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Thank you for the invitation to address this year’s Australian Higher Education Industrial Association conference.
It is a pleasure to be here.
Let me acknowledge the Muwinina people, the traditional custodians of this land, and pay my respects to elders past and present.
One of the things I love most about our sector is that you never have to look far for a reminder of the positive impact universities have.
Yesterday, I visited the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.
Researchers at the institute are assessing the impact of higher sea temperatures on marine life in the Southern Ocean, and implications on the broader ocean ecosystem.
It is hard to overthink just how vital this kind of research is to the world around us and to us.
We are lucky in Australia to have a world-class research system.
People’s innovative ideas have boosted our productivity, enhanced our communities, and contributed to knowledge globally.
Australian researchers have helped shape our nation into the modern, forward thinking and prosperous country it is today.
And they will guide us through the coming decades – by finding solutions to complex challenges and by embracing new opportunities.
This morning, I’ll talk about three things:
- How we fund research in Australia
- Why that funding model is limiting and unsustainable, and
- What we miss out on due to underinvestment.
Right now, we have a research funding problem in Australia.
Government and industry funding – as a share of GDP – is going backwards.
This is pushing the nation towards the lower end of the international order.
Grant schemes are providing well below the full cost for projects, leaving universities to pick up the gap.
Women, and others, are disproportionately affected by this.
The funding system is not working in the national interest.
It is not supporting our staff, our students, or the communities we serve.
This lack of funding threatens the sustainability of our world-class university research workforce.
The impact of the decline in investment is manyfold.
The quality and quantity of research output falls, stymying innovation.
Universities must seek alternative funding sources as a result.
There are consequences for researchers and academics, too.
Job losses and reduced job security become more common.
Early career researchers have fewer opportunities to build their careers.
The upshot of less research is that Australia loses.
Our long-term economic growth, prosperity, and scientific and social advancement suffers.
That’s why we need sustainable and secure research funding in Australia.
Universities can’t perform their vital research without it.
THE IMPORTANCE OF UNIVERSITY RESEARCH
So why does this matter?
Research is a major part of what universities do and we have a strong track record.
Wi-Fi, the bionic ear, penicillin, printable solar cell technology.
I could go on and on.
All have changed the way we live.
In a changing, more competitive, and less stable world, we need more researchers, not fewer, and more of what they do, not less.
Navigating the whole of economy energy transition is just one such global task we cannot rise to without university research and expertise.
Likewise, developing vaccines to fight new diseases will be led by our researchers.
On the home front, building capability to operate nuclear submarines is another research and workforce challenge.
Fighting the impact of climate change on crops and securing our water supply.
Research is also a powerful tool for diplomacy, helping to overcome national and political divides.
We cannot remain a prosperous, competitive, and world-leading economy without it.
Universities are the coalface, where the research heavy lifting happens.
Today, our universities are home to around 81,000 researchers.
This is the majority of Australia’s research workforce.
They undertake 45 per cent of all applied research, more than industry, and 87 per cent of basic research.
That’s almost all of Australia’s discovery research.
And I don’t need to tell you – without discovery research, there is nothing to apply, nothing to commercialise.
All up, our universities undertake 36 per cent of all research in Australia.
This work drives innovation through the creation of new knowledge which helps us to solve problems and seize new opportunities.
It fuels our economy through the creation of new products and services, which create jobs and drive productivity.
The numbers speak for themselves.
For every dollar invested in research, $5 is returned to the economy.
Better still, a one per cent lift in funding for research would see the economy grow by $24 billion over 10 years.
Collaborations between Australian businesses and universities generate $12.8 billion a year.
By the time this flows through to the economy, these collaborations are worth $26.5 billion a year and have created almost 40,000 jobs.
Research spurs our global competitiveness, with international partnerships facilitating the exchange of knowledge and ideas across borders.
These long-held, person-to-person links are a strong force for good in an uncertain strategic environment.
THE FUNDING PROBLEM
It’s time we got serious about our researchers and the work they do and funded it accordingly.
Funding comes in various forms.
From government – through competitive grant programs administered by the Australian Research Council and the NHMRC, among others, and research block grants.
From industry and business – through collaborations and other such arrangements.
And from individuals in the form of donations.
The current level of funding from all sources is inadequate and puts our research capacity at risk.
Australia’s spending on research sits at 1.8 per cent of GDP compared with 2.25 per cent in 2008.
As we go backwards our competitors go forwards with the average OECD investment at 2.68 per cent of GDP.
The decline is being seen in lower investment from both government and business.
Last week, it got worse.
New forecasts show government spending on research is at its lowest ever share of GDP, plummeting to 0.49 per cent in 2022-23.
It’s never dropped below 0.5 per cent since records began in 1978 – until now.
This steady decline over the last decade has left universities exposed at a time when research costs are rising.
In 2020, our institutions funded more than half the cost of their research activities – around $6.7 billion.
We are increasingly reliant on international student fees to pay for this work, which is highly unsustainable and underscores the urgent need for change.
The border closures caused by COVID exposed the fragility of the system.
It’s unfathomable that our ability to continue performing fundamentally important research for the good of the nation hinges on people choosing to study in Australia.
