Australia’s Science and Research Priorities

Words by: Natasha Bloomfield

According to Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane, “Science is important to every Australian, every day of their lives.” Given the amount of scientific research currently being conducted in Australia by universities, CSIRO, and other government agencies, there appears to be truth in his statement.

Due to the immense value of science in Australia, the Federal Government announced a set of “Science and Research Priorities” in late May that “identify areas of immediate and critical importance to Australia and its place in the world.”

Described as nothing revolutionary, these priorities are: food, soil and water, transport, cybersecurity, energy, resources, manufacturing, environmental change, and health.

The priorities complement the five industry sectors covered in the 2014 Industry, Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda:

  • Advanced manufacturing;
  • Food and agribusiness;
  • Medical technologies and pharmaceuticals;
  • Mining equipment, technology and services; and
  • Oil, gas, and energy resources.

The exact proportion of the $9.2 billion investment in science, research, and innovation that will be allocated specifically to these priorities has yet to be finalised. When making these allocations the Government will largely rely upon evidence-based data and take into account current and future research excellence, industrial strength, global trends, and community interests.

There are also “Practical Research Challenges” for each area. According to the Federal Government, addressing these challenges “will result in an increased proportion of public investment in science and research going to areas of critical need and national importance.”

Challenges in reference to health, for example, include sustaining better health outcomes for urban and regional communities throughout Australia, developing effective technologies to manage health care including mobile apps, advance remote monitoring and online access to therapies, and improve the management of health threats.

The proposal of a national science strategy first appeared in the 2014 paper titled Boosting The Commercial Returns From Research. April 2015 saw Professor Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist of Australia, presenting the Science and Research Priorities for consideration. The process has included meetings with the Commonwealth Science Council, the National Science, Technology and Research Committee (NSTRC), and consultations and workshops with researchers, industry leaders, and government representatives.

The priorities list is not exhaustive or exclusive, yet governments are expected to invest in these areas through their research and development budgets and as part of their overarching missions. Chubb stated that now “we have recognised specific challenges within [the priorities], we are expecting departments and agencies of the federal government to act on them.”

According to Laureate Fellow Brain Schmidt, stability is an essential component of good policy. The allocation of sufficient resources such as funds, state-of-the-art equipment, and time to internationally competitive areas, is another. Schmidt stated that funding uncertainty makes it difficult for Australia to attract and retain research talent.

One the other hand, Ben McNeil, Senior Research Fellow at UNSW, has suggested that the archaic idea of scientists travelling overseas to find quality experience has dissipated and that Australia has begun to attract some of the most brilliant young researchers from around the world.

However, Chubb noted that it is important to remember that we do not live in a golden age where “every fundable project [is] funded and every talented person [gets] a tenured position.” Chubb reiterated that Australia has “finite resources to allocate to any number of important and worthy things.”

Nevertheless it is a step forward for the scientific community, which appears to be broadly supportive of the National Research Priorities and the possibility of a stable process for allocating long-term funding. Hopefully the priorities will prove advantageous and be an example of an accomplishment by the Federal Government.