We must get better at explaining the impact of basic research on applied research/wealth creation, especially how the two interact with each other

Ian Young Slide
7601 Dean Of Science Professor Iain Young

Iain Young is Dean of Science at University of Sydney. See his take on advocacy for basic science research, from this summary and slides of his address to the ACDS AGM.

  • Basic science and applied science live together and must be viewed as intertwined elements of the innovation space. Basic science is typically motivated by curiosity, whereas applied science is generally focussed on addressing specific questions, and the balance between them is critical.
  • We need to identify far better approaches for lobbying government about the need to maintain this balance and to continue to support fundamental research; as a Sector, we are not good at this. Our Government is more interested in supporting science that leads to rapid wealth creation, without understanding that funding basic science has a positive impact on applied science and wealth creation. Indeed Iain proposed that injecting more funds into applied science, at the expense of basic science, has a negative impact on wealth creation.
  • Two key examples of the impact of basic science on applied science and wealth income were cited (we need to have such stories available to use when lobbying key decision-makers about the importance of funding basic science):
    • Michael Faraday’s discovery of electricity: when William Gladstone, who was the then Chancellor of the Exchequer posed the question to Faraday about electricity: “but after all, what use is it”, Faraday respondedWhy sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it”. Today, our world – and wealth creation – could not operate without electricity, although the returns on Faraday’s basic science were not immediate. Indeed, it wasn’t until the second quarter of the 20th Century that electrical power became generally available. Now we cannot imagine a world without electricity. Before Faraday’s time, we could not imagine that it could even exist.
    • Schrödinger’s cat: If you asked Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 about the value of his famous thought experiment, he would be unlikely to indicate that his curiosity-driven research would lead (for example) to ways of storing music (and other content) in a “compact disk” format. It has been estimated that 30 % of the world’s GDP now relies on quantum mechanics (this figure does not include quantum computing).
  • The potential outputs of basic science are unpredictable – and can be life-changing. In 1939, Abraham Flexner wrote an article entitled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”, which explored the potential consequences of neglecting curiosity-driven research in favour of pragmatism.
  • The application of new knowledge can be highly profitable. For example, a 1997 US NSF study found that 73 % of the papers cited in Patents were based on publicly funded research. Reports such as this are not uncommon, but compared to other countries, we are not using them effectively to lobby our Government about the importance of basic research for wealth creation and for maintaining our sovereign capability.
  • In the case of ARC Discovery Grants, the ranking metrics tend to emphasise “who you are” and “where you are” rather than project quality and innovation. The latter are really what science is all about, and should be ranked more highly, in Iain’s view.

Questions from the Floor

  • Question: The UK has done better than Australia at supporting basic research. How can we duplicate their success?

Response: We need to improve our lobbying skills as a sector; to date, our message has not been cutting through. Our key funding bodies, such as the ARC also need to become effective lobbyists for the sector, and at present they do not engage in lobbying. In contrast, the UK funding agencies have proven to be very effective lobbyists. This has led to UK Governments understanding the value of basic science in supporting wealth creation, and to more balanced approaches to funding both basic and applied research. Germany, and the EU in general, also have a more sophisticated approach to supporting both basic and applied science.

In Australia, much of our basic science only adds to the “knowledge pot” without being used effectively for wealth creation and hence it is not highly visible to Government. At a more fundamental level, the connectivity between basic and applied science in Australia is not well developed, and certainly not well understood by Government. The particular importance of the decadal plan developed by Australia’s physics community which, among other things, envisaged the creation of an Australian leadership role in the development of the Square Kilometre Array is an example of what can be achieved from a lobbying perspective. However, there is no one body in Australia that has effectively communicated the importance of the connectivity between basic and applied science to Government (STA should perform that role to some extent).

  • Question: What is the role of the Australian Academy of Science in lobbying Government and in communicating the importance of basic science, particularly given their role in developing decadal plans?

Response: The role of the AAS is complex and multi-faceted, and in terms of maintaining funding for basic science, they have not been as successful as we might hope. However, the Government is currently focused on wealth creation, and does not appear to be receptive to the key message regarding the importance of basic science in enhancing GDP. This is partly our fault, and we need to become more effective at lobbying and staying “on message” – the remarkable contribution of quantum mechanics to world GDP is one example of the success stories that we should be using to lobby Governments.

  • Question: Could we improve our narrative by engaging more effectively with the State and Federal Chief Scientists?

Response: Yes! We need to develop multiple approaches to selling a consistent narrative. The Chief Scientists operate independently of their respective Governments but are generally highly regarded by them.

  • Question: The success of the physics community in lobbying Government has been highlighted. One of their defining characteristics is their connectivity and collaborations with international colleagues, through high-profile flagship organisations such as CERN. Could cognate relationships be exploited by the broader science community as part of our lobbying and development of a consistent narrative?

Response: We should certainly explore such approaches. The medical community has been more successful with implementing similar approaches than the science community in Australia. We should also ensure that the success of the science community in delivering outcomes such as the mRNA vaccines that have proven to be so effective at treating COVID‑19 continues to be emphasised to Government. As a Council, the ACDS might consider what we can do to develop and sell a consistent, “cut-through” narrative to Government which duplicates the “Save British Science” campaign that was founded in 1986.