OPINION: There were plenty of reasons for the higher education sector to welcome last week's budget, but for those of us focused on Australia's research performance there was an important opportunity missed.
Certainly, the government’s commitment to research block grant funding was welcome as was other research related spending, including funding to finally secure the future of the Australian Synchrotron, arguably one of the most important investments in major scientific infrastructure in Australia in many years.
It’s also true that Australia has always punched above its weight as far as research goes (on a per capita basis) and the budget secures much of the funding we need to continue to do so. Our best researchers hold their own with the best in the world and our bigger research-intensive institutions sit comfortably among the elite groups of universities, internationally.
However, what was overlooked was an essential link in the research chain: the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy program comes to an abrupt end next month and was not re-funded. With it goes Australia’s long-term research vision.
What the NCRIS program has done over the past five years is establish a platform for the nation’s research infrastructure by recognising that pooling resources at a national level is going to deliver the best possible outcomes in terms of research facilities.
The federal government has $500 million in major research facilities and this has been matched by a comparable co-investment by state governments and by universities. Overall, we are looking at more than a $1 billion injection into national level research infrastructure.
The funding has covered a wide range of facilities ranging from the landmark synchrotron, nuclear facilities at ANSTO, major telescopes and ocean-going research ships through to clusters of smaller instruments grouped as an integrated but coordinated distributed facility, like the microscopy cluster supported through the Australian Microanalysis and Microscopy Facility or the Australian Nano-Fabrication Facilities.
Australia needs major facilities to underpin our current and future industries and provide the trained workforce for Australia’s future. Yet, almost all of the deputy vice-chancellors (research) at our major universities are now necessarily putting in place wind-down contingency plans to accommodate the various scenarios, post 2012.
Some program facilities have literally only just come on-line - or have yet to come on-line - since funding for some of the capabilities was heavily back-end-loaded. Now we need to work out how to support the essential facilities and the NCRIS-funded staff without the federal government.
The program has been valuable and successful. It addressed the real need for investment in major research infrastructure in Australia. It represents a very sensible and common-sense approach to supporting and sharing major infrastructure. It avoids duplication, ensures that the things we decide to do, we do properly and that we concentrate our expertise.
The program provides open access to facilities and it supports good research programs and good researchers wherever they are based. Large national centres mean we don't need multiple local (often inferior) facilities around the country.
NCRIS also supports experienced technical and professional staff (the human capital) to operate and maintain the facilities as well as providing the expert advice and training for researchers. The program’s investment in the “people side” of major infrastructure was both a wise and groundbreaking initiative.
While infrastructure is usually viewed as hardware, the recognition that major research facilities rely as much on the expertise and experience of a highly skilled workforce as they do on that hardware was a giant step forward.
Understandably, many staff now working in the program's facilities are nervous about the future and Australia’s universities are exposed to the risk of losing the human capacity that we have built up - a text-book example of brain-drain.
It would be an absolute travesty to watch the investment we have made in building capacity in our very talented staff simply be frittered away as they look to opportunities elsewhere, where there is more certainty and security about the future.
Each major national facility represents a significant long-term investment, with lifetimes of 10-20 years. Each facility represents a big capital investment. It is not rocket science to realise they all must have a proper long-term framework, strategy or plan to be maintained and sustained.
Long-term commitment is something that governments don't embrace easily. Our governments are ephemeral and simply find it difficult to plan and make commitments beyond the immediate demands of the day.
The synchrotron in Victoria is a classic example of what not to do. It is one of the single biggest investments in major research infrastructure that Australia has ever made. We simply must manage it and make it work properly and sustainably to gain maximum benefit from our investment.
The synchrotron has been a political football. There has been political conflict between successive federal and Victorian governments as to the shared responsibility for its operation and shared ongoing support.
While we now appear to have at least an interim rescue plan, this is a short-term fix for a long term problem. The management and governance for the synchrotron is still complex and confused. There is still a lack of confidence from the scientific community that the facility will be well-managed and while ever this is the case, there is a reluctance to invest time, resources and programs in the synchrotron.
I am also concerned Australia’s reputation as an innovator has been damaged by this very public inability to manage a major research infrastructure program. The corollary is that we now must rebuild confidence in Australia’s ability to engage in big long-term programs. That way we can convince the world that we would be a reliable partner in big international programs should they arise.
I am hopeful the synchrotron can now be wrenched back on track. But, with hindsight, the entire episode looks like an embarrassing soap opera.
Research infrastructure is a foundation investment: without the appropriate facilities, research in many critical disciplines simply can't move forward. Major pockets of infrastructure are necessary to maintain our programs at the cutting edge and to provide the education and training environment that ensures we have an appropriately trained workforce to underpin Australian research, innovation and industry.
So how did we let NCRIS fall over and lose the momentum we had? It was a great one-off initiative but wasn't part of a grand plan or a vision for research in Australia.
We must have a national research strategy – without one, we are floundering. That strategy must recognise that major research infrastructure is a long-term investment that requires sustainable funding. To maintain Australia’s research reputation and output we need to invest on an ongoing basis; probably $75m-$100m per year.
We need good, sensible planning, good governance and a strategy for sustaining what we build so we can extract the best value through the whole lifecycle of each facility. Research is a long haul journey; there is no quick fix.
Professor Les Field is chair of the Group of Eight deputy vice-chancellors (research) and vice-president and deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of NSW.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Australian.