Australians overwhelming want politicians out of the decision-making process for approvals of research grants, according to new findings.
A UNSW Sydney community attitudes survey of almost 2000 Australians found that more than 60% of people wanted political influence removed from grant decisions.
This followed the recent revelation of intervention by former Commonwealth Education Minister Simon Birmingham to overturn 11 grants, and without providing reasons.
Professor Nicholas Fisk, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), UNSW Sydney, said research grant funding applications were independently peer assessed by experts in the relevant discipline, and should not be subject to political influence.
“Political influence in grant funding undermines the integrity of the peer review process and raises troubling issues in relation to academic freedom. This survey shows that the public clearly understands the importance of research to society and wants more, not less, research funding from governments.”
The government’s proposed new ‘national interest test’ for research grant applications is also not supported, with 63% of those surveyed against it and over a half of those strongly so. Only 11% support the new national interest test.
'The new national interest test, proposed by the government after the furore over Minister Birmingham’s overturning 11 grants, along with the requirement for any future minister to provide reasons for rejecting approved grants, is not supported by most people.'
“The new national interest test, proposed by the government after the furore over Minister Birmingham’s overturning 11 grants, along with the requirement for any future minister to provide reasons for rejecting approved grants, is not supported by most people given this new finding,” Professor Fisk said.
In the face of recent declines in research funding levels from the Commonwealth, the survey reveals most Australians (88%) agree or strongly agree it is ‘vitally important’ for government to fund research to acquire new knowledge and help the nation remain globally competitive.
Furthermore, they want an increase in the amount of research and development (R&D) funding provided by governments, with 74% wanting a bigger than current level of investment. Indeed 20% wanted Australia to at least double its spend to world leading R&D investment levels.
R&D spending and investment by all of the major countries combined is 2.3% of gross domestic product (GDP), or total economic activity of a country. For the United States it is 2.7%, China 2.1%, Israel 4.3%, while for Australia it is only 1.8%.
And 84% of those surveyed agree or strongly agree the proportion of government funding for research should reflect the large return on investment that is achieved by research, as calculated in a 2018 report from Australia’s major universities showing that for every $1 spent on research, around $10 comes back in benefits to the economy and community.
Australians also want more research across all of the main research areas, topped by medical/health (over 90% agreeing or strongly agreeing), followed by technology/science (75%), climate change (68%), and arts/humanities (66%).
And most (74%) want the Commonwealth government to establish a special future fund for non-medical related research to ensure discoveries move out of laboratories and into the market place. Only 8% were against this.
Professor Fisk said what is clear is the high degree of importance the Australian public places on research for the prosperity and wellbeing of the nation.
“In November a multi-party Commonwealth Parliamentary Committee report unanimously recommended that the Australian government should establish a new future fund for non-medical research, as it did some years ago for medical research, and the time has come with preparations underway for the 2019 budget for the Commonwealth to act on this,” he said.
“It is also time to reverse the declining funding for research. Higher levels of investment in research are proven to deliver far greater benefits to society than the initial investment, so it’s a no brainer.”