Australia's Chief Scientist


You can download the speech as a PDF here

Good morning

As the Chief Scientist of Australia, an important part of my role is trying to ensure that we don’t make mistakes when it comes to identifying our most pressing challenges and setting national research priorities to meet them.

You would understand that like many developed, democratic nations, Australia like France is interested in being a responsible global citizen.

In order to do that, we must align our effort both with our own interests and with the rest of the world in order to find solutions to the problems confronting not just our nation, but also the planet.

Of course the challenges are many, so how do we decide which ones require our urgent attention?

It is an important question and one that has occupied a lot of my time over the past year.

It started with a review last year, which looked at focusing Australia’s publicly-funded research.

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

This led to the establishment of the Australian Research Committee (ARCom) and my appointment as its chairman.

ARCom spent 2012 developing a whole of government National Research Investment Plan (NRIP) which was endorsed by cabinet in October and launched just a few weeks ago.

While developing the plan, ARCom included: – senior Commonwealth officials, an expert advisory group including the CEOs of ARC and the NHMRC, and a research sector group representing publicly funded research agencies and other organisations responsible for delivering science and research funded by the Australian Government.

ARCom also consulted with the States and territories, and held bilateral and multilateral meetings with industry, academic and private non-profit research organisations.

And we considered all the fundamental elements of Australia’s research system, including publicly funded research, research workforce, infrastructure, national and international collaboration and business research.

In doing so, we were working towards an integrated, whole of government plan.

It was a complex task. Looking at Australia’s system as a whole had not been undertaken in this manner previously but it was important that we do so, just as many other developed nations have done.

It is clear, however, that what we have embarked upon in Australia has parallels with what is happening elsewhere.

In some form or other, it happens in the US, the UK, the EU as well as individual members of the EU.

ARCom was and is already working towards similar goals through NRIP, which will be the first in a series of three-yearly plans.

NRIP 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 objective of guiding Australian Government research investment in a way that improves national wellbeing by increasing productivity and addressing Australia’s key challenges;

— a framework, in the form of a national research fabric, that enables the development of Australia’s research capacity and capability to be responsive to the needs of all sectors, including business;

— a set of research investment principles that ensures government investments address the overall investment objective and are delivered efficiently;

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, Australia’s 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, and ensure our capacity is adequate in a particular area before other decisions are made – for example, funding.

In this way NRIP ensures that before we spend money, we can establish whether that expenditure meets our national priorities, and evaluate the ways in which it might do that.

NRIP also has much to say about the position of Australian science in the world, those we compete with and those we collaborate with.

It compares GERD across countries, expressed in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms.

Taking GERD as a percentage of GDP in order to measure our research intensity – Australia sits at 14th in the world.

It should also be noted that our research intensity increased in recent times, from 1.4 per cent of GDP in 1998 to 2.2 per cent in 2008.[1]

And that expenditure is having an impact globally.

The ARC has benchmarked the quality of Australian research in universities against world standards based on research output, measures of esteem and patents sealed.

At the two‑digit classification level for field of research, Australia was found to have performed at world standard (Excellence in Research for Australia rating of 3) or better, in 10 of the 12 fields of science‑related research.

Of course, and I say parenthetically, the world standard is not where we should aim to be.  We have to be better than a standard which includes developing economies alongside well developed places like Australia.  Being above world standard in 10 of 12 is better than a smaller number than 10, but what does it really say?

Anyway, I move on.

In her foreword to the report, our Prime Minister says: (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.

Note the use of the terms discovery and use of new ideas.

No nation can free ride on the world research system as a country will not have the necessary capability to use global knowledge and information in a meaningful way unless it is engaged in both basic and applied research.

Advanced industrial countries need their own, well-developed basic research capabilities in order to make use of the knowledge generated by others and to sustain technological development.

And we are one such country.

In 2009, Australia was responsible for producing 3 per cent of the world’s scientific research publications.

While this could be seen as a strong performance given our size, it really simply highlights the fact that some 97 per cent of global research output is from outside Australia.

If Australia is to be successful in building the research capability it needs to drive national wellbeing, it must create a positive environment for the conduct of research that is successful in attracting and retaining Australian and international researchers and investors. And collaborate with the best of the best, too.

We know that researchers take a global perspective when making decisions about where to study and work and often choose locations outside the country in which they were raised, as many of you have.

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study of researchers from 16 countries who worked in biology, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences and materials research found that, with virtually no variation across countries, researchers identified the following issues as the primary reasons for coming to work in another country:

– the opportunity to improve future career prospects; and

– outstanding faculty, colleagues or research team.

Australia is successful in attracting researchers from elsewhere, with the recent NBER study finding that 44.5 per cent of researchers (in the fields examined) were immigrant scientists.

Of the 16 countries studied, Australia’s level of foreign research workforce was third only to Switzerland and Canada.[2]

Training foreign researchers in Australia has the benefit that a proportion of those researchers will choose to stay in Australia to work, while others who choose to work elsewhere will have established relationships with Australian researchers that are likely to be enduring.

The best researchers want to work with the best research teams no matter where they are located and they are willing to move countries to do so.

We in Australia need to make the most of this workforce mobility to strengthen our research capability and linkages.

NRIP plays an important role in trying to keep our science policy, strategy and funding in step with the rest of the world.

My recent overseas trip and numerous conversations with colleagues in the U.S., U.K. and Europe indicated we are on similar paths.

So over the next year, ARCom will continue its role of providing strategic and integrated advice on research investment to the Australian Government.

We will continue to focus on implementing the actions outlined in the plan including:

– developing a set of strategic research priorities (which I will talk more about);

– preparing a detailed plan to facilitate the development of enabling research capability; and

– preparing advice on key issues facing the research system, including research career pathways, barriers to collaboration and opening access to the outputs of research.

In addition to being Australian Research Committee (ARCom) chairman, I am also executive officer of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC)

Yesterday, we held our third meeting for the year.

At the July PMSEIC meeting, it had been agreed that I would bring advice on breakthrough actions that governments could take to enhance innovation in Australia.

Shortly thereafter, I wrote to 63 organisations, peak bodies and individuals seeking their answer to the question:

What are the top breakthrough actions that the Commonwealth and state/territory governments, research agencies, universities and the business community can take to utilise fully Australia’s substantial research capability to contribute to national productivity growth through innovation?

Organisations approached included federal government departments, the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Australian Industry Group (AIG), science and research agencies and the learned academies.

Those submissions informed my advice and the Government is now considering our proposals.

Our piece of parallel advice was to do with research priorities.

We (ARCom) is expected to advise government in April about Australia’s research funding priorities.  That doesn’t give us a lot of time.

  • Challenges
  • Priority areas – EWG
  • Capability/capacity mapping
  • Funding priorities
  • Letter to departments and agencies

That is not to suggest we would be overly prescriptive, and the department and agencies must still be allowed to pursue their own missions.

But what we will be doing is suggesting that they recalibrate part of their work to address our national challenges, as well as the global challenges (on which there is some consensus).

As I said at the beginning, we want Australia to be a responsible global citizen, an aspiration we know we share with our colleagues in France, and other developed (and some developing) nations.

We don’t pretend it will be easy, but we do look forward to continuing to work with you.

Thank you.


[1] NRIP – Pg 21

[2] NRIP – Pg 41