Government and governance, Science and technology, Education | Australia

22 August 2019

Over the last three decades, Australia’s government has cajoled universities to collaborate with industry. Their efforts are now having an impact, Roslyn Prinsley writes.

The government’s 2015 National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) is proving successful in incentivising Australian researchers to move away from a ‘publish or perish’, and towards ‘collaborate or crumble’ mentality through two key measures which encourage universities to collaborate with business.

Specifically, a greater proportion of research block grant funding is now focused on collaboration with industry, giving end-user engagement measures equal importance alongside traditional measures of excellence.

Malcolm Turnbull warned universities that their “future is at risk if they do not focus more of their research on business needs”. The OECD reported that Australia ranked 29th and 30th out of 30 OECD countries on the proportion of large businesses and SMEs collaborating with higher education and public research institutions on innovation.

This demonstrates that Australian universities and businesses can and should improve their level of collaboration and its outcomes.

NISA did not come as a surprise to the university sector and was foreshadowed by several plans, reports and reviews.

The Australian Government’s 2012 National Research Investment Plan and 2013 Plan for Australian Jobs and The Australian Chief Scientist’s position paper, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in the National Interest: A Strategic Approach (July 2013) called for a culture change to enhance links between business and publicly-funded research agencies and universities.

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The Watt Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements was released in November 2015, emphasising that ‘excellence and engagement are equally important elements of university research’, and its recommendations were adopted in NISA.

The push for university research to grow innovation and economic prosperity is not new.

In 1988, Bob Hawke called for a “Clever Country” to replace the “Lucky Country”. Eleven years later, David Kemp’s Policy Statement, Knowledge and Innovation, outlined a vision of Australia as a ‘Can Do’ country, turning ideas and invention into income and jobs.

Then, John Howard announced Backing Australia’s Ability: An innovation action plan for the future, and in 2005/6 – Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop announced the Research Quality Framework (RQF) to commence in 2008 to redistribute block funding on the basis of ratings for research quality and research impact.

Under the new Labor government in 2008, Kevin Rudd and Kim Carr scrapped the RQF and replaced it with Excellence in Research for Australia – a research quality assurance system which did not feature the “impact” measure.

This continued with Powering Ideas: An Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century, a 2009 initiative to encourage a culture of collaboration between researchers and industry.

Lastly, the 2009–10 Budget introduced The Joint Research Engagement Scheme (JRE) to incentivise research collaboration between universities, industry and end-users, rewarding universities that diversify their sources of research income.

While it is difficult to untangle the impacts of this series of policy changes, influential reports and discussions as well as changes in research funding, published data show that HERDC-reported sources of university income have changed.

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From 2014 to 2017, total Category 3 income, university income for research provided by collaboration with industry or from overseas, increased from $0.8 billion to $1.2 billion – not including income from international higher degree research students. Half of this increase was seen in 2017 alone.

On the other hand, Category 1 income, provided by Australian government competitive R&D grants, decreased from $1.8 billion to $1.6 billion.

Of this Category 1 income, there was a decrease in university ARC funding income from $869 million in 2014 to $698 million in 2017; and by declining Government funding of Research and Development (as a proportion of GDP).

NISA was released in late 2015. The changes to the Block Grants and ERA Impact and Engagement pilot were implemented in 2017. The jump in Category 3 income seen in 2017 is likely to have been a response to these changes.

Increases in Category 3 income from 2014-2016 cannot have been directly influenced in the same way by the NISA measures. Nevertheless, the measures presaged in NISA in 2015, were widely canvassed with the sector before NISA’s formal release.

The knowledge that these incentives were imminent influenced the planning of university leaders so that they would be armed to attract additional Category 3 funding in 2017 and going forward.

The NISA incentives change in a significant and transformational way how university research is rewarded. As discussed above, NISA measures are likely to be at least partly responsible for the increase in Category 3 funding.

In summary, major influences on the increase to Category 3 income include:

Accumulated messaging from the Government to prioritise industry-based research, urging universities to make Australia the ‘Clever Country’, and ensuring that research in universities leads to new industries, increased productivity, and new jobs.

Changes to research block grant funding to reward collaboration with industry.

Changes to government research funding levels, especially a decline in ARC funding, encouraging universities to seek funding from elsewhere.

The Government’s ERA Engagement and Impact Assessment, to assess how universities are engaging with end-users of research, and how universities are translating their research into impact. This is catalysing universities to examine how they measure impact and engagement, and in the process, encouraging them to think about how to do it better.

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In 2017 (compared to 2014) Universities had more research income, which they can use to do more research with more impact, and at less cost to the Australian taxpayer.

Much of this change is positive. Australian researchers should be strongly encouraged to have a real-world impact.  But it does raise the question – what is the right balance of government versus other types of funding for research in Australia?

Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the pool from which the practical applications of knowledge can be drawn. Is there a danger that the pendulum will swing too far, resulting in insufficient government funding for basic research, with a preference for funding more “relevant” research.

One thing is clear though. NISA is having an impact, and the HERDC income reflects it. The way universities adapt to change matters, and the government is in a powerful position to re-orient the way institutions conduct themselves.

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