Ben Eltham‘s analysis of the cuts to investment in science and research also touches on some general points about building research capacity in the contemporary era of underfunded research institutions. The main point that needs to be emphasised is the lack of stability that the current de-funding approach produces. Eltham quotes Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt on the difficulties of planning a research program:
“I think the problem that we have right now is that every time we get a new program, the ground shifts,” Schmidt added.
“I’m trying to plan my research program, like everyone else, five to 10 years out, and when we spend money and then switch it a few years later, we end up not getting very good value for the government’s investment.”
Beyond politics and policy, there is a fundamental epistemological problem with the current instability produced by de-funding research.
There is currently too much risk involved in the business case for planning five to 10 year research plans. Who knows how research will be funded in three years, let alone 10? At a minimum, it means creating multiple research plans and diversifying investment in knowledge creation (that is, time required to do research) across these plans, so as to minimise the risk in the ‘ground shifting’ again. This dilutes the amount of work that can be carried out and reduces overall research capacity.
There is a massive drop in efficiency for organisations that lose confidence in how they appreciate their own progress. Who is succeeding in research when a program is simply de-funded? What does it mean to succeed? What are the milestones?
How many potential PhD candidates will look at the state of investment in research in this country and decide that the lack of security is not worth putting at risk their own welfare or the welfare of their families?