Chief Scientist welcomes the National Research Investment Plan

The speech is available as a PDF here and the Plan is available for download on the Department of Innovation’s website.

Minister Evans released the NRIP this morning.  My task is to highlight just some of the key points made in that Report.

It all started almost exactly one year ago. Its making involved some serious work, including substantial consultation, to get us to the point where we could provide a report that we were comfortable with.

I hope and expect that it will be used because it is useful, as they say, not just because it is there.

The Australian Research Committee (ARCom) was established in response to the 2011 Focusing Australia’s Publicly Funded Research Review.

One of the key findings of the review was that it is critical for Australia to have a national and a strategic approach and better coordination of effort and investment in research.

That is to say, that the Commonwealth for its part should take a more strategic approach to its investments.

To quote from the PM’s foreword: (NRIP will ensure) that public investment in research and innovation is truly coordinated across the whole of government, and that the discovery and use of new ideas makes the greatest possible contribution to the Government’s broader policy objectives and the wellbeing of all Australians.

I ask you to note that she used both discovery and use.  I will come back to this later.

Development of the National Research Investment Plan

ARCom has developed a whole of government National Research Investment Plan (the Plan).

During the development of the Plan, ARCom comprised three groups:

This broad membership was necessary to capture the full spectrum of research and innovation issues and to develop an integrated, whole of government Plan.

ARCom also consulted with the States and Territories and a number of bilateral and multilateral meetings were held with members of a range of industry, academic and private non-profit research organisations.

ARCom considered all the fundamental elements of the research system, including publicly funded research, research workforce, infrastructure, national and international collaboration and business research.

The current shape of the research system in Australia has developed over many years. Many of the policy settings for each of the fundamental elements were established decades ago, and while some changes have been made, the basic structure of support for the system has aspects that have remained essentially the same.

Equally, some decisions have been made at different times over the decades that have changed one element here and there – not because of a policy shift necessarily, but because of a change in some part of the context.

It is our view (ARCom’s) that any changes to present practices will require carefully considered policy changes.

In addition, the process of considering the system as a whole is complex and has not been undertaken in this manner previously.

I remind you that the Minister’s speech included the comment that: this is the first time that an Australian government has taken a strategic whole-of-system look at its research investments across all elements and all portfolios.

 So we do need to take particular care.  We don’t want to find that we have done things we regret later – or not done things that we regret later.

But we still need to do it.

As the Minister said:  it (that is, how we support research) starts from the premise that there will never be enough money for research.

That means there is a requirement on Government to deliver the available funding in accordance with agreed priorities and without favouritism.

And to put in place processes to manage the system in the most effective way.

To the Plan itself.

 

The Plan is the first in a series of three yearly plans and provides a set of principles and a strategic framework against which future major strategic research funding decisions can be taken.

The Plan sets out a range of actions needed to ensure that Australia has a strong, cohesive research fabric, while also being able to focus its efforts to conduct research in areas of national priority.

The Plan sets out, for the first time, a comprehensive national research investment planning process: a process that will enable a coordinated, whole-of-government approach to research investment that is structured to meet national needs and provide value for money.

In summary, NRIP articulates:

The principles are:

  1. Enhance productivity growth;
  2. Address Australia’s key national challenges
  3. Increase the stock of knowledge
  4. Support global quality and scale
  5. Deliver a strong and cohesive research fabric
  6. Create sustainable capability
  7. Be subject to monitoring and evaluation

In essence, our research capability must be developed in a manner that allows us to work on today’s challenges while maintaining the capacity to address tomorrow’s needs as they arise.

Of course, it also means that we should get our priorities sorted, our capabilities assessed, ensure our capacity in a particular area before other decisions are made – for example, funding.

There is a horse and there is a cart.  The combination usually works best when they are in the correct order. Same with priorities and spending options.  And that is what NRIP is designed to facilitate.

Next steps

ARCom will continue its role of providing strategic and integrated advice on research investment to the Australian Government.

In the next twelve months, ARCom will focus on implementing the actions outlined in the plan including:

Priority setting

Priorities are about building scale and ensuring that there is effort where it is needed most.

And ensuring that there is adequate investment in the right place at the right time.

The work to be undertaken by ARCom overlaps with work of the PMSEIC.

The work is complementary.

I will take to the next PMSEIC meeting a process developed in the OCS that could be used to establish research priorities.  This timing was agreed with the PM at the last PMSEIC in July.

In whatever form they are agreed, the process will be developed further and applied by ARCom.

By way of starting, I should say that we have learnt a great deal in discussions with colleagues in the US, the UK and the EU – all of which have a priority setting process.

One important thing that we learnt was that the processes in the various places follow a similar line.

There aren’t lots of ways you can approach this – if you want to do it sensitively – but with determination.

As you would expect, I can’t talk much about the detail of our advice – but I have spoken openly to many people in something like the following terms:

To make sense of any process, we will need to advise on some of the key societal challenges that confront our community.

Again, there is a convergence around the world on what the societal challenges might be.

But remember that these challenges are not themselves the priorities – but they do, and will, influence what priorities might be identified first.

They will be the hooks on which to hang the priorities – in other words, of all the important things that we could do, they will be the hooks on which we can hang the most important to do right now.

The end-point might be that Government departments and agencies are expected to ensure that a proportion of their budget is directed towards work in these priority areas.

Any process should only expect a department or agency to identify a proportion – each department and agency will have its own mission and these need to be accommodated.  But some of their funds should nevertheless be directed towards the challenges that our community faces – as well as making our contribution to the challenges that confront all things living on this planet.

We should never forget that to be at the table where the big decisions are made, we have to be a contributor to the solutions that humanity seeks.

Likewise, universities will have their own priorities – a product of their culture and their capacity in various areas.  They will continue to have them – but some, given their cost to government, might well be expected to align with the priority areas.  It is not too much to ask, surely, that universities overtly contribute to some aspects of the challenges that society confronts.

I imagine that something like this process will be used by ARCom as it determines advice on what the actual priorities might be.

Let me be very clear about one thing: just as happens in the US, the UK and the EU, we will be reminding government of the importance of basic research. As we have in NRIP itself.

We will not argue that all research funding should be directed towards priorities.

We will argue that there must always be room for the transformative, paradigm shifting research – and there must always be room for research that is the base from which such research often grows.

There must always be room for curiosity.  To continue the quest to understand things better….not least ourselves!

We will be making clear that research is the bedrock of innovation.  I can’t see how you can innovate today unless you know something that you didn’t yesterday.

 Using the process, and advice, ARCom will develop a group of strategic research priorities to ensure investment in particular and focused areas of the national challenges.

The government has asked for these priorities by April, 2013.

The priorities will ensure that we have investment in the right areas – and that we can build scale if that is required.

To get to that point will require an analysis of our capability and our capacity in each focus area so that we can make decisions about if, where and how we might need to manage our investment profile.

Australian Government leadership will bring together enough scale of research effort to achieve a strong impact.

But let me repeat:

This does not mean that government funding should be directed to applied, mission-based research to the exclusion of other forms of research.

Even in the priority areas, a significant amount of the research will need to be early-stage, basic research.

The Government will continue support for research across the disciplines in order to sustain a strong research fabric.

Nevertheless the Government is seeking to take a structured approach to articulating its research needs and ensure that its investment in research is effective in meeting those needs.

The hard but necessary work continues.  I look forward to it. And I hope you do, too.