Coronavirus and university reforms put at risk Australia’s research gains of the last 15 years



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Andrew Norton, Australian National University

Education minister Dan Tehan will be meeting with university vice-chancellors to devise a new way of funding university research. They will have plenty to talk about.

Australia’s universities have been remarkably successful in building their research output. But there are cracks in the funding foundations of that success, which are being exposed by the revenue shock of COVID-19 and the minister’s reforms announced this month, which would pay for new student places with money currently spent on research.

I estimate the gap in funding that needs to be filled to maintain our current research output at around $4.7 billion.

The funding foundations crumble

The timing of Dan Tehan’s higher education reform package could not have been worse for the university research sector.

The vulnerability created by universities’ reliance on international students has been brutally revealed this year. Travel bans prevent international students arriving in Australia and the COVID-19 recession undermines their capacity to pay tuition fees.




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Profits from domestic and international students are the only way universities can finance research on the current scale, with more than A$12 billion spent in 2018.

Based on a Deloitte Access Economics analysis of teaching costs, universities make a surplus of about A$1.3 billion on domestic students. Universities use much of this surplus to fund research.

Tehan’s reform package seeks to align the total teaching funding rates for each Commonwealth supported student – the combined tuition subsidy and student contribution – with the teaching and scholarship costs identified in the Deloitte analysis.

On 2018 enrolment numbers, revenue losses for universities for Commonwealth supported students would total around $750 million with this realignment. With only teaching costs funded, universities will have little or no surplus from their teaching to spend on research.




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International student profits are larger than domestic – at around $4 billion. Much of this money is spent on research too, and much of this is at risk. The recession will also reduce how much industry partners and philanthropists can contribute to university research.

Australia’s Chief Scientist estimates 7,700 research jobs are at risk from COVID-19 factors alone. Unless the Commonwealth intervenes with a new research funding policy, its recent announcements will trigger further significant research job losses.

Combined teaching and research academic jobs will decline

Although less research employment will be available, the additional domestic students financed by redirecting research funding will generate teaching work.

More students is a good thing in itself, as the COVID-19 recession will generate more demand for higher education.

But this reallocation between research and teaching will exacerbate a major structural problem in the academic labour market. Although most academics want teaching and research, or research-only roles, over the last 30 years Commonwealth teaching and research funding has separated.

After the latest Tehan reforms, funding for the two activities will be based on entirely different criteria and put on very different growth trajectories.

An academic employment model that assumes the same people teach and research was kept alive by funding surpluses on domestic, and especially international, students. With both these surpluses being hit hard, the funding logic is that a trend towards more specialised academic staff will have to accelerate.

We can expect academic morale to fall and industrial action to rise as university workforces resist this change.




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The funding squeeze will also undermine the current system of Commonwealth research funding. This funding is allocated in two main ways. In part, it comes from competitive project grant funding, largely from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.

Academic prestige is attached to winning these grants, but the money allocated does not cover the project’s costs. Typically, universities pay the salaries of the lead researchers and general costs, such as laboratories and libraries.

Universities are partly compensated for those expenses through research block grants, which are awarded based on previous academic performance, including in winning competitive grants. But because block grants do not cover all competitive project grant costs, the system has relied on discretionary revenue, much of it from students, to work. It will need a major rethink if teaching becomes much less profitable.

The stakes are high

University spending on research (which was over $12 billion in 2018), has nearly tripled since 2000 in real terms.

Direct government spending on research increased this century, but not by nearly enough to finance this huge expansion in outlays. In 2018, the Commonwealth government’s main research funding programs contributed A$3.7 billion.

An additional $600 million came from other Commonwealth sources such as government department contracts for specific pieces of research.

In addition to this Commonwealth money, universities received another $1.9 billion in earmarked research funding from state, territory and other (national) governments, donations, and industry.

These research-specific sources still leave billions of dollars in research spending without a clear source of finance. Universities have investment earnings, profits on commercial operations and other revenue sources they can invest in research.

But these cannot possibly cover the estimated $4.7 billion gap between research revenue and spending.

With lower profits on teaching, this gap cannot be filled. Research spending will have to be reduced by billions of dollars.

We are at a turning point in Australian higher education. The research gains of the last fifteen years are at risk of being reversed. The minister’s meeting with vice-chancellors has very high stakes.The Conversation

Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Antarctic endeavours, primary health-care research and dark matter exploration – the coronavirus casualties you haven’t heard of



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Lauren Ball, Griffith University

The year 2020 came with big expectations for researchers, myself included. Last year I was successful in the first round of the National Health and Medical Research Council Investigator Grants scheme. Six years since completing my PhD, I managed to launch my Healthy Primary Care research team.

