Research spending falls ‘risking national prosperity’

Australia’s total spending on research has fallen as a share of its national income, with the leading university body warning that this puts future income sources at risk.

Universities Australia says that Australian research covered in the world’s top-cited scientific publications rose to more than 3% in 2016, up from around 2% a decade ago. But the nation’s total expenditure on research and development was a mere 1.88% of gross domestic product or GDP in 2015-16 compared with an OECD average of 2.38%.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said Australia’s spending was so far behind other advanced economies that it represented a “stark warning” against further government cuts to public investment in higher education.

“Let’s be crystal clear. The research we do today will be the source of Australia’s income tomorrow,” Robinson said. “If those research sources begin to dry up, our innovation agenda will start to wilt. We simply cannot afford to let our investment in research decline in the years ahead.”

She contrasted the dire situation in Australia with that in Britain where the UK government unveiled its budget and announced an extra £2.3 billion (US$3 billion) for R&D investment.

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said the boost took “the first strides towards the ambition of our industrial strategy to drive up R&D investment across the [UK] economy to 2.4% of GDP”.

Robinson said the OECD scorecard showed Australian business investment in research had fallen. Yet this was at the same time as tax breaks claimed by businesses for their R&D spending rose to AU$3 billion (US$2.3 billion).

She said much of Australian research was carried out by its universities and was “the wellspring for new products and industries that would sustain future Australian jobs and growth”.

So any erosion in public support for research would hamstring Australia’s future economy. This highlighted the urgent need for government to fix the R&D tax incentive to ensure it was delivering on its policy intent, Robinson said.

“While new incentives are in place to encourage universities to work with industry, the demand side of this equation needs attention. Measures are urgently required to provide incentives for business – particularly small to medium-sized firms – to take advantage of the brilliant research being done in Australian universities.”

According to the latest OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2017 report, China, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), South Korea, Japan and the United States developed 70-100% of the top 20 cutting-edge ICT technologies between 2012 and 2015. Japan and South Korea were innovating across the entire spectrum of ICT technologies, the report says.