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The problem of research funding

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 18 June 2014


At the end of May Dr Dennis Jensen, a Liberal MP from Western Australia, made a speech in Parliament attacking the cuts in funding for science. It was a good speech, but it was not much reported. I read it with interest and appreciation, but also with a desire to cross swords a little, because he covered a lot of ground that is familiar to me, and there are other things that could be said.

The cuts that have been made are not severe, and to me they suggest a warning from the Government to the research establishments that it is serious about the need for good research, not research that is suitable to a previous government's agenda. Of course I have global warming in mind here, and feel like warning the Government not to want its own supportive research too. Good research is better in the long run, and much cheaper for all of us, than convenient research, let alone pretentious rubbish.

The cuts aren't severe because the size of the research system is very large indeed. The ABS showed a total expenditure on R&D for Australia for the most recent period of nearly $31 billion, with universities contributing $8 billion, government more than $3 billion, and business more than $18 billion. The number of people involved in R&D as their 'occupation' is now more than 140,000, and 'research' is now commonly referred to as another industry. Higher education competitive research funds have risen steadily too, and now amount to more than $1.5 billion; they amounted to little more than $100 million in 1987.

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At the same as the cuts were announced the Government foreshadowed a $20 billion medical research fund that might allow Australians to cure cancer, the common cold and death itself - yes, I am being sarcastic. I think that this is a very bad idea, and my own view is that it is there to sweeten the co-payment pill for visits to the doctor.

It is a very bad idea for a number of reasons. We already devote a substantial amount of money to medical research - about as much as the money we devote to everything else in the research domain, if not more. Even if the $20bn is seen as a capital fund and only the interest is used for medical research we are talking, when the fund is fully subscribed, of an additional $1bn or so for one part of the research domain, which will unbalance the whole.

And there are two other objections at least. The first is that beyond a certain point you can easily waste money on research. I remember Jim Wynegaarden, then the Director of the National Institutes of Health, telling me in 1987 that he had asked the President not to provide more money for cancer research, because the first-rate people were already fully occupied, and second-rate research was worse than useless.

The second, related to the first, is that it takes a lot of time to train those who are to undertake good research, and the process requires much time as well as much money. I can remember Bob Hawke saying airily, at about the same time as I was talking to Wynegaarden, that his Government would provide the funding for 75 postdocs, for something like research into salinity. He had no idea what he was talking about. You can't just produce 75 postdocs in a given field because you have money. It takes a decade or two.

As for the future in other fields, I have no recipe. The whole scientific, technical and medical publications system seems to be growing at about 3 per cent a year around the world - that is, with respect to the number of journals, papers and researchers. We are part of that, and should stay there.

My years in the research funding business, which are now extensive, suggest to me that the rules for funding ought to be changed without much notice every four or five years. It does not take long for the money-hungry - which represent the great majority in the research field - to work out how they can adapt your rules to their purposes. The best move easily between pure and applied research by just changing the words they use: for pure research, you are studying transport through membranes; for applied, you are dealing with control of sewage, or dealing with parasites in cattle. Both sides are impressed, and the money keeps coming.

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We used to call them 'bushrangers', researchers who would ride in with impressive proposals that connected their work with your priorities. It might be best, for a new beginning (if that is what the Government proposes) that there be no priorities in research at all. After all, we've had twenty years of them (I confess that I helped to start this push), and among other things they've produced the dubious pile of research that tells us what dooms there might be if warming occurred.

But another word of warning. Once there are no priorities other than 'excellence' (and what a lot of that rare commodity there seems to be), the funders will ask what Australia is getting from all this money. It will be hard to explain. I know, I spent years doing it.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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