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OPINION: CUTS TO RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT UNSUSTAINABLE 

On Monday, universities are bracing for the details of another funding cut – this time to life-changing research.

In the mid-year budget update, cuts of $135 million – foreshadowed by the Minister last month – are expected to be unveiled.

This cut comes as we learn that, in the coming financial year, government investment in research and development will fall to just half a per cent of GDP in 2018-19.

That’s a lower share than 40 years ago.

Only last year, the government-appointed chair of Innovation and Science Australia Bill Ferris urged Australia to aim to be a top-tier innovation nation by 2030. To build new products and inventions, Australia relies on research – and it must not only maintain but expand the breadth and reach of our research efforts.

Yet, next year, we are now projected to spend a smaller share of our economy on research than we did in 1978.

There’s an irony here. In 1978, the world’s first bionic ear was implanted in a human.

Invented by University of Melbourne researcher Professor Graeme Clark in the 1970s, Cochlear implants have since enabled thousands of adults and children to hear for the first time. Cochlear is an example of a very successful company begun in Australia based on Australian research.

You only need to watch videos of kids hearing their parents’ voices for the first time to see how transformative this Australian university research breakthrough has been.

Over the past four decades, Australia has built a reputation as a global research leader.

This has generated Australian jobs, spawned entire new industries, saved the lives of thousands of Australians, helped us to understand the complex and challenging world in which we live, and invented countless cures and treatments.

They include a world-first cervical cancer vaccine, IVF, a ground-breaking literacy program for kids, helping to stop tragic deaths from SIDS, and built the first working components of quantum computing – among tens of thousands of examples.

But if our investment in these sorts of research breakthroughs plunges, the next wave of discoveries and inventions could come too late – or may never eventuate.

Every community across our nation has a stake in this. So many lives will continue to be changed for the better if we can keep these advances coming.

Alarm bells should have been ringing loudly last year when ABS data showed Australia’s overall spend on R&D fall to 1.88 per cent of GDP – well behind the OECD average of 2.36 per cent.

Business investment in R&D is now also at its lowest level in two decades as a share of GDP.

Universities are the backbone of Australia’s national research effort. We take a long-term view. We know that research on a blood disease undertaken patiently over more than 10 years can turn out to provide the basis for a treatment for a range of cancers – but that it takes high-quality researchers and technicians staying the course, and being funded to conduct their research, to enable such breakthroughs.

Economic and social advances that will change our lives for the future have their genesis in labs and libraries right now, right around the country.

With cuts looming and our overall R&D spend falling for the first time on record, the portents for Australia’s future as a world leader in life-changing research are worrying.

Sensible, well-planned investments in research capability deliver dividends many times over. For every dollar business invests in university research, there’s an average return of $4.50.

To see a business case for a well-planned and executed national R&D strategy, we only need to look as far as our neighbour and competitor Singapore.

Singapore has implemented a comprehensive R&D strategy over three decades. Its R&D spend per capita is almost double Australia’s, and government investment in R&D drives business R&D growth.

The results are clear. Singapore – a country with almost no natural resources – has created a GDP per capita 7 per cent higher than Australia’s.

Australia must forge its destiny through strategy, action and long-term investment.

Our talented university researchers are some of our greatest national assets, and their efforts will ensure Australians have better lives well into the future. And what do they ask in return for their efforts? Our trust and support – and consistent funding.

We should deliver this to them.

We should also tell the stories of Australia’s research successes – some of which are featured in Universities Australia’s new campaign #UniResearchChangesLives.

This is an invitation for all Australians to take pride in the research breakthroughs being made in Australian universities.

University researchers change lives. We need to celebrate their work – not cut their funding.

Professor Margaret Gardner is chair of Universities Australia.

This opinion piece was published in The Canberra Times on Saturday 15 December 2018. 

 

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