We investigate how principles of wellness such as healthy eating and exercise are incorporated into health care, particularly in general practice. I spent the summer planning how to support my team for the next five years, focusing on impact and research translation into real-world settings.

Big things were in the works. It was an exciting time. But as it turns out, wellness in health care isn’t a priority during the COVID-19 crisis.

As the pandemic lingers, big players (especially pharmaceutical companies) around the world have understandably dropped everything, joining forces to give the virus their undivided attention.

A sudden loss

Many of my team’s projects relied on doctors, nurses and other health professionals to collect or provide data. With the strain placed on health care by the pandemic, continuing was no longer viable. Grant applications, domestic and international travel, conferences and meetings have all been cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

As a supervisor, the hardest part was withdrawing research students and interns I’d lined up to start projects in clinics. This pandemic has challenged the relevance, impact and productivity of our work.




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This shock comes shortly after a summer of devastating bushfires which hindered research progress by forcing experts out of fire-affected regions, destroying expanses of equipment and reportedly setting some studies “back months or years”.

This photo was taken in Junee, New South Wales, in January. According to reports, the total tangible cost estimate of the summer bushfires was close to A$100 billion.
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Stoppages across the field

Social distancing, travel bans and quarantine restrictions mean scientific fieldwork across the world has almost completely stopped.

The Australian Antarctic Program, led by the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has been reduced to essential staff only to keep the Antarctic continent COVID-19-free. Instead of sending 500 expeditioners in the next summer season, the Australian Antarctic Division will only send about 150.

Social distancing measures are also preventing climate scientists from being able to visit their laboratories. If the pandemic continues, this could hamper important weather and climate surveillance practices. In some cases, labs have been reduced to one essential worker whose sole job is to keep laboratory animals alive for when research resumes.

Delays have also impacted one of the world’s largest efforts to investigate the nature of dark matter. The XENON experiment based in Italy is worth more than US$30 million, according to the New York Times. It faced a multitude of roadblocks when the country was forced into lockdown earlier this year.

Young research stars missing opportunities

For young researchers, social distancing and event cancellations are especially damaging to professional development. Scientific conferences and meetings foster collaboration and can also lead to employment opportunities.

Although funding cancellations and grant scheme delays mostly impact established researchers, other schemes supporting early career and postdoctoral researchers have also been postponed, such as the Rebecca L Cooper Medical Research scheme and the Griffith University Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme.




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This crisis has left the next generation of researchers unsupported, and have negative flow-on effects for all research areas. In health and disease prevention, research efforts apart from vaccinations are still vital, as the onset of COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the rise of chronic disease.

There are positives

Australia boasts a robust and passionate research workforce, which means we can divert resources to a united cause such as the coronavirus crisis. As the race for a vaccine continues, the value of research has never been more apparent to the non-scientific community. This may help weaken anti-science messages.

The pandemic is also providing opportunity for future university leaders to understand university management, funding and governance decisions. Never before has information been so accessible on where funding comes from.

Online conferencing and collaboration related to research has also made participation more accessible and affordable. This increases inclusively by removing barriers for people who may not be able to attend in-person gatherings, such as people living with a physical disability, full-time carers and people experiencing financial hardship. Less domestic and international travel is also helping reduce carbon footprints.

Charging forward

The health system isn’t working normally, which means my team’s research isn’t working normally. Nonetheless, we’re pivoting well in this uncertain time. We’re helping plan the first online conference for Australian primary care to improve access to relevant research across the country.

New grant opportunities are aligning COVID-19 to our research focus, such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’s and the Hospitals Contribution Fund’s special call for projects on COVID-19 in general practice.

Some may think non-COVID-19 research isn’t currently necessary, but it will be once we combat this disease. And when that happens, we’ll be ready to continue right where we left off.The Conversation

Lauren Ball, Associate Professor/ Principal Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Citizen science: how you can contribute to coronavirus research without leaving the house




Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; Aaron Greenville, University of Sydney; Alice Motion, University of Sydney; Cobi Calyx, UNSW; Glenda Wardle, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, University of Sydney; Rosanne Quinnell, University of Sydney; Samantha Rowbotham, University of Sydney, and Yun-Hee Jeon, University of Sydney

As Australians try to maintain social engagement during self-isolation, citizen science offers a unique opportunity.

Defined as “public participation and collaboration in scientific research”, citizen science allows everyday people to use technology to unite towards a common goal – from the comfort of their homes. And it is now offering a chance to contribute to research on the coronavirus pandemic.

With so many of us staying home, this could help build a sense of community where we may otherwise feel helpless, or struggle with isolation.




