Dan Tehan and great research expectations

It’s all very well for research to succeed in the marketplace of ideas but the Education Minister is keen for academics to translate their work into the marketplace of markets“Australia must get better at turning university research into new products and innovation that helps power Australia’s economic recovery,” the education minister said yesterday.

He’s here to help: To move things along Mr Tehan announces an expert panel to advise the scoping study announced in the budget, for a research translation scheme (in appointments/achievements below).

This isn’t the usual “discovering faster than light travel is all very well, but I can’t find a plumber” response to research funding. Mr Tehan is a fan of pure research, the purest. He has spoken in support of the ARC funded lab for dark matter particle physics, (yes, it’s in his electorate, but it wasn’t when established). “We can’t see dark matter but we know it exists and unlocking its secrets has the potential to transform our understanding of the universe,” he said last year, (CMM August 29 2019).

But there’s a science in the sell: “If I can put a compelling case to my colleagues that we are absolutely instrumental in driving productivity in this nation for the next decade then I think that we can get the support that we need to grow the sector,” Mr Tehan told a VC meeting last year (CMM September 2 2019).

Which is where a translational fund would work:  Mr Tehan has no need to convince the research community – there was a scramble yesterday to congratulate his new panel and Misha Schubert from Science and Technology Australia “commended” Minister Tehan’s “visionary approach on research translation.

““There’s a huge opportunity here for Australia to do job creation at greater scale and pace by creating a new research translation fund, leveraging extra private sector investment in research and development and delivering strong returns,” she said.

And there’s a model: the Medical Research Future Fund, which; “is a terrific proof of concept for a similar vehicle.” “A non-medical sister fund could take more of Australia’s STEM research and turn it into STEM-driven ‘deep tech’ start-ups and spinout companies,” Ms Schubert says.

“What the $20bn capital MRFF?”, you ask: That’s the one. Which establishes a benchmark Mr Tehan might struggle to meet – there are not the sort of savings in his budget to match those in health that created the MRFF.  But anything short of $5bn-$10bn for a fund will not compare well.  And if translational funding became an annual budget item, the comparison would be worse.

As then chief scientist Ian Chubb said in a speech on translational research in 2012, “funding is not a matter of ‘well we’ve spent all our money, we will not fund anything from this point on’. Funding is a matter of prioritising.”

There have long been hopes for a non-medical translational research fund. Now there are expectations – great ones.