Engineering R&D is not the answer

Gavin Moodie, Victoria University of Technology

Developing research rarely heads Australian public discussion, so we should welcome contributions from outside the academy. Unfortunately, the recent discussion paper from Institution of Engineers, Australia on setting research and development priorities for Australia’s future does not advance the debate.

The Institution of Engineers, Australia argues that Australia needs to concentrate its research and development to maximise its (economic) benefit. This requires co-ordination of its (public) research effort within the Commonwealth portfolios and between Commonwealth, State, and Territory programs. It also requires Australia to concentrate its research in specific areas. The priorities should be medical research and biotechnology, environmental technology, agriculture, mining technologies, and electronics because ‘these areas will result in significant technological advances that promise the greatest return to Australia’. Much could be debated in the Institution’s position, but taking it in its own terms, let’s consider co-ordination, concentration, and priorities.


The Institution of Engineers argues for co-ordination of research and development within the Commonwealth portfolios and between Commonwealth, State and Territory programs. The Institution correctly reports that the multiplicity of research agencies and programs is confusing to an outsider and sometimes produces both overlaps and gaps. But it does not demonstrate that the simple co-ordination it apparently advocates would be more productive, still less that it would be beneficial.

The Institution of Engineers writes as if the only or only important reason for supporting research is to contribute to economic development. But communities support research for multiple reasons: to improve practice, to increase understanding, to solve contemporary problems, to enhance health, for economic benefits, and for many of us because we are simply curious. The multiplicity of agencies supporting research reflects the multiplicity of interests society has in its research.

The IEAust writes as if the only important reason for supporting research is to contribute to economic development.

Coordinating research through one body or mechanism would simply transfer these multiple interests to another body, which would still face the problem of reconciling different interests. Perhaps the Institution is really arguing that the social and cultural interests in research should be subverted to economic interests. But this would be unacceptable to Australians who want to have Australian experts help us understand our community, environment, and culture.


The Institution of Engineers writes as if Australia should concentrate all its research in areas of greatest potential economic benefit. But education, health, and social security are major areas of Government activity, and they should be informed by substantial research programs. International relations have been very important for centuries, and are arguably growing in importance by the decade. Australia should maintain expertise in every nation and culture with which it expects to deal, including its own cultures. Agriculture, mining, manufacturing, and services are important economically and should also be supported by strong research programs. In fact, every area of activity should be supported by research.

Concentrating research on areas of comparative economic advantage as the Institution proposes would leave vast areas of Australian life—economic, as well as social and cultural—unexamined by original Australian research. It assumes that a country can import great ideas from great minds elsewhere and plug them in as needed. But it is obvious that even the apparently simple activity of technology transfer requires local capacity. More complex is the acceptance and diffusion of improved methods in the community.


The Institution of Engineers says that ‘priority areas for future R&D expenditure’ should ‘include medical research and biotechnology, environmental technology, agriculture, mining technologies and electronics’.

The Institution’s discussion paper was released in March 2002 and presented to the National Press Club on 27 March. The discussion paper ignores the new Minister for Education, Science And Training’s announcement on 29 January 2002 of research priorities for the Australian Research Council’s 2003 National Competitive Grants Program. The Press Club speech refers to the ARC making ‘a good start’ in adopting ‘a strategic approach to R & D’ but otherwise makes no mention of the ARC priorities.

It will be recalled that the Australian Research Council’s priorities for 2003 grants are nano and bio-materials, genome/phenome research, complex/intelligent systems, and photon science and technology. The Minister said that 33 percent of ARC funding in the 2003 round will be allocated to these priorities, supporting project grants and centres for up to 5 years at a total cost of approximately $170 million.

The Minister’s ARC priorities are rather more specific than the Institution of Engineers’ priorities. Perhaps they go too far, or maybe they don’t include the interests the Institution of Engineers represents. The Institution will need to reflect on the Minister’s priorities for the Australian Research Council if it is to advance the debate on Australia’s research priorities.


The Institution—and others who seek to contribute to research policy—should inform their position with evidence.

There are methodological difficulties with the Institution of Engineers’ argument. It is hard to discern its position precisely because it speaks in generalities such as ‘co-ordination’, ‘strategic planning’, ‘priorities’, ‘pluralism’, and ‘competitive advantage’, and in slogans such as ‘picking winners’. The Institution might clarify its position by operationalising its proposal. For example, does it seek to co-ordinate all Australian (public) research and development by the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council? If so, how would it engage the States and Territories? Would it seek to include all Australian (public) research in a strategic plan, or just that funded directly by Commonwealth and State governments? Is the ARC’s 33 percent of funds on priorities an appropriate level of concentration, or should it be more or less?

Secondly, the Institution—and others who seek to contribute to research policy—should inform their position with evidence. The Institution asserts that Australia will maximise its (economic) benefits from research and development by co-ordinating, planning, and concentrating its research. But the Institution presents no evidence in support. It is like the medieval schoolmen who sought to derive the number of teeth in a horse’s mouth from the writings of Aristotle, rather than by opening a horse’s mouth and counting.

Canada has vigorous research, development, and manufacturing but its research is even less co-ordinated than Australia’s, the provinces having much greater responsibility for universities than Australia’s States. US research and development is chaotic—but enormously productive. Australia is not Canada, and still less the US, of course. Perhaps the Institution can point to countries of comparable size and economic structure that have benefited from co-ordinating and planning its research and development. Perhaps it can support its position by Australian research, although such research would not be included in the Institution’s priorities.

Australian experience contradicts the Institution’s position. Australia has a very strong record of introducing improved production, selling, and distribution methods into agriculture. It has also radically restructured its agricultural industries several times. Australian agriculture is an example of innovation, efficiency, and openness not only to other nations’ agricultural industries, but also to Australian manufacturing industry. If only Australian manufacturing supported research with industry levies as does agriculture! If only Australian manufacturing were as innovative and export-oriented as Australian agriculture!

Australia’s innovative agriculture is built on a range of research institutes, centres, and programs. Some are based on industries, some are based on disciplines and others are based on problems. Innovations are disseminated by agricultural extension programs, which have different structures, scope, orientations, and priorities. From time to time agencies and programs seem too messy and unfocussed, and so are reorganised and occasionally restructured. But the agencies and structures supporting agricultural research and innovation retain the pluralism that the engineers decry.


Commonwealth Minister for Education, Science and Training 2002, Media Release: Backing Australia’s Ability—Funding for Research Priorities Announced [Online], Available:

Institution of Engineers, Australia 2002, Research and Development: Which Direction? [Online], Available:

Gavin Moodie is head of quality and strategy at Victoria University of Technology. He has been a university administrator for 25 years and has published on higher education policy and equity. He is a regular columnist for the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian.

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