Business investment in research and development went backwards for the first time in almost two decades. In fact, it had dropped by a staggering 12 per cent between 2013 and 2016. And, for the first time since records began a decade ago, Australia’s total spending on R&D fell below two per cent of GDP.
What should have made national headlines was mostly overlooked.
CEOs and politicians alike know instinctively that if you want returns tomorrow, you must invest today. The same goes for R&D.
But over the last 30 years we’ve seen a worrying trend – with Government spending less and less on its own R&D.
Thankfully for our national economy and future prosperity, Australia’s universities have stepped up. They lifted their own investment in both education and research to stop Australia from falling even further behind our global competitors in the race for the new jobs, new knowledge and new industries that flow from research.
The world’s leading economies recognise the power of investing in R&D and are upping their efforts. But we seem blind to the trend and are falling way behind.
If we don’t reverse this trend now it may soon be too late.
Research isn’t just good for people and our society; it’s good for business and for governments.
Companies partnering with universities see a return on investment of $4.50 for every dollar spent on collaborative research with a university.
In 2014, the total stock of Australian university R&D contributed 10 per cent of GDP, worth a massive $160 billion (and that’s not counting research done overseas).
Yet today, Australia spends only 1.88 per cent of GDP on R&D. That’s well below the OECD average of 2.38 per cent. Israel heads the pack at 4.5 per cent, but we lag behind Iceland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May announced an extra A$4.1 billion for R&D in her last budget and aims to spend 2.4 per cent of GDP. China spent $200 billion on R&D in 2015 alone.
If we are to remain a modern, advanced nation creating good jobs for our kids, a R&D turbo-boost is desperately needed across our entire economy.
That’s why – as Australia’s Parliament considers the future of research funding – Universities Australia urges Government and business to re-invest in research and development in partnership with universities.
Australia’s universities are R&D powerhouses. While Australia makes up only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, our universities produce 3 per cent of global scientific research. And more than 90 per cent of our university research is at or above world standard.
Our universities have capacity. Our universities have capability. But our universities can’t do this alone.
Australia’s universities are the backbone of Australia’s R&D. But backbone isn’t enough. Government and business investment can build up our national research effort – making it stronger, and more agile.
There’s another off-the-shelf way for Government to help ensure Australia’s world-class R&D keeps pace with our competitors – and that’s to reverse the decision to close the Education Investment Fund (EIF).
EIF is a $3.8 billion ‘future fund’ for teaching and research that has helped build research institutes and infrastructure across the country.
The EIF was established by former Treasurer Peter Costello as an endowment for the nation. A future fund to ensure that university infrastructure, buildings and kit, are fit-for-purpose.
Abolishing EIF will deny our world-class researchers the tools they need to keep doing what they do best – making breakthroughs for the betterment of all Australians.
Our researchers have their greatest impact when they are chasing cures, chasing solutions – not funding.
Our research capabilities are national assets, which universities develop on behalf of the nation.
Whether it’s done in labs or libraries, research has the power to make lives and communities better and find our next sources of national income so our children can have a better life.
Researchers find vaccines to treat cervical cancer, develops bionic ears so people can hear again, build cutting-edge carbon wheels in Geelong selling them to the world, and develop new learning resources so at-risk kids don’t fall behind.
Other nations are investing like their future prosperity depends on it – because it does. We should too.
Catriona Jackson is Chief Executive of Universities Australia.
As published in The Australian on Wednesday 18 July 2018.