I was recently invited to participate in the Scholarly Communication Symposium at Griffith University discussing ‘increasing research impact in sciences’. I couldn’t attend in person, but provided the following input to two questions posed below.
Q: What is one problem that you think needs to be addressed in order to maximise the impact of research in Australia?
A: Lack of support for long term funding of applied research in Australian universities
In Australia, increases in Higher Education Expenditure on R&D (HERD) have been accompanied by increases in applied research. In the period from 1992 to 2012, the shape of the Australian higher education research effort has significantly changed, from a sector characterised by basic research, to one characterised by applied research effort (Figure 1).
In the early 1990s, basic research accounted for 60 per cent (pure basic and strategic basic) of research activity, with applied research comprising only around 30 per cent. Until 2010 the focus of Australia’s universities remained basic research. However, in 2010, the balance shifted, with applied research reaching 47 per cent, overtaking basic research at 45 per cent for the first time.
Figure 1 Australian HERD expenditure by activity 1992-2010
Since the 1990s, project based funding has become a standard form of research activity in Australia. This has in part come at the expense of long term support for research activities. At present levels, 60 per cent of Australia Government support for HERD is delivered through project funding, with the remainder delivered through institution-based funding (Figure 2).
Figure 2 Government funded HERD, 2010
Institutional funding allows for long-term planning of research agendas. The major source of long term funding stability for university research is provided through the Research Block Grants (RBGs). At present, publications and Nationally Competitive Grants (HERDC Category 1) remain the focus of the RBGs, which only include a limited focus on research engagement through the Joint Research Engagement (JRE) funding pool.
The calculation of the JRE includes the following inputs:
- Research income is weighted at 60 per cent and includes HERDC Category 2 (Other Public Sector Income), Category 3 (Industry and Other Income) and Category 4 (CRC Income) amounts;
- Student load is weighted at 30 per cent ; and
- Research publications are weighted at 10 per cent and include HERDC Category Books, Book Chapters, Journal Articles and Conference Papers.
In 2014, the JRE allocation was $342.6m, or 20 per cent of the total RBGs for 2014. In other words, Category 2-4 income accounted for 60 per cent of 20 per cent of the funding for university research.
The relative size of this reward is in stark contrast to the relative importance of Category 2-4 income to the sector. For the years 2008-2010, the proportion of the funding that these categories represented was close to 60 per cent of the HERDC income Categories. There is, in other words, a discrepancy between the focus of universities on engagement activities and the reward and RBG incentives that support long term strategic research planning, which are still reliant upon research publications and Category 1 funding outcomes. This will continue as universities focus more and more on applied research without a commensurate reward mechanism.
Q: What is one possible solution/opportunity to maximise research impact?
A: Make R&D tax incentives available for research in humanities and social sciences
Australia has amongst the lowest levels of direct Government funding for business R&D across comparator countries at 1.8 per cent (Figure 3).
Figure 3 Direct Government funding of business R&D, 2011
At the same time, Australia has some of very high proportions of support for business R&D provided through tax incentives (Figure 4). In fact, Australia has the second lowest level of direct funding to business R&D on the available data, second only to Mexico.
Figure 4 Direct Government funding of business R&D vs tax incentives, 2011
As it stands, tax incentives are not available to research conducted in the humanities and social sciences, which are excluded from the scheme. This disincentive to collaboration with the private sector is of particular note given the large proportion of Australia’s research effort that is conducted in these disciplines. Humanities and social sciences currently receive 16 per cent of Australia’s Category 3 (Industry and Other) income. This represents 16 per cent of what is already invested from the private sector into research engagement with universities that are not considered through the Government’s primary support mechanism.
In addition, excluding humanities and social science researchers from the R&D Tax incentive prevents 43 per cent of the Australian higher education research workforce – who produce around 30 per cent of university research outputs – from participating (Figure 5).
Figure 5 HASS vs non-HASS
Allowing humanities and social science research to be eligible for R&D tax incentives would likely increase the impact of Australia’s research significantly by unlocking new opportunities for collaboration between the private sector and universities.