Funds gap will kill discovery
Undirected research sometimes has the most spectacular results, but funding is disappearing, writes Mike Gallagher
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.