in R&D

Prof Schmidt said that on an internaional stage, Australia is keeping up in maths and science education (measured by standardised test scores) but only just.  He also said that in a significant minority of schools (my notes say 30%) teachers in senior years are teaching classes out of their primary discipline — eg a history teacher is taking a maths class. I’m not sure if he was explicitly linking those ideas or suggesting it was something to consider.

Next, Prof Schmidt compared the sizes of Australian universities to the most famous and prolific in the United States and the UK. Even ANU, Prof Schmidt’s institution, which is small by the standards of Australian universities is large compared to MIT. He suggested that the size of Australian universities was a response to the governance and administration of he the sector as a whole and mainly linked the fact of large Australian institutions to how undergraduate places are funded. He said that large unis are a response to funding based on the number of students enrolled and that this led towards a tendency to mediocrity. Prof Schmidt suggested funding based on results might be preferable (again this is what is in my notes, and is my interpretation of what was said).

Prof Schmidt then suggested that in this funding environment every dollar spent on teaching is a dollar not spent on research — but also that research grants do not cover the entire cost of conducting research — but he noted that university prestige comes from research, not teaching (this was said as a state of the sector, rather than something desirable). His figure was that for every dollar gained in a research grant $0.66 had to be funded from the university. He said that teaching was cross-subsidising research but this was a state of affairs that meant that both teaching and research were both missing out. He also said that in his opinion uncapped places has made this undesirable cross-subsidising worse.

The next example was the synchrotron. “A $200 million facility with no plan to make use of it”. Prof Schmidt said that every piece of research infrastructure in Australia (currently?) had no cash in 14 months and that there was demonstrably no long term plan for funding them. Even with 5 year funding, research facilities only find out if they have their next tranche of money a few months out from completely running out of money. This leads to underused facilities because the money that keeps them going is running out. It’s always feast or famine.

Prof Schmidt then said that Australia is behind the world in making use of R&D. He said that R&D investment has a 20 to 50 year return but that politics in Australia is focussed on such short term windows that there is no planning at that scale. He suggested that all academics coordinate to speak with one voice on the need for better planning.

As an illustration of the problem Prof Schmidt said that Australia’s 2nd largest export indistry, after aluminium, which is “in trouble” (so I have in my notes), is “medical” (again my notes are incomplete here but I think this is things like vaccines and medicines) but the 4th or 5th category is another sort of “medical” (I think this is medical devices). Together, both of these medical categories are larger than the aluminum industry. However, government investment in the medical industry is lower than that in car manufacturing. And we know how well that’s going.

Next, Prof Schmidt said that 1 in 10 PhD candidates will get a permanent academic job. He said that Universities have no plan for PhD candidates after they graduate. He said, I think, that this was emblematic of the lack of policy effort directed to how to use the resource of scholarship and research at universities. In contrast he offered meetups in, for example, Boston, which are sponsored by tech firms, which are where researchers and industry meet and new connections between research and business are made. He said this connection between universities and industry was why Boston produces a greater percentage of GDP as a result of R&D than all of Australia. (If this was wikipedia, there’d be  a [citation needed] flag here.) He suggested that QUT was ideally placed to host and organize these sort of meetups.

Prof Schmidt closed with the list that I opened this post with that stated Australia has no long-term planning for making use of Universities.

In the Q&A that followed, there was also an interesting bit about the “&D” in R&D. Prof Schmidt said that grants, even Linkage, only pay for “R”, so where does the “&D” come from? He said that if you don’t have a business plan and an industry partner then you’re not doing “&D”, or what we usually call applied research. But there is no grant scheme that is truly about applied research right now.

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