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Independent review essential for overly bureaucratised and inefficient R&D system

Health Industry Hub | February 13, 2023 |

Medical: Leading scientists have urged the government to commit to a bold structural reform agenda for research and development (R&D), including a boost to investment and an independent review of the Australian science system.

In its pre-budget submission, the Australian Academy of Science has called on the government to adopt a target of 3% of GDP invested in R&D from the present 1.79%. This would be a clear signal to the rest of the world that Australia is backing innovation in the context of an OECD average of 2.67%.

Approximately 30% of all research undertaken by Australian universities is health and medical research, and universities undertake approximately half of all health and medical R&D.

According to Research Australia, while often characterised as a R&D pipeline, the reality is a system that does not ‘flow’ smoothly from research discovery to new product. Funding and incentives are available for some stages, but the connections between these different stages are tenuous, or don’t exist. We see the unintended creation of a disconnected system of programs across governments and states that overlap and compete with one another.

A national stocktake of health and medical R&D activity across Australia is recommended to understand who is funding the research, how much funding is available at each stage of the pipeline from pure basic research through to translation activity, how we can better connect the different programs along the pipeline to create a more streamlined funding system and avoid duplication and gaps, and areas where Australia has a competitive advantage.

Another important consideration is the lack of job security for early to mid-career researchers which is limiting researchers’ capacity to take risks, innovate and spend time on translation and commercialisation. Fifty four per cent (54%) of researchers at universities and 74% of researchers at medical research institutes are employed on a contract basis. By far the most common contract term is 12 months which is far higher than the national average use of contract employment.

The Australian Academy of Science has recommended an independent review of the Australian science and research sector, which currently operates on a 30-year-old system.

Over time, ad-hoc interventions, various departmental initiatives and overlapping state and Commonwealth priorities have led to a system that is spread over 202 programs and 13 federal portfolios, with multiple ministers and departments having key responsibilities, “an overly bureaucratised and inefficient system”, according to the Academy.

While the government has commissioned reviews of the Australian university system, science and research priorities, diversity in STEM, and the Australian Research Council (ARC), linking these endeavours to a national priority to lift the R&D performance is urgently required.

With R&D expenditure falling in real terms over the past decade, Academy President Professor Chennupati Jagadish said stronger investment would help Australia to become a knowledge-based economy, in line with other OECD countries that have a greater dependence on knowledge, information and high-skill levels.

“Australia should decide the skills and capabilities we need to build and the research strengths we need to sustain them,” Professor Jagadish said.

“These recommendations will take time to implement, but are achievable, and we hope the upcoming budget helps to reposition Australian science to advance national prosperity and global competitiveness.”

In addition to raising national prosperity and diversifying our economy, smarter investment in health and medical research and innovation can improve the effectiveness and productivity of our health system, constraining the rise in health costs that accompany an ageing population. Smarter investment also drives skilled employment in vibrant new pharmaceutical, medical device and biotechnology industries.

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