January Director’s Message

Last week, I drove from Canberra to Perth in a 12-year-old Fiesta (with my son, who has moved to Perth).  The trip gave me lots of time to think. 

While watching temperate woodlands turn to arid grasslands, I reflected on a recent paper that discussed how research into science and technology is funded, and what such research delivers for society.   Earlier this month, a paper by Park et al. came out in Nature, highlighting a sustained slowing in the proportion of research papers and patents that are disruptive, lead to new knowledge paradigms, and create the conditions for major breakthroughs in industry. An example of disruptive research is Watson and Crick (1953) where they reported that DNA exists in the form of a three-dimensional double helix – a finding that led to breakthroughs in our understanding of genetic structure that underpins life on Earth. In their paper Park et al. discuss a range of factors that contribute to the decline in disruptiveness of science and technology since the Second World War.  While acknowledging that the quality of published science remains high, they found that researchers are increasingly relying on “narrower slices of existing knowledge” to inform their work.  One reason for this is time – or rather, lack of it.  To fully benefit from the breadth of ever-growing knowledge, researchers need to read widely, often in areas beyond their immediate discipline.  Park et al. finish their paper with a call to research institutions to place greater focus on research quality rather than quantity, and for research funding agencies to invest in longer-term awards that provide the time and resources for researchers to “step outside the fray….and produce truly consequential work”

Park’s paper reminded me of a past seminar at the Research School of Biological Sciences, ANU by Prof Gunnar Öquist.  While Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Prof.  Öquist announced the winners of Nobel Prizes.  In his seminar, Prof Öquist talked about a steady decline through time in the impact of Swedish science – despite substantive increases in the funding invested.  One reason for the decline was the way science was funded, with researchers increasingly relying on output-focused grants to fund both their research and their salaries.  While this funding model is great to training researchers to deliver on a grant’s program of work, it does not encourage researchers to “step outside the fray” in the words of Park et al. 

To me, the paper by Park et al. and Prof Öquist’s seminar highlight challenges facing us here in Australia.  Increasingly, Australian science is being funded by relatively short-term, narrowly-focused grants (typically less than three years in duration), with university researchers often combining research with substantial teaching loads.  As a result, they have limited time to think.  While they may deliver on work promised in their grant applications, they are less likely to explore new, often risky, ideas that could be the foundation of future, disruptive research.  This issue applies to both fundamental research and applied, industry-aligned research.  

Thus, if society and industry are to get the most out of the collective investment in science and technology research – and to reverse the decline in disruptive discoveries – thought needs to be given to how our society invests in research.  For me, this includes: (1) investing not just in low-risk projects that address only short-term challenges, but also in riskier projects that often address complex, longer-term challenges; and, (2) research institutions creating a work environment where staff are encouraged to work in interdisciplinary teams and to think laterally. 

Interestingly, Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers touched on similar issues in his “value-based capitalism” essay for the Monthly.  While not specifically focused on research, the essay highlighted the need for mission-style investments that promote collaboration and target complex, intergenerational challenges.  A crucial part of how we address those challenges will be acknowledging the observations of Park et al. and Prof Öquist – that current investments in research are not delivering the time for researchers to think differently or to make the disruptive discoveries needed by society.   

Coming back to the trip to Perth – despite being an oldish, small car, the 12-year-old Fiesta and its passengers got there.   It was a pleasure to have the time to see such an array of Australian landscapes…. and to have the time to think. 

Finally, for those interested, ABARES has just released the results of their labor use in Australian agriculture.  Some interesting headline figures include: horticulture farm labor use has declined by 20% over the last three years, largely due to a 66% decline in overseas contract workers, with large farms accounting for almost all of the decline; despite the decline in labor use, horticulture production increased by 3% on the back of favorable seasonal conditions; more than half of all horticulture farms struggled to recruit staff; and labor use decreased on dairy farms but increased on broadacre farms, the latter reflecting the favorable seasonal conditions. 

Happy New Year.  And make sure you read our CEAT newsletter!


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