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University research funding: Many small steps make a leap

By Margaret Sheil - posted Monday, 15 November 2004

The recent discovery of a skeleton from a new species of hominid on the island of Flores in Indonesia has captured the world's imagination as reports of the "hobbit-like" species received widespread attention from the national and international media.

Led by archeologists Mike Morwood from the University of New England and R.P. Soejono from the Indonesian Centre for Archeology in Jakarta, the researchers found the skeleton of a 30-year-old woman standing less than 1m tall, with a brain smaller than a chimpanzee but who lived at least 18,000 years ago, when modern humans were well established in Indonesia, Australia and other parts of the world.

Described as "arguably the most significant discovery concerning our own genus in my lifetime" by anthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in the US, the discovery has all the elements of science at its best: a multidisciplinary international team involving co-operation between archeologists, paleontologists and international dating experts making a groundbreaking discovery. The finding and subsequent work (the team has also found evidence of six other tiny hominids alongside tools that suggest elements of modern human behaviour) will result in the rewriting of textbooks and will challenge thinking surrounding the way in which Homo species evolved and adapted to their environments.


The work also demonstrates the importance of support for basic discovery research by the Australian Research Council, universities and other funding agencies. The size of the grant awarded to Mike Morwood and his team ($810,000 over four years) to enable them to conduct expensive field-based research combined with the latest dating techniques would have been unheard of prior to the injection of funds into the ARC that resulted from the federal Backing Australia's Ability initiative.

The ARC has also supported the high-cost dating equipment in the laboratory of team member Richard "Bert" Roberts. Roberts, an ARC senior research fellow, has been able to pursue his research program in the application of state-of-the art dating techniques to big questions such as human evolution and migration and the effect of climate change in earlier eras because of continuous ARC fellowship support during the past eight years. The fellowship scheme has also enabled another team member, Chris Turney, to relocate from Ireland to Australia, thereby building critical mass and complementary expertise in dating techniques at the University of Wollongong.

The key objective of the ARC Discovery scheme is "to develop and maintain a broad function of high-quality research across a range of disciplines". While I am sure that at the time the research was proposed the team had hoped to discover much of archeological and anthropological interest they would not have been able to predict the huge significance of what they would find.

This is the nature of discovery research and the reason why it's important that we retain a balance between funding applied research, where the possibility for short-term gains is sometimes more apparent, and research that at times may seem somewhat esoteric but may have a longer lasting impact that meets the key ARC objective.

Another interesting feature of this story is that the principal Australian scientists involved were from two institutions outside the Group of Eight - the universities of New England and Wollongong - highlighting the value of a system in which the best researchers are able to effectively compete for funding, regardless of where they are located.

Finally, the attention to this story raises the question of how we can best ensure there is a link in the minds of the public, politicians and public servants and the need to continue the investment in discovery research. ARC funding was noted in press releases from both universities and in the acknowledgments in the Nature article, but the focus of the media attention was (understandably) on the discovery. A quick survey of news releases available on university websites would indicate that the ARC and other funding bodies tend to receive most attention at the time grants are awarded rather than when the outcomes of the research are reported. Collectively, as a sector, we need to ensure we continue to promote this vital link if we are to expect public investment in basic research to be maintained or (dare I say it) increased.

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First published in The Australian November 10, 2004.

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About the Author

Margaret Sheil is pro vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Wollongong. She was a member of the ARC expert advisory committee for physics, chemistry and geosciences in 2001-02.

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