The Government’s National COVID Coordination Commission recently requested Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, as chair of a Rapid Research Information Forum, prepare a report to answer, ‘what impact is the pandemic having and likely to have on Australia’s research workforce and its capability to support our research recovery’.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) coordinated the preparation of the report with myself as the lead author, supported by 11 contributing authors and ATSE staff. The pandemic’s impact on universities, medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies, CRCs, business and industry was examined. The report was presented recently by the Chief Scientist to federal ministers. The purpose was to provide background data for the government to prepare a policy response.

It was clearly evident all sectors undertaking research in Australia are feeling the impact of the pandemic to varying degrees through job and productivity losses.  Research in the university sector was predicted to be most impacted and to be enduring longer than for the other sectors.

The report highlights an estimated 7,000 research-related academic jobs could be lost, because of a decrease in discretionary income available and more immediate priorities for the limited funds available. Government funding provides the core foundation for university research and research training activities. However, increasingly universities have cross-subsidised research and research training such that now discretionary income represents more than 45 per cent of funds they expend on research.  Fee-paying student revenues represent the main source of the cross subsidy. Other sources – corporate-funded university research, philanthropy and investment income losses will further compound the financial challenges faced to support research. The total loss to research funding is predicted to be several billion dollars over the next few years with very serious national consequences unless mitigated by government actions.

Research students are central to the contribution universities make to the national research effort as they represent 57 per cent of the university research workforce. Of the around 66,000 research students some 35 per cent are from overseas with 75 per cent of them enrolled in science-related research programs. The prediction that as many as 9000 international postgraduate research students may not commence or resume research studies because of financial constraints due to lack of scholarship support, part-time work, travel and visa restrictions represents a major  blow to Australia’s research effort. Medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies as well as universities are affected.

Universities undertake more applied research in Australia at 43 per cent than any other sector, with industry accounting for just 39 per cent of total activity. A slowdown in research momentum will have serious consequences for new discoveries, applied problem-solving and innovative solutions to underpin international competitiveness.

The UK government has recognised the seriousness of the pandemic situation to stymie a research-led economic recovery by bringing forward £100million of quality research–related funding. The research community waits in anticipation for the policy response of the Australian Government to the research workforce report. Increased research and research training support over the next five years is vital for Australia’s research communities to recover and resume their central role in underpinning the future prosperity of the nation

Frank Larkins, professor emeritus, University of Melbourne


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