No other nation funds their research effort quite like this.
The funding problem has presented several difficulties around secure employment and Australia’s research output.
Job losses and uncertainty for researchers have increased.
Many researchers are employed on contracts, which means they don’t have secure employment.
Almost 80 per cent of the research workforce is employed on fixed terms.
This makes it difficult for researchers to plan their careers and their lives along with research programs.
Funding for research is also becoming increasingly competitive, with fewer grants available for researchers.
This reduces research output, but it also limits career progression, which is often tied to publication output.
This stop-start approach wastes time and makes us less productive as a nation.
Ultimately, we know this also means that highly qualified researchers leave Australia to pursue career opportunities overseas.
We cannot afford this brain drain.
There is also a lack of diversity in research funding in Australia.
Many grants go to established researchers rather than to newer researchers, making it hard for younger people to cut their teeth.
Women are also disproportionately affected.
In 2018, fewer than one in three applications – 28 per cent – for National Health and Medical Research Council grants were led by women.
Only 25 per cent of projects led by women were funded in that same year.
It’s pleasing that the NHMRC has made significant changes and is moving toward equal grants for men and women at the senior level.
With the changes implemented last year, we should see stronger results for women starting in 2023.
A lack of diversity in research stifles creativity and innovation.
We need this to get better.
If we want to hold our place as a serious research nation – and we must – Australia needs to fund research properly and we need to do it quickly.
If we don’t, we will fall behind our global peers in generating the ideas, capability, and knowledge we desperately need.
FOSTERING THE FUTURE RESEARCH WORKFORCE
A strong research workforce is required to continuing driving this work.
Universities and research agencies, including CSIRO and the Defence Science and Technology Group, cannot function effectively without one.
Funding shortfalls not only make it hard to retain researchers, but they compromise our ability to train the next generation.
It all starts with a PhD.
PhD research spurs innovation and advances knowledge across disciplines.
It leads to new discoveries, inventions and technologies that have real-world applications.
PhD students are developing treatments for ovarian cancer, improving the speed of travel, and converting livestock waste into food, making advances across the span of human endeavour.
There is no doubting the importance or impact of PhD students.
Today, they make up over half of the research workforce in our universities.
Concerningly, numbers of PhD graduates have fallen from just under 9,500 in 2019 to under 8,500 in 2021.
We need to arrest this slide.
In times of crisis or changes in priorities, governments and businesses draw on their academic expertise to solve complex problems.
We can’t expect researchers to stay in a system that doesn’t adequately support them.
A PhD is an intensive, multi-year undertaking that requires significant time, effort, and intellectual energy.
Most students undertaking a PhD are not at the start of their careers either.
Male candidates are, on average, 37 years of age.
Females are, on average, 36.
Many of them would be raising and supporting families.
And, right now, these students are studying on less than the minimum wage.
It’s a question often asked of politicians – could you live on X amount a day?
We’re asking PhD candidates to live on $85 day, or just $29,863 a year.
It’s not enough.
There is also the issue of pay security.
PhD candidates are considered students rather than employees.
This means female candidates don’t qualify for the government’s parental leave pay, hindering their financial ability to have children.
None of this is sustainable, particularly in the face of growing cost of living pressures.
If we’re serious about maintaining this workforce to sustain the output we need, we need to do better for our researchers.
That’s why Universities Australia is advocating strongly for change.
We want to see the government lift the rate of PhD stipends to a more liveable level.
And we want it done without a reduction in PhD places or number of stipends offered.
This is essential to maintaining a strong pipeline of PhD students to fuel our research workforce.
Any decline in our research workforce would harm our research output, quality, rankings, reputation, and ability to attract the best and brightest.
FUNDING AUSTRALIA’S FUTURE
To that end, Universities Australia is advocating strongly for the funding and settings that support a thriving research sector.
The Australian Universities Accord is our opportunity to do this.
We have put several recommendations forward for more research funding.
By 2030, we’d like to see investment in research reach at least the OECD average, as well as government funding the full cost of research.
Further, we’ve called on government to commit to a funding target of 50 cents to the dollar for the indirect costs of research.
Universities currently get just 22 cents for every dollar of grant funding won.
It is well short of what we need.
To achieve this, we have proposed a shake up to how research is funded.
These changes would ensure better support for our research workforce.
We’re calling for these through the Accord, but we have no time to waste.
Next week, the government will hand down its second budget.
This is an opportunity – as it is every year – to fix Australia’s research problem.
To invest in the people and the work who drive our nation’s economic and social progress.
In tough fiscal circumstances, we recognise that government can’t fund everything.
Tough decisions must be made at a time that calls for less public spending.
But we know that research makes the nation stronger and wealthier.
It drives productivity and grows the economy, ultimately paying for itself through extra economic gains.
For every dollar invested in research, $5 is returned to the economy.
A one per cent lift in spending on research would expand the economy by $24 billion over a decade.
This would support our researchers to continue doing the work Australia’s future hinges on.
It would benefit every Australian.
We need a research funding system that works in Australia’s interest, not against it.
We can’t succeed without researchers and their work.
It’s time government stopped taking this vital endeavour for granted.