Australia’s regional and outer metropolitan universities do great research, but too often they lack the critical mass and established research networks to make the most of their discoveries. The Collaborative Research Networks (CRN) program established under the former Labor Government showed that connecting these universities to their research-intensive counterparts helps to open new doors for regional researchers and places all Australian science in a stronger and more effective position.
Labor will give regional universities a fair go by funding two new rounds of CRN to continue building and strengthening partnerships between smaller and regional universities and their larger counterparts.
Why are we doing this?
Some regional and outer-metropolitan universities are strong research organisations in their own right – institutions like Deakin, Newcastle and Wollongong Universities. Others have traditionally focused on teaching and learning, but have research strengths they can build on. Working with larger universities that have a depth of research excellence enables a less research-intensive university to access new knowledge, facilities and networks.
In Government, Labor introduced the innovative CRN program to “help smaller and regional universities develop their research capacity by teaming up with other institutions.”
The CRN program was extremely successful. An independent mid-term review found that it substantially exceeded its targets in relation to four out of five objectives, and that the value of grants won increased by 85 per cent (see box).
Indicative achievements of the CRN program, as at May 2014
- Prior to CRN 81 research Masters and PhD students were engaged in the identified areas of research. As of May 2014, this had increased to 219, significantly exceeding the target of 155.
- The number of journal papers published by CRN supported research groups increased from a baseline of 20 to 157 in May 2014, exceeding the target of 125 journal publications.
- As of May 2014, CRN participants had submitted 370 joint grant applications, up from a baseline of 26 and more than double the target of 139.
- The number of successful joint grant applications by CRN participants was also more than double the target, with 39 successes compared with a target of 15 and a baseline of 1.
- By May 2014, $4.3 million of grants had been won, which was somewhat below the target of $5.4 million, but nevertheless an 85 per cent increase over the baseline of $2.6 million.
The review found that CRN “helped develop research capacity by enabling a sustainable framework for the establishment of research consortia that should facilitate a more robust research and innovation system.” Without a new funding injection, this valuable framework will be lost when the program ceases this year.
What is Labor’s proposal?
A Shorten Labor Government will invest $85 million over six years to deliver two new rounds of CRN, so that regional, outer metropolitan and non-research-intensive universities get a fair go when it comes to research funding.
This policy builds on what works. The Regional Universities Network has described the program as transformational for regional universities. This view was confirmed by the independent evaluation completed in 2015.
Importantly, CRN has proved to be a cost-effective way to achieve one of the key priorities in research policy – boosting collaboration between universities, and with international counterparts and end-users. Of the lead institutions participating in the first two rounds of the program, 14 out of 15 agreed that it had “allowed them to do research that they would otherwise not have been able to do.” Similarly, the vast majority stated that CRN had enabled them to expand the scope of their research and had a high or very high impact on their institution overall.
The CRN initiative complements Labor’s $16 million Regional Innovation Fund, which will support entrepreneurship and start-ups through the establishment of accelerators, incubators and innovation hubs in regional Australia.
How will Collaborative Research Networks drive growth and improve fairness?
Regional universities drive regional innovation and are often the backbone of local economies. Charles Sturt University’s experience demonstrates the transformational impact of CRN, and the value of enabling regional universities to take the lead role in collaborative projects (see box). In the absence of specific support, the potential for regional and smaller research universities to lead major research projects will continue to be limited.
Australia’s research funding system is driven by excellence. Labor’s policy will deliver more opportunity for PhD students and researchers in regional and outer metropolitan universities to build their skills and networks, and to undertake excellent research that addresses local and regional needs.
Case Study – Charles Sturt University EREYE CRN
The Excellence in Research in Early Years Education Collaborative Research Network (EREYE CRN) was established in 2011 with CRN funding of $5.4 million and a cash contribution from Charles Sturt University (CSU) of $500,000. The project involved around 70 academics and PhD students from CSU, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Monash University.
The project brought together the largest grouping of early years education researchers in Australia to transform early years research by using existing large-scale longitudinal studies of young children’s education and development. The project aimed to establish a distributed and sustainable critical mass of skilled researchers in order to strengthen the national knowledge base about early years education.
As a major national provider of early years teacher education, one of CSU’s key goals was to build a strong and sustainable academic workforce in the field. During the four years of funding, CSU produced 10 high quality early years PhD graduates, compared to just one in the previous three years. The funding also enabled CSU to recruit a postdoctoral research fellow from the United States to contribute high level statistical expertise to the project.
CSU describes the opportunity to apply for CRN funding as “a major breakthrough”, enabling it to take forward cutting-edge