Restrict research to elite

Article from: The Australian
Luke Slattery | November 19, 2008

AUSTRALIA’S top universities will lose their global position unless research investment is concentrated in the hands of proven performers, according to a survey of international research funding trends by the Group of Eight.

In the strongly worded paper, released today, the group warns that the landscape for research investment has changed as nations within the Asian region intensify their attempts to develop world-class research and development facilities while others with strong egalitarian traditions, such as France and Germany, shift to an elite model of research funding.

“Australia has failed to take the necessary steps, and while the available measures of performance indicate that we can punch above our weight, we are not keeping up with capacity improvements being made elsewhere,” the paper warns.

The case for further concentration of research investment is a controversial one in Australian higher education, as the group acknowledges in its report.

Since the reforms of 1988-89 Australian higher education has valued a broad spread of research across all universities as part of the transition from an elite to a mass university system.

But the Go8, which during the past two decades has won about 70 per cent of competitive grants, dismisses concerns over a policy of research concentration, arguing that the pertinent policy question is not whether to concentrate but how.

Go8 chairman and University of Western Australia vice-chancellor Alan Robson said the full funding of research, as recommended by the Cutler review, would help Australia remain competitive in research.

He said the university last year received $148 million in competitive grants and spent an extra $102 million of its own reserves.

“The situation we have in Australia is that you don’t get the full direct cost of the research, much less any real contribution to the indirect cost, or to the salary of the principal investigator,” he said. “This makes it very hard to develop strong research concentration.
“If the country wants to be part of the international science and research arena we have to pay for a seat at the table.

“If we don’t have world class, research-intensive universities we’re not going to be able to participate fully in the international research system and we’re not going to have a very innovative Australia.”

The Go8 paper suggests that critics of an elite research policy are giving voice to institutional rather than national interests. The paper notes that Australia has 12 universities in the global top 500 as measured by the Jiao Tong index, the most reliable measure of research performance. The Australian National University, Melbourne and Sydney sit in the top 100; Queensland, Western Australia and the University of NSW are in the top 200; and Macquarie and Adelaide are in the top 300.

“Given the developments in leading countries and emerging economies it will be a major challenge for Australia to sustain its representation among the world’s top universities,” it says.

The group defines concentration as the “targeting of new funding to build the capacity to sustain new heights of excellence. Typically, new funding is allocated on the basis of proven performance judged against international benchmarks, wherever it is to be found, and where there is genuine potential to scale up.”

The paper, which reflects the aspirations of most Go8 universities to align themselves with the emerging global model group, surveys the latest research policy trends in competitor countries and concludes that:

* Canada has set itself the goal of ranking among the world’s top four countries for R&D.

* Britain is concentrating resources for research, research training and infrastructure on the basis of several rounds of externally assessed research quality audits.

* France is investing in competitive clusters with 10 supercampuses sharing E5 billion ($9.8 billion) to form French centres of excellence.

* Germany has changed direction with a E2 billion excellence initiative that will produce up to 10 universities targeted as elite research institutions.

* The top nine Chinese universities dominate research as the country concentrates funding in top performing universities with the aim of boosting China’s global position.