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The Science and Research Factor: Policy Deficit in Australia or a Failure to Articulate Impact?

Éidín O’Shea

What does allocation of cabinet portfolios tell us about the priorities of the government (and society)? An opportunity to reflect on the need for a science minister is provided by a new Australian government, where such portfolio does not exist.

This week a new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his cabinet were sworn in with the promise of instant action. When Abbott announced his new cabinet and ministerial line-up no one was given specific responsibility for science. Higher education, science, and research will now be divided under two portfolios (Education and Industry). In every government since 1931 (bar from 1963-1966) Australia has had a minister with the word ‘science’ or ‘scientific’ in the title. This shift by Tony Abbott has been criticised even within the Liberal party as a source of ‘confusion’. Catriona Jackson, the CEO of Science and Technology Australia, stressed science and technology was central to everything government did “from industry, to health to creating the sort of jobs that are key to ensuring a prosperous future for the country”. “It seems inconceivable that we do not have a minister of Parliament that is responsible for the sciences,” she said.

The omission points to a greater inability by universities in Australia to clearly articulate their contribution to science and society and an uncertain policy and practice environment to support it.

Aligning with global shifts ambitious expectations have been set out by the Commonwealth government on the role of Australian universities with an explicit focus on increased collaborations between the public and private sectors. In addition to this national focus for knowledge exchange, a recent federal government publication in 2012, Australia in the Asian Century, also charges universities with expanding links and partnerships with Asia and with the ambitious challenge of having 10 top universities in the world’s top 100 rankings.

However in the face of these expectations, Australia currently ranks 22nd out of 28 OECD countries for public expenditure on tertiary education, spending only 1% of GDP. Further constraining any response to these expectations, in April 2013 the Australian Commonwealth government announced the biggest reductions in funding to the university system and student support since 1996, with an additional $2.3 billion to be stripped from the university system over the next four years, including almost $1billion from university revenue.

This policy deficit has resulted in a practice environment within universities which is characterised by a lack of engagement, project management and collaboration skills, and the limited motivation of researchers to engage in collaborative knowledge exchange processes. This is in sharp contrast to the European Commission ‘modernisation agenda’ for university reform defining the role of universities as to exploit the so-called ‘knowledge triangle of research, education and innovation’ (eg the Lund Declaration, 2009). Funding streams to support this agenda are emerging and the European Commission will soon launch Horizon 2020. This funding instrument (2014-2020), with an €80 billion budget, aims to deepen the relationship between science and society by favouring an ‘… informed engagement of citizens and civil society on research and innovation matters’.

Ernst & Young recently argued that Australian universities are on the cusp of profound change, warning that universities will not survive the next 10 to 15 years unless they radically overhaul their current operating models. They cite five drivers of change, including both ‘democratisation of knowledge’, and ‘access to and integration with industry’. Their observations reinforce the argument that, in today’s competitive market place, the viability and sustainability of much Australian business heavily relies on the strong and genuine relationships developed through a diverse range of university initiatives.

Overall Australian universities have not been successful in articulating their impact to the broader community or to government. It is clear that universities need to be internally adaptive in order to be externally responsive. However, without national policy direction and appropriate support, the current university business model, already under pressure from government cutbacks, is unlikely to be able to respond to this agenda in any resource intensive manner.

Dr Éidín O’Shea, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Regional Community Development), Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development, University of Southern Queensland

This blog initially was published on “Europe of Knowledge” blog at “Ideas on Europe” blog platform.

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