by MERLIN CROSSLEY
Imagine if you found yourself responsible for one of the world’s finest botanic gardens – it’s beautiful! Think of some of the gardens you may have visited in the big cities across the world.
You walk through the gardens. They are stunning. But how do you keep them that way and build on the success.
My first advice is – please don’t shout at the plants.
The Australian research eco-system is a bit like a garden. One of the finest parts of it is managed and supported by the Australian Research Council. I don’t really know the CEO, but I wish people wouldn’t shout at her. This is a new thing. In the past governments on both sides of politics, worked together with the ARC to help the research system grow.
I remember when the Federation Fellowship scheme was established by the Howard Government. The fellowships were designed to attract top talent to Australia or allow our existing stars to grow. It worked. The Rudd Government maintained the scheme (renaming them Laureate Fellowships) and introduced Future Fellowships that nurtured our rising stars.
If you manage a garden well, it will grow. It will actually create wealth. Just as understanding botany led to the age of agriculture – with plants grown for food and for materials, for houses, and yes, even for war ships. In this age of great cities intellectual capital is enriching our lives. Knowledge is power and it keeps us safe. We can’t just sit still. Challenges will keep hitting us – either natural crises or global tensions that will worsen if we are left behind. We will need our gardens.
As a manager of the garden, you’d want to provide security and freedom to your gardeners. In this way you’d attract the best, most dedicated and talented gardeners, and get the best out of them. Australia should be signalling that it wishes to attract and support top researchers.
Think about it. Every country has great gardeners but not every country has the political stability to support a world-class botanic garden and attract talent. Australia does. Singapore does. The US and UK do. China is investing. Russia had a great system in the early 1900s but left its research system open to political interference.
Our current government champions the importance of academic freedom. But oddly the acting Minister stepped in to cancel grants. Things work better when the government stays out of the grant system, out of the legal system, and out of the gardens.
Cancelling grants is like letting the troops in to make the decisions. Can you picture the conversation: “These baby oak trees – what are they good for? Chop them down! Those trees – what do you call them – Macadamias – never heard of them – plant potatoes! I want to see nothing but potatoes!”.
It sounds good. Until the next great potato famine.
The problem with political interference is not just that ill-informed decisions are made. It is that it destabilises the research eco-system. It reduces the confidence, certainty, and continuity of everything. In research, as in business, stability is crucial to success. The garden will grow – it will deliver technologies that to improve, health, security, food production, and it will deliver energy with lower carbon emissions. But you need to give it time and if you are the manager, your responsibility is giving stability, not micro-managing.
If you seek to use the garden for political ends everything begins to crack. One of your jobs is maintain watering – you don’t want the mighty Mountain Ash to die! But if you are seeking to time grant announcements to maximise political advantage, or to champion or disallow grants, making examples for political reasons, it will distract you from delivering the water on time. And trees, and academic careers in full swing, will die. This year grant outcomes were announced on Christmas eve – giving staff and managers no time to plan for the new year. This was unprecedented.
It’s so much better if politics and research allocations are separated. Peer review was always the norm and should be re-emphasised – heed the experts – in the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, and why not also in the Medical Research Future Fund?
So, what would I do if I inherited responsibility for the gardens?
First, I’d appoint my very best minister to be in charge of it. In the past Kim Carr has been an outstanding minister for science, and Tony Abbott achieved great investment in research as health minister. I’d want stability in the portfolio to allow the minister to grow into the role.
And I’d set the vision. A vision without a budget is spin, so I’d set out the financial envelope. Both sides of government have done this is in the past with the Higher Education Endowment Fund, the Higher Education Infrastructure Fund, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, the National Innovation Science Agenda, and before these Backing Australia’s Ability, One and Two. This supports the ecosystem. Then I’d get out of the way and avoid trampling on the plants. I’d insist on transparent systems – a computer driven research assessment and expert review – rather ministerial decree.
Next, to ensure stability and certainty every granting scheme should have a start date – receipt of applications and an announcement date – both set at the beginning of the scheme. It’s that simple.
Then sit back and enjoy the gardens. Be proud of them and of the gardeners. See that they are part of our country and that caring for them is vital for our prosperity and is a sacred responsibility of government.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, UNSW