Funds gap will kill dis­cov­ery

Undi­rected re­search some­times has the most spec­tac­u­lar re­sults, but fund­ing is dis­ap­pear­ing, writes Mike Gal­lagher

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Research Round - Up - Ian Frazer

THE de­clin­ing pro­por­tion of ba­sic re­search in Aus­tralia’s univer­si­ties should be of con­cern to any­one with an in­ter­est in the coun­try’s fu­ture as an in­no­va­tive na­tion.

Al­though ba­sic re­search rep­re­sented two- thirds of univer­sity re­search and de­vel­op­ment spend­ing in 1990, only half was di­rected to ba­sic re­search by 2005.

Ba­sic re­search is a source of new ideas, op­por­tu­ni­ties, meth­ods and, most im­por­tant, trained prob­lem- solvers: an in­vest­ment in so­ci­ety’s learn­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Ba­sic re­search is of­ten an evo­lu­tion­ary process where re­sults build on each other in un­pre­dictable ways to cre­ate the core knowl­edge needed to un­der­stand the way things are.

In other words, ba­sic re­search leads to dis­cov­er­ies which im­prove the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple.

Peni­cillin, a vac­cine for cer­vi­cal can­cer, and the bionic ear are all ex­am­ples of the re­sults of Aus­tralian ba­sic re­search.

The peo­ple who made the dis­cov­er­ies un­der­pin­ning th­ese prod­ucts did not nec­es­sar­ily set out with th­ese goals in mind.

In fact, the ben­e­fits of ba­sic re­search are of­ten sub­tle, dif­fi­cult to track or mea­sure, and mostly in­di­rect.

A 20 to 30- year lag be­tween sci­en­tific pub­li­ca­tion and com­mer­cial or so­ci­etal value is not un­com­mon.

This lag re­flects the fact that the com­mer­cial value of sci­en­tific find­ings is not al­ways im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent and that the ca­pa­bil­i­ties re­quired by users of sci­en­tific knowl­edge of­ten lag be­hind the de­vel­op­ment of new ideas or tech­nolo­gies.

Some ex­am­ples of ba­sic re­search in Aus­tralian univer­si­ties in­clude work with ro­bots of­fer­ing new hope for peo­ple who have lost a limb, and re­search on work­place safety that could help pre­vent a fu­ture Bea­cons­field mine dis­as­ter.

And yet Aus­tralia’s pub­licly funded re­search is be­ing in­creas­ingly fo­cused in ar­eas that are per­ceived to have greater The fu­ture is not just a mat­ter of train­ing but a mat­ter of be­ing able to think and to think cre­atively and broadly. Con­cep­tu­ally driven re­search, as op­posed to end- use driven re­search, is what is likely to yield some of the big­gest ben­e­fits. — Peter Do­herty, Univer­sity of Melbourne, win­ner of the 1996 No­bel Prize in Medicine and Phys­i­ol­ogy po­ten­tial for fast com­mer­cial use through patents, li­cens­ing, busi­ness start- ups and spin- offs.

This shift to an em­pha­sis on ap­plied re­search is prob­lem­atic for a num­ber of rea­sons.

First, it is the knowl­edge ob­tained from ba­sic re­search that makes prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions pos­si­ble.

A sim­ple lin­ear dis­tinc­tion be­tween ba­sic and ap­plied re­search can­not nec­es­sar­ily be made.

The vac­cine de­vel­oped out of ba­sic re­search con­ducted by Ian Frazer at the Univer­sity of Queens­land 20 years ago has the po­ten­tial to erad­i­cate cer­vi­cal can­cer within a decade and save 200,000 lives ev­ery year al­ready.

Frazer has ac­knowl­edged that a can­cer vac­cine was not on his agenda all that time ago.

Sec­ond, ba­sic re­search ca­pac­ity is es­sen­tial for at­tract­ing busi­ness in­vest­ment in R & D.

In­creas­ingly, in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions are seek­ing out cen­tres of strong ba­sic re­search ca­pa­bil­ity as sites for their global in­vest­ment.

Third, in­vest­ment in ba­sic re­search means we don’t nar­row our ca­pac­ity for un­der­stand­ing and gives us at least a fight­ing chance of man­ag­ing the un­pre­dictable in the fu­ture.

The ev­i­dence may not yet be avail­able to sug­gest whether a low level of ba­sic re­search is smart for Aus­tralia or, con­versely, that a high level of de­pen­dency on ap­plied re­search is cost­ef­fec­tive.

What we do know is that the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion has re­cently warned that poli­cies re­gard­ing pub­licly funded re­search in Aus­tralia have moved too far in the di­rec­tion of seek­ing quick re­turns from the sale or li­cens­ing of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty.

We can­not yet see the con­se­quences of run­ning down our in­vest­ment in ba­sic re­search but there is a dan­ger that by the time we know the ex­tent of the prob­lem, it may be too late.

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