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In the media: University exodus ‘will strip critical research areas’

Tim Dodd – The Australian – 8 September 2020

Group of Eight universities have warned that nearly 10,000 of their elite researchers in national priorit­y areas are likely to leave for overseas, decimating Australia’s high-level research capacity, unless the federal government ­refocuses its limited research spending on high-quality projects.

In a paper due to be released on Wednesday, the Go8 urges the government to respond to the research funding crisis in the coming federal budget by “supporting excellent research at scale to maximise benefit to the nation”.

The Go8 universities say they expect to suffer a $2.2bn revenue reduction this year due to the COVID-19 travel ban keeping out international students, and this money is no longer available for its main intended use of supporting high-quality research projects.

The paper, Enabling Australia’s Economic Recovery, also says fixed-term employment contracts­ for more than 4000 researchers in Go8 universities will expire between December and March, and universities have very little ability to re-employ them.

It proposes a new government fund “to support and concentrate investment in research excellence as a way to drive the best value for the nation from a taxpayer contrib­ution and boost sovereign capability”.

Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson urged the government to take “urgent action” to preserve Australia’s research talent.

“These recommendations aim to deliver the best research, with the maximum impact for the community and the economy in a cost-effective, transparent and sustainable way,” she said.

“They are deliberately pragmatic and look to future-proof both our research and the nation’s research workforce.”

However, the paper does not address the logical consequence of concentrating the limited amount of government research funding on high-quality projects. It means that research regarded as average or low-quality — mainly at universities outside the Go8 — will wither away and cost many jobs.

The paper stresses that the 10,000 Go8 researchers who could be “snapped up” by other countries are all working in the national priority research areas set out by the federal government in 2015. The priority areas are seen as critical to economic development and now even more urgent with Australia needing to be self-reliant in the post-COVID world. They include: advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, cyber security, energy and resources, environment, food, soil and water, mental health, space and transport.

“Failure to embark on these reforms­ will significantly impede Australia’s productivity aspirations,” Ms Thomson said.

The paper says the Go8 will focus on translating research results in the national priority areas into practical outcomes with economic and social benefits. “We see this as vital to economic recovery because sustainable translation funding will bolster innovation capacity, spin-out and start-up outcomes, and existing industry and business productivity gains, and the platforms­ for collaborative innovation across our national priorities.’’

The paper urges action on ­another Go8 concern: that research­ projects supported through the main government agencies — the Australian ­Research Council and the National­ Health and Medical Research­ Council — are only partly funded, meaning that universities have to find the rest of the money to ensure they proceed.

Read at The Australian