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Anyone is welcome to contribute. You don’t need expertise, just time and interest. Projects exist in many forms, catering to people of diverse ages, backgrounds and circumstances. Many projects offer resources and guides to help you get started, and opportunities to collaborate via online discussion forums.

Ditch the news cycle – engage, gain skills and make a difference

Scientists worldwide are racing to find effective treatments and vaccines to halt the coronavirus pandemic. As a citizen scientist, you can join the effort to help tackle COVID-19, and other infectious diseases.

Foldit is an online game that challenges players to fold proteins to better understand their structure and function. The Foldit team is now challenging citizen scientists to design antiviral proteins that can bind with the coronavirus.

The highest scoring designs will be manufactured and tested in real life. In this way, Foldit offers a creative outlet that could eventually contribute to a future vaccine for the virus.

Another similar project is Folding@home. This is a distributed computing project that, rather than using you to find proteins, uses your computer’s processing power to run calculations in the background. Your computer becomes one of thousands running calculations, all working together.

One way to combat infectious diseases is by monitoring their spread, to predict outbreaks.

Online surveillance project FluTracking helps track influenza. By completing a 10-second survey each week, participants aid researchers in monitoring the prevalence of flu-like symptoms across Australia and New Zealand. It could also help track the spread of the coronavirus.

Such initiatives are increasingly important in the global fight against emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

Citizen science portal Flutracking’ was designed to allow researchers and citizens to track flu-like symptoms around Australia and New Zealand.

Another program, PatientsLikeMe, empowers patients who have tested positive to a disease to share their experiences and treatment regimes with others who have similar health concerns. This lets researchers test potential treatments more quickly.

The program recently set up a community for people who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered. These individuals are contributing to a data set that could prove useful in the fight against the virus.

Environmental projects need your support too

If you’d like to get your mind off COVID-19, there’s a plethora of other options for citizen scientists. You can contribute to conservation and nature recovery efforts – a task many took to after the recent bushfires.




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Some sites ask volunteers to digitise data from ongoing environmental monitoring programs. Contributors need no prior experience, and interpret photos taken with remote digital cameras using online guides. One example is Western Australia’s Western Shield Camera Watch, available through Zooniverse.

Other sites crowdsource volunteers to transcribe data from natural history collections (DigiVol), historical logbooks from explorers, and weather observation stations (Southern Weather Discovery).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science app eBird uses bird sightings to fuel research and conservation efforts.
eBird

Citizen science programs such as eBird, BirdLife Australia’s Birdata, the Australian Museum’s FrogID, ClimateWatch, QuestaGame, NatureMapr, and the Urban Wildlife App, all have freely available mobile applications that let you contribute to “big” databases on urban and rural wildlife.

Nature watching is a great self-isolation activity because you can do it anywhere, including at home. Questagame runs a series of “bioquests” where people of all ages and experience levels can photograph animals and plants they encounter.

In April, we’ll also have the national Wild Pollinator Count. This project invites participants to watch any flowering plant for just ten minutes, and record insects that visit the flowers. The aim is to boost knowledge on wild pollinator activity.

The data collected through citizen science apps are used by researchers to explore animal migration, understand ranges of species, and determine how changes in climate, air quality and habitat affect animal behaviour.




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This year for the first time, several Australian cities are participating in iNaturalist’s City Nature Challenge. The organisers have adapted planned events with COVID-19 in mind, and suggest ways to document nature while maintaining social distancing. You can simply capture what you can see in your backyard, or when taking a walk, or put a moth light out at night to see what it attracts.

Connecting across generations

For those at home with children, there are a variety of projects aimed at younger audiences.

From surveying galaxies to the Bird Academy Play Lab’s Games Powered By Birds – starting young can encourage a lifetime of learning.

If you’re talented at writing or drawing, why not keep a nature diary, and share your observations through a blog.

By contributing to research through digital platforms, citizen scientists offer a repository of data experts might not otherwise have access to. The Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) website has details on current projects you can join, or how to start your own.

Apart from being a valuable way to pass time while self-isolating, citizen science reminds us of the importance of community and collaboration at a time it’s desperately needed.The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Aaron Greenville, Lecturer in Spatial Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney; Alice Motion, Associate professor, University of Sydney; Cobi Calyx, Research Fellow in Science Communication, UNSW; Glenda Wardle, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sydney; Rosanne Quinnell, Associate Professor, University of Sydney; Samantha Rowbotham, Lecturer, Health Policy, University of Sydney, and Yun-Hee Jeon, Susan and Isaac Wakil Professor of Healthy Ageing, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Budget 2018: when scientists make their case effectively, politicians listen


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist

Budget 2018 confirms that the case for funding science is being heard in Canberra.

