'BACK TO BASICS' WILL FUTURE-PROOF AUSTRALIA'S R&D

29 June 2018

Professor Margaret Sheil AO, Vice-Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology, former Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council.


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In his 1964 Nobel Lecture, physicist and one of the inventors of the laser Nikolai Basov described two distinct trends in the development of modern physics. The first pursues a theory to explain contradictions and irregularities: the second sets out to build new physical devices, and may discover new insights along the way. 

Both approaches involve theoreticians and experimentalists, scientists and engineers.

Some deride the former approach as abstract or aimless, others the latter as mere inventorship. But Basov demonstrates that each provides a rich medium for the other. It is now clear that both approaches have been crucial to the advances and devices that underpin our modern society.

In his 1945 Nobel lecture, Alexander Fleming noted that he may not have made the observations leading to the discovery of penicillin, had he been part of the kind of mission-directed multidisciplinary team led by his co-awardee, Australian Howard Florey, that worked out how to produce penicillin industrially.

Lasers enabled compact discs and many other downstream discoveries, and were in turn made possible by the fundamental understandings of atomic structure reached at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory.

The purpose-built lab — the first of its kind in the UK — claimed more the discovery of the electron, the neutron, the splitting of the atom and the laws of X-ray.

It was also the first teaching laboratory; embedding experiments into education; and dramatically illustrated the importance of international education. The Cavendish Laboratory model – particularly under the leadership of physicist and Nobel Laureate JJ Thomson – was about bringing a bunch of bright people together from all over the world and giving them the freedom and space to do brilliant things.

Thomson discovered the electron at the Cavendish at around the same time Thomas Edison was performing experiments across the Atlantic that made electricity practical. The discovery scientist and the inventor, each a major contributor to the development of the world that followed.

The penicillin team differed on whether their methodology should be patented: Ernst Chain thought it should be, but Florey insisted it be freely available to humankind. The economic benefits of penicillin comprise both savings from dramatically reduced mortality and morbidity, and profits to US pharmaceutical companies who were able to patent specific aspects of penicillin production.

Closer to home, the Australian development of WiFi also includes many of the same elements: a team of incredibly bright scientists who started out in radioastronomy, encouraged to work on the problem of wireless signals bouncing off walls; a Macquarie University and CSIRO team who established a company to build the WiFi chips and ultimately sold the business to Cisco for over $500 million; and CSIRO taking the brave decision to defend their patents through the US courts and ultimately received over $500 million in royalties from a range of US tech giants.

Each of these stories has at is core talented scientists building their skills and pursuing basic discovery research in environments that were not overly prescriptive; and teams working in collaboration or in parallel with more targeted goals in mind.

Each form of pursuit is essential, and a national research enterprise must ensure the balance does not tip too far in favour of either approach.

Today, unfortunately, basic discovery research is undervalued and the appetite to fund it in decline, and we see a major turn towards applied research producing a substantial imbalance in the system.

Between 1992 and 2016, the proportion of basic research at Australian universities has decreased from 40 per cent to 23 per cent. In the same period, what is termed “strategic basic” research has declined from 24 per cent to 19 per cent.

Strategic basic research is basic research with a mission – curing Alzheimer’s, for example, which might require creating new drug therapies as well as basic research to develop a better understanding of the brain.

In contrast, between 1992 and 2016, applied research across our universities has grown from 30 per cent to 49 per cent.

The UNESCO Science Report Towards 2030 notes that Australian Government policy “emphasises relevance to industry when allocating competitive research grants, research block grants, doctoral scholarships and university admissions.”

The UNESCO report also carries a clear warning. It says that as we look to direct the efforts of our universities’ expanding research capability towards the business sector, the challenge will be to ensure “science does not become the hand-maiden of industrial and commercial development.”

This pivot – reducing overall investment while repurposing funding – contrasts with the approach of our major trading partners.

China, for example, is investing heavily in basic research with the aim of leading the world in key science fields by 2035. Beijing is laying the foundations to become a world technology power, spending A$200 billion on research and development in 2015 alone. In the UK, the government announced an extra A$4.1 billion for R&D in its last budget. Early in 2018, Canada pledged a further A$3.1 billion for investigator-led basic research.

So how do we create an environment that fosters both basic and applied research and sets up the nation’s R&D sector to thrive well into the future?

First, we need to recognise it takes a long time to build innovative capacity and networks, and that the pipeline between discovery and product may be long and unpredictable – but it is certainly worth the wait.
We need to attract, support and mentor the best talent from around the world.

We need to recognise the role of institutions to support talent and infrastructure, as well as to balance short-term demands with long-term strategy. We need strong long-term investment in infrastructure and R&D institutions.

We need consistency and predictability when it comes to research funding models.

We need a plurality of approaches. Discovery research in the ARC and NHMRC, Linkage schemes to build collaboration, CRCs, science agencies – they all contribute to the common stock of knowledge, by coming at problems in different and complementary ways. And we need all of them.

But most of all, we need to strike the right balance between basic and applied research, and we need to increase the quantum.

The core issue is not how we invest in research funding, but the decline in the size of that investment.
Otherwise, we risk Australia’s research and innovation sector becoming the CD in the age of Spotify.