In his new book, Wizards of Oz, Brett Mason chronicles two Australians who changed the course of world history with separate discoveries over a 100-day period in 1940.
Mark Oliphant’s lab miniaturized radar and realized an atomic bomb was possible. Howard Florey distilled penicillin and showed it to be a miracle cure for infections. Oliphant’s discoveries forever changed the course of World War II for the Allies. Florey saved countless lives during war and is the most significant advance in medical history, leading to an average human lifespan 23 years longer than the year of its discovery.
These incredible discoveries are the result of curiosity-driven research conducted within universities. The importance of technology to Australia’s future was not lost on our leaders at the end of the war, and they enlisted Oliphant and Florey to help establish the Australian National University in 1946.
Fast forward about 75 years, and as the leader of the university that Oliphant and Florey helped establish, I believe we must once again reset our higher education system to meet the needs of Australia’s future.
A prosperous Australia needs a highly educated population; it needs innovative research and an ecosystem where government, industry and academia work together to propel people and ideas towards a common societal good.
A starting point is to give every Australian student access to the education they want. While our Hecs/Help system provides broad access to college, support for students from moderate or disadvantaged backgrounds is so weak that most students have no choice but to go to college next. closest to home, not the one that best suits their skills and interests. Many students have to work long hours to make ends meet, sacrificing the time they need to get the most out of their coursework. We won’t get fair results until we update the way we support students during their studies.
Evidence shows that students actually know which study programs are best for them. Rather than trying to force them to study certain subjects through a byzantine fee structure, we must allow them to select subjects according to their interests by standardizing course fees. If the government wants to encourage private tutoring, it should provide scholarships that help students pay for their living expenses while studying in these fields.
Around the world, but especially in Australia, governments are reducing curiosity-driven research in favor of research with direct commercial application. This short-term thinking fails to understand that the innovations we need actually come from the gigantic reservoir of ideas generated by curiosity – what we in universities call basic research.
From 1992 to 2020, Australia’s investment in basic research fell from 40% of total government spending to 19%. Additionally, we now rely on foreign revenue streams for much of this research. It is essential that basic research – as a public good of immense value both economically and strategically – remains appropriately funded by government. This is currently not the case.
This dramatic drop in funding coincided with strict societal interest criteria for research funding. For a few months earlier this year, a test of national interest was put in place, which meant that the type of research I did to win a Nobel Prize in Physics was no longer fundable. While I understand it’s not immediately obvious that the field of astroparticle physics I work in is of any practical use, it has created the underlying technology for your digital camera, wifi, internet and your smartphone’s touch screen. These unintended spinoffs are the backbone of innovation.
Although Education Minister Jason Clare has removed the worst elements of the national interest test, sadly there remains a dormant populist response to basic research, ready to be reactivated at the expense of the nation at a politically opportune time in the future. The government should remove the national interest test for curiosity-driven research once and for all. Let’s instead focus our attention on optimizing our searches, rather than trying to put them in a predetermined box. That’s why I welcome the Australian Research Council’s review to ensure we have a research system that is up to the opportunities and challenges of the decades to come.
This is not to say that the application of research is not important – it is essential. Translating the sea of knowledge from basic research creates new gadgets, creates jobs, and solves the quagmire of challenges we face as a global community. But this work must go hand in hand with curiosity-driven research, not in place of it. Australia can be proud of its university system. But it needs a restart. The university accord process is a chance to bring about the scale of change needed for decades to come. We need a system that takes into account changing demographics, differences between regional centers and capitals, and responds quickly to our immigration and skills needs. It must also provide the research that will drive productivity gains to keep us thriving in a rapidly changing world.