Linking research goals to corporate dollars, a recipe for mediocrity
Could Australia be the world leader in research and innovation? The Morrison government has a golden opportunity to do just that. The Australian Research Council – whose competitive funding programs support academic research in the physical, biological and social sciences – is increasingly criticized by both government and researchers (albeit for very different reasons). The incapacitated CRA is in desperate need of reform.
Just about any reform of the ARC would be a relief for a community of exasperated academics who are now accustomed to writing 100-page funding applications with little chance of success and with longer wait times. than the period of human gestation.
But hopeful observers were dismayed by the contents of Acting Minister Stuart Robert’s recent “letter of expectations” which was handed – without consultation with those affected – to ARC CEO Professor Sue. Thomas. The letter followed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent announcement of the “Pioneer Universities” program offering large grants to reward “commercialization readiness, manufacturing support and industry alignment”.
The reforms outlined in Minister Robert’s letter will prioritize short-term research jobs that serve the interests of commercial manufacturers. They will reward “translational research”, which will be defined by measures including patents, intellectual property claims and trade agreements.
They will place businessmen on funding selection panels (a decision that raises concerns not only over qualifications but also over incentives). The plan takes a knowledge research infrastructure and turns it into a business support program. To say that the CRA directive for change is a missed opportunity would be an understatement.
Australian companies will celebrate this early Christmas giveaway by being offered a seat at the table to direct public research funding to private interests. But the idea that the short-term commercialization of science will create world-class research excellence is deeply flawed. It shows no understanding of the ecology of research, the processes of which are long-term, distributed, exploratory and fundamental.
No technology application can be truly understood, let alone harnessed for good, without understanding what makes a technology possible and what gives it meaning. Consider the advice of Cold War science advisers Jerome Wiesner and Herbert York, who explained why there can be “no technical solution” to the problem of national security in the presence of nuclear weapons. Their argument was that no technology that changes the world could ever be controlled by simply finding another scientific innovation (assuming one can be found). Instead, the solution would require a deep understanding of psychology, history, politics, diplomacy, society, and culture. Today, as we read proposals to offset global warming by obscuring the sun with geoengineered gigaprojects, it’s clear that the lesson has not yet been learned.
A technology may be inefficient, even dangerous, or may simply not realize its potential, if its designer does not understand the goals and needs of the people who use it; the historical contexts which motivated its development; the fundamental mathematics, chemistry and physics that make it work; or the cosmic origins of its elementary constitution. We owe these various forms of knowledge to the truth seekers of the past, and in turn we must pay our descendants with our own unfettered truth seekers. Innovation arises in a vast ecology of knowledge, some of which is sought after, others inherited from other fields, and others simply discovered by accident. Innovation cannot be chased away with a gun. It must be cultivated with the wisdom of long-term, open, and interconnected thinking.