Science and research are integrated in the national objectives laid down in the treasurer’s speech: to create jobs, boost health and improve the liveability of communities.

Many of the measures appear to have origins in proposals advanced by the science community.




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Lessons from Budget 2018

What lessons can we take from this year’s outcome? After two years in Canberra, I haven’t discovered a magic key to the Federal coffers. But here are my general observations.

Intrinsic value is not sufficient

We can’t assume that the broad public support for science will translate into support for specific proposals unless we do the work to explain the benefits, including more jobs and better health.

Being intrinsically valuable is not sufficient. Clarity about what we can deliver is essential when science is competing with spending proposals with obvious and immediate benefits – like more hospital beds.




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Politicians need help

It helps to remember that most politicians aren’t experts in science policy. I’ve wrestled for years with the term “national research infrastructure”. People I talk to outside the research sector simply don’t understand it. A small change to saying “national research facilities” turns the lights on.

Show outcomes

It’s important for politicians to see the outcomes of public investment. They see the dollar figures in the budget papers but they don’t necessarily connect the research breakthroughs they read about in the newspapers years later to the programs that made them possible. It is important to help local members, irrespective of their party, recognise the impact of previously funded programs working for Australians.

Review and communicate

Take stock of progress and give credit to what has been achieved to date before heading back into the arena for the next round. As custodians of public funds, researchers should be proud to share their achievements with the taxpayers who ultimately make them possible.




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We’re all in this

Finally, I’ve always found politicians to be far more receptive to funding proposals when they see commitment from other quarters. It’s not just the Commonwealth that needs to step up. It’s business. It’s state and territory governments. It’s philanthropists.

If we reach out widely, we can strengthen our advocacy with new allies, and at the same time, help government to focus on the things that only government can do.

Below I highlight some key areas funded through Budget 2018.

Key science and technology items in Budget 2018, from the Australian Academy of Science.

National facilities

I welcome the emphasis on national-scale research facilities: I was Chair of the taskforce that delivered the 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

This year’s budget invests $1.9 billion over 12 years, adding to the $1.5 billion over ten years committed to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) in 2015.

As shown below, $393.3 million is allocated in the next five years.


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I am encouraged that the government has committed to review the investment plan every two years, in recognition of the importance of keeping this discussion firmly on the national agenda.

In addition to these funds, the budget acts on an urgent priority flagged in the Roadmap – high performance computing. $70 million for the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth adds to the $70 million previously committed to the National Computational Infrastructure in Canberra.

This builds on the $119 million announced for the European Southern Observatory in the previous budget.

National missions

A second notable feature is the follow-through on the national missions proposed in the Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) 2030 Plan.

The ISA mission to preserve the Great Barrier Reef is supported by $100 million in new investment for coral reef research and restoration projects, as part of a $500 million package announced last month.

The ISA mission to harness precision medicine and genomics to make Australia the healthiest nation in the world is backed with $500 million over the next ten years from the Medical Research Future Fund.




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A scaffold for the genomics revolution was provided by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) in the recent Precision Medicine Horizon Scanning report, commissioned by the Commonwealth Science Council.

A forthcoming Horizon Scanning report, on artificial intelligence, will likewise inform the $30 million commitment to AI and machine learning in the 2018 budget. The funding includes a national ethics framework for AI – a welcome development that will position Australia well in the global AI standards debate.


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More broadly, the budget acts on priorities that scientists have championed for years.

There is $41 million for a National Space Agency, including a $15 million fund for International Space Investment.


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Over four years, $36 million will be provided for the Antarctic science program.

An amount of $4.5 million over four years is aimed to encourage more women into STEM education and careers, including a decadal plan for women in science.

With a focus on GPS technology, $225 million is allocated over four years to improve the accuracy of satellite navigation, and $37 million over three years for Digital Earth Australia. The goal of this funding is to make satellite data accessible for research, regional Australia and business.


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There is also $20 million for an Asian Innovation Strategy, including an extension of the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund for four years.

Business innovation

In the business arena, changes to address integrity and additionality (that is, driving R&D to levels beyond “business as usual”) in the Research and Development Tax Incentive (RDTI) will reduce by an estimated $2.4 billion the money the scheme delivers to industry.

As one of the authors of the “3Fs” review of the RDTI – with Bill Ferris and John Fraser – I support the rebalancing of Australia’s business innovation budget. We are a global outlier in our heavy reliance on the indirect pull-through achieved through the tax system, instead of mission-driven direct investment.

The ConversationWith money recouped from the RDTI, scientists and research-intensive businesses should be making the case for more and better-targeted programs. Work remains to be done.

Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.