The country’s leaders, top business advisers and science experts have approved a draft list of eight research priorities that will focus research and development effort on specific areas where Australia has a need or competitive edge.
Chief Scientist Ian Chubb will invite small teams to gather early next year to refine the broad areas, which are expected to include food, soil and water, transport, health, energy and resources, cyber security, environmental change and manufacturing.
It just means we’re focusing our efforts, basic and applied, in a particular area.
– Chief Scientist Ian Chubb
In November, the inaugural meeting of the Commonwealth Science Council, chaired by Tony Abbott, discussed the proposed research priorities, which were whittled down from a list of 15 Professor Chubb announced last year.
Attendees included the health, industry and education ministers as well as science and business leaders such as Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt and Business Council of Australia president Catherine Livingstone.
Professor Chubb, also a member of the council, stressed that declaring national research priorities was not about “pushing an applied research agenda”, nor would these areas absorb all of the country’s research and development budget.
He said these priorities would take into account areas of research excellence, industrial strength, global trends, comparative advantage and Australia’s interests and needs.
“Just because we say let’s look into Australia’s food production cycle to make sure it’s adequate for our needs, and that of our trade agreements, that doesn’t make it applied research,” he said.
“It just means we’re focusing our efforts, basic and applied, in a particular area.”
A proportion of the country’s $9.2 billion investment in science, research and innovation – the exact amount yet to be decided – will be directed towards these priorities.
“The rest of the budget will be spent on other research and development activity in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.”
The science community has been broadly supportive of setting national research priorities. It has also been vocal in calling for secure, long-term funding.
The council meeting also discussed the Chief Scientist’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM):Australia’s Future report, released in September, which calls for a whole-of-government approach to STEM. Professor Chubb will present policy recommendations at the next council meeting, expected in the first half of next year.
A report on university research released by Universities Australia’s last week also backed the setting of new research priorities, saying these would help universities plan more strategically.
The report noted that other advanced countries had aligned their research focus with broader economic goals, and had a balance of top-down mission-led research as well as bottom-up investigator-driven research.
Professor Chubb said teams of about 15 researchers, officials and business people would meet in February to identify challenges in each of the proposed priority areas. The findings will also be reported at the science council meeting.