Home | Industry & Research | “We need to stop asking for 3% GDP”: R&D
Left to right: Interim director of ATN Frank Coletta, deputy chief executive of the Go8 Dr Matthew Brown, director of the regional universities network Alec Webb and expert in education equity Marcia Devlin. Picture: Supplied/ACSES

“We need to stop asking for 3% GDP”: R&D

A panel of academics and researchers at the Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success (ACSES) conference have said universities asking for more investment in research and development (R&D) isn't working, and a change of strategy is needed to get the message across to government.

Whilst the Universities Accord final report focused on reforms that would drive student equity and access to university, it also made recommendations to increase Australia's national research spend, with an eventual goal of fully funding the cost of university research.

Science and Technology Australia, Group of Eight universities and other peak bodies have called on the federal government to increase its spend on research and development (R&D), much of which is conducted by academics at universities, to three per cent of Australia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from the current 1.68 per cent.

Thus far, the Accord reforms have not addressed R&D concerns, with 29 of the 47 recommendations already implemented.

The federal budget, released mid-May, didn't increase government research spend to three per cent of the GDP.

Instead, it focused funding towards equity and student-central reforms, like changing the way HECS-HELP loans are indexed and funding mandatory work placement for some student cohorts.

However, through Albanese's new Future Made in Australia economic plan, R&D in the clean energy manufacturing space was boosted.

The budget also announced a research review that will investigate how R&D can support the Future Made in Australia plan and foster the transition to net zero and green energy. 

Director of the Innovative
Research Universities Paul Harris (left) and interim director at ATN Frank Coletta (right). Picture: Supplied/ACSES

Director of the Innovative Research Universities network Paul Harris said the sector should stop asking the government to up its total research spend, but instead encourage policymakers to become better consumers of research.

"The way we're talking about and making the case for public investment in university research is just not working," he explained.

"We should start talking about the impact of that research in the community for government, for decision makers, for business.

"Then, that feeds back to this question about the culture of staffing of universities. Are staff rewarded to focus on the impact of their research? Are they promoted, et cetera?"

Deputy chief executive of the Group of Eight universities Dr Matthew Brown also said government and the sector need to work together to achieve research goals.

Deputy chief executive of the Go8 Dr Matthew Brown. Picture: Supplied/ACSES

Go8 universities are known for their research capabilities. Together, they are responsible for 20 per cent of Australia's total research output.

The group includes the University of Western Australia, Monash University, the Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney.

"How do we work together to grow the pie to three per cent? How do we change the structure of our industrial base, our research collaboration between sectors with a 10 to 15 year horizon?" Dr Brown asked.

Former vice-chancellor Professor Martin Bean told Campus Review that a university's research capabilities are just as important to students as they are to researchers.

"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a direct correlation between a national investment in research and innovation in our universities and our long-term success as an innovation economy and our overall economic sustainability and resilience," he said.

"Because guess what? It matters to students. It matters to students that they're part of a university that is taking on some of the world's big challenges, having the breakthrough ideas, and that they get to be exposed to that research and that thinking.

"I absolutely believe that for Australia's future, investment in our university research and innovation is critical. I do believe that we need to be moving to a model where government funded research is fully fostered, and I do think we need to continue to create incentives and put pressure on industry [R&D] to collaborate more with universities."

Vice-chancellor of Curtin University and chair of the advisory board of ACSES Professor Harlene Hayne said when she was vice-chancellor of the University of Otago in New Zealand from 2011-2021, there were academics employed in each government department to help close the gap between research and policy making.

"They were considered to be the chief scientist of education, transport, et cetera and it was that person's job to 'translate' [university research]," the professor said.

Vice-chancellor of Curtin University Professor Harlene Hayne. Picture: Supplied/ACSES

"That provided officials with a huge amount of evidence-based information, hot off the press from universities, that helped them with their decision making.

"It's a nonpartisan approach and the information and advice was provided without fear of favour, but it gave the government access to the outstanding work that the universities did."

Professor Marcia Devlin, who is the inaugural chief executive of the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership – a Victorian government statutory authority that reports to the education minister – said that translation could be invaluable.

"You need to translate that stuff into English that busy bureaucrats can read and understand," Professor Devlin said.

"Don't be clever, dumb it down if you have to make it clear to people who make decisions, empower them."

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