Sheil calls for more resources for basic research

Margaret Sheil has called for increased investment in research, lest the national effort becomes, “the CD in the age of Spotify.”

However the QUT vice chancellor also warns, at length, that spending on basic and applied research is now out of whack.

With the first national report on engagement and impact due at year’s end, Professor Sheil speaks out in favour of basic research that can be the basis for applied outcomes. She urges a return to a research culture of; “core talented scientists building their skills and pursuing basic discovery research in environments that were not overly prescriptive; and teams working in collaboration or in parallel with more targeted goals in mind,” in an opinion piece for  Universities Australia.

This is a calculated intervention by a VC with credibility in both camps.

 QUT is best known for its applied technology approach, it bills itself as “a university for the real world” but Professor Sheil was chair of the Australian Research Council way before way the applied research push.

Professor Sheil warns that; “basic discovery research is undervalued and the appetite to fund it in decline, and we see a major turn towards applied research producing a substantial imbalance in the system.”

She points to funding for basic research dropping from 40 per cent to 23 per cent between 1992 and 2016, with money for “strategic basic” research (high-science with a specific target) contracting 5 per cent to 19 per cent. In the same period, applied research’s share grew from 30 per cent to 49 per cent.

Professor Sheil proposes six measures to address the in-balance;

Understand “it takes a long time to build innovative capacity and networks, and that the pipeline between discovery and product may be long and unpredictable.”

Attract, support and mentor the best talent from around the world.

Recognise the role of institutions in supporting talent and infrastructure, and balancing short-term demands with long-term strategy.

Make long-term investments in infrastructure and research and development institutions.

Ensure “consistency and predictability when it comes to research funding models.”

Provide “a plurality of approaches” via the ARC, NHMRC, CRCs and science agencies – “they all contribute to the common stock of knowledge, by coming at problems in different and complementary ways. And we need all of them.”


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