Opinion-17 January 2001
Has Much Changed in Almost 9 Years?
Reprinted November 1, 2009

Adrian Gibbs: Australia’s Creative Generation Must be Allowed to Influence Decisions

There are two crucially important and related aspects of the current Australian science scene that have not attracted enough attention. First, whether the current treatment of Australia's young scientists is optimal for the future of science in this nation, and secondly whether innovation is optimally fostered by the present system that controls publicly funded research.

  The following comments are based on experiences gained during over 30 thirty years of biological research work in Australia, and hence may not apply in other disciplines.

  Australia's future research effort depends on the efforts and the innovativeness of its young scientists, yet most submissions to review committee’s seem to come from established persons or their organisations - the young, who do much of the work, and probably produce many / most of the innovative ideas seem not to contribute, perhaps because they have neither the infra-structural support, nor the time, to contribute to the science reviewing / planning process.

  Australian biological science is at present, over controlled by networks of established workers. Priorities are set by committees of the Australian Research Council, CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Research Development Corporations and the Cooperative Research Centres - committees that are mostly, if not exclusively, established workers, many no longer active in research themselves. The committees that now control funding (i.e. ARC, NHMRC, etc) are largely run by the 'established' for the 'established' (NB the grant recipient figures in The Chance for Change). The grants however are mostly used to provide salaries for short-term appointments for young scientists to work on the ideas of the tenured. And those ideas have been filtered by the committees and the networks of colleagues that they use as referees. The refereeing system employed by the major funding bodies is a farce - it is time-consuming, involves haemorrhaging of ideas to unknown referees without intellectual property  protection (both in Australia and overseas), grading of projects against unknown scales, and I suspect that if it was properly investigated it would be found that it is largely network controlled - 'who you know not what you know'.

  Thus while more funding for research is essential, I do not believe there is great value to be gained from just putting it into the existing system. Australia needs an in-depth study of the structure of its science 'industry' to devise new ways that will foster the career and skill building of younger scientists, foster innovation, expose established scientists to selection based on their ability to do good science, not just build networks. There are lots of ways in which this could be achieved by small modifications of the existing system, and by diminishing the influence of those described by Prof Barry Ninham as the bureausaurs:

 1)  Science priorities should be set by bodies that have a majority of active working scientists/ industrialists, etc not bureausaurs;

 2)  The major funding bodies should abandon their present charade of 'external refereeing' and large selection panels, and replace them with small paid selection panels of top scientists, who examine and compare all competing proposals; one panel to assess the quality of the proposals, another separate panel to assess the quality of past endeavours;

3)      A significant proportion of research funding should be reserved for young non-tenured scientists, and should be awarded to them without the requirement for the assured patronage of an older established person, and should be fully and independently funded for a minimum of 5 years. The older tenured staff would then have to compete for younger staff, who would be free to move if better scientific opportunities appeared elsewhere, or where required, for the optimal realization of their work. Younger scientists would in this way be setting some of the scientific agenda, and be able to build their own skills and careers.

Professor Adrian Gibbs,
Molecular Genetics Group,
Research School of Biological Sciences,
and the Division of Molecular Medicine,
John Curtin School of Medical Research,
Australian National University.