By Professor Margaret Sheil AO
As a booming young innovator, Australia’s portfolio of success is impressive, with contributions as varied as the first feature film, Wi-Fi, Gardasil, the Fairlight sampling synthesiser, the secret ballot and the black box flight recorder. The Adelaide Festival’s 1996 nod to the Hills Hoist playfully acknowledged the inherent link between artistic creativity and applied innovation.
Socially progressive policy innovations like the income contingent deferred loan have increased access to tertiary education, particularly among women and many lower income students, to the benefit of individual citizens and the economy as a whole. Under Backing Australia’s Ability, introduced by the Coalition with bipartisan support and extended by Labor, Australia’s research capability was bolstered substantially, including in the university sector. We now rank third in the QS Higher Education System Strength Rankings 2018, behind only the US and the UK.
Yet the Australian research ecosystem has become increasingly fragile. There is a growing trend towards treating research as a purely transactional investment, blind to benefits that accrue outside the ledger. A political focus on applied research has been expressed through a manipulation of incentives, funding formulae and the types of research funded. From 1992 to 2016, higher education organisations’ R&D spending in applied research increased from 30% to 49%, while basic research expenditure almost halved. And the recent Ministerial rejection of a number of ARC grants on misguidedly narrow instrumentalist grounds rang more alarm bells in university halls.
The 2015 UNESCO Towards Science 2020 Report warned that Australia’s “challenge will be to ensure that science does not become the hand-maiden of industrial and commercial development.” As the report reinforces, public research support should be consolidated precisely where commercial investment is thin. Innovation does not come from purely transactional investment in the applied sciences, but from considered, long-term investment of time and resources into the people, institutions and processes that constitute Australia’s research ecosystem.
It is not insignificant that the rejected ARC grants were from the humanities and creative arts, which are often the canary in the mine for the research sector as a whole. A healthy research system requires investment in both STEM and the humanities and creative arts, over the long term. It was encouraging to see science and technology advocates come out hard and fast in defence of peer review and arguing for the value of research across the spectrum. Researchers and university leaders from all fields must be united in making the case for the entire sector.
While STEM is an important driver of innovation, scientific discovery is incomplete without the tools to understand its implications and ensure it is implemented to the benefit of humanity. It takes as much expertise and insight to comprehend and negotiate the social and ethical dimensions of technology as it does to develop it in the first place. Our universities must foster the creative arts and the human and social sciences, not only alongside the sciences but in concert with them. Armed with a diverse set of transferrable skills, and an appreciation of the intellectual contexts and foundational concepts of other strands of thought, our research ecosystem will have the ability to adapt and innovate coherently to solve complex problems.
Medicine, nursing and psychology are great examples of professions that are significantly augmented by technology, with new pharmaceuticals, surgical procedures, instrumentation and diagnostic tools constantly being produced: yet a sophisticated understanding of the human dimension will always be paramount in quality healthcare.
Creatives, too, have benefitted enormously from technology. Musicians can write entire songs on their laptops while folded into an aeroplane seat, and digital image manipulation has enable transformative visual art experimentation. But the novel-writing machines of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are unlikely to produce anything more satisfying than stilted parodies of literature. Art that moves us, that speaks to the human condition, will continue to require human creativity - often enabled, but never replaced, by technology.
Every human knows that art is valuable in many ways beyond the monetary. The same is true of research. Without a broad view of the purpose of enquiry and discovery, most epoch-changing inventions you could name would have been killed off when they were failed experiments or incomplete ideas.
A healthy research system needs time, people, funding and diversity. We know that unity of purpose and taking the long view are effective strategies, because they have yielded fantastic results for Australia in the recent past. It is time for another concerted, unified effort to remind government, business and the community at large that the success of any given Australian research effort relies on the health of the ecosystem as a whole.
Professor Margaret Sheil AO was appointed as Vice-Chancellor and President of QUT from 12 February 2018. She was previously Provost at The University of Melbourne since 2012. In this role, she was the Chief Academic Officer and Standing Deputy to the Vice-Chancellor.
Professor Sheil has been an academic in chemistry and held senior roles at the University of Wollongong. She is a Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI), the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), and was made an inaugural Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Society for Mass Spectrometry (ANZSM). Professor Sheil is a Director of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and a member of the Advisory Council of the CSIRO Science Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF). She was Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (2007-2012) and she has previously been a member of the Advisory Board for Coursera; and a member of the Prime Minister’s Science, Innovation and Engineering Council, the National Research Infrastructure Council and the Cooperative Research Centres Committee.
In June 2017 Professor Sheil was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for her distinguished service to science and higher education as an academic and administrator, through significant contributions to the national research landscape, and to performance standards. Professor Sheil holds a Bachelor of Science and a PhD in Physical Chemistry from The University of New South Wales and was presented with the Science and Technology Alumni Award from UNSW in 2016.