February 12, 2024

National R&D competitiveness requires a new international strategy

For universities, a big start to 2024 will come with the release of the final report by the Universities Accord panel, which was handed to Minister Jason Clare at the end of last year. The Accord is the biggest review of the Australian university system in fifteen years and is charged with setting the policy foundations to enable universities to maximise their contribution to the nation for the decades ahead.

Universities are key contributors to national productivity and wellbeing. One of the key ways that universities deliver for Australia is through research which connects us to the leading edge of global knowledge and innovation.

The Accord interim report rightly pointed out all the reasons why international collaboration by universities matters for Australia. But our existing policies and programs to support this collaboration need an urgent overhaul.

Australian government officials often observe that we now find ourselves in the most challenging geostrategic environment since World War Two. In November, at the Academy of Science, the chief defence scientist said that we are in the middle of a “paradigm shift” in global research and development (R&D).

What we need is an updated and co-ordinated approach to ensure that universities and government work together to maximise the contribution of international research collaboration for the broadest range of benefits for Australia.

Since the early 2000s, Australian universities have undergone significant growth, both in student numbers and research. Compared to other advanced nations, our universities undertake a disproportionately large share, nearly 40 per cent, of the nation’s total R&D effort.

And compared to other nations, Australia has one of the most internationalised university systems in the world. Australia’s research output is more and more collaborative – over 60 per cent of Australian publications now involve international co-authorship, compared to 40 per cent in the United States and a global average of around 25 per cent.

Australia produces 4 per cent of the world’s published research and it is high levels of international collaboration that increase the productivity and quality of Australian research, which drives our strong performance in global rankings and delivers outsize economic and social impact.

The interim report from the Universities Accord panel acknowledges the importance of international engagement. It sees universities as a “crucial element” of Australia’s soft power, diplomacy and foreign policy, and finds that international research deepens Australia’s influence, supports work towards common global goals, and provides Australia with access to cutting-edge technologies. A more strategic approach to international research, it says, could provide a “potentially lucrative source of knowledge exchange and revenue”.

It is crucial that the response to the final Accord report leads to a new framework to help us realise these ambitions.

The international research and innovation system is undergoing massive growth and change – since the early 2000s, total global investment in R&D has tripled. The centre of gravity of global knowledge and innovation is moving east and south. Though the US still invests more than any other country in R&D, as of 2023, China now produces more researchers, publications and patents.

Australia’s engagement with this international system has also changed. Our collaboration with China has increased to the same scale as our collaboration with the US. But the fastest growth in Australia’s international research collaboration over the last decade was actually with India, not China.

Australian universities and the Australian government work well together through the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT), with its focus on assessing and managing specific risks of international collaboration. We agree that there are new risks in the geopolitical environment, and they must be taken seriously.

But we need to ensure that our focus on the downsides of international research collaboration is balanced with an understanding of the significant upside benefits for Australia enabled by a more co-ordinated and strategic approach.

With a new national Tertiary Education and Research Commission under consideration as part of the Universities Accord, we see an opportunity to build on UFIT, co-ordinate effort and undertake a broader analysis of the global research landscape and the strategic opportunities for engagement, as well as the risks.

This type of co-ordination would support Australia taking a more proactive approach to negotiating more effective ways of supporting collaborative research across borders, and accessing the growing global pool of knowledge and funding. And it would help Australia better align its international research activities with other policy priorities, in diplomacy, security, and trade.

The AUKUS agreement is focusing attention on closer R&D collaboration in key strategic areas with the US and UK. We should also be focusing more on the role of education and research in boosting co-operation across the Indo-Pacific region, with key partners including in the Pacific, India and Japan. And at the same time, with the UK’s association to Horizon Europe finally being concluded post-Brexit, Europe will continue to be a crucial bloc for global research and innovation.

As a country, we should be investing to make sure that we can maintain our position as a leading research powerhouse, and leverage the changing global system cleverly to maximise the benefits for Australia. This should be a key feature of work in 2024 to progress the Accord. The world has changed significantly over the last few years, but we should not be afraid to engage proactively.

This will require new forms of co-ordination across government, and between government and universities. As the Australian Government’s 2030 Strategy for International Education is updated this year, it should be matched with a strategy for international research – based on evidence, protecting critical research and technologies, and capturing the benefits of open collaboration.

By accessing the 96 per cent of global knowledge and innovation that happens outside of our borders, our researchers help to drive Australian competitiveness. While managing risk, we should also keep our eyes on the reward, and be alert to the risk of missing out.

IRU Executive Director Paul Harris, and Maria Roitman, senior advisor, international research strategy at the University of Melbourne.

This article first appeared in The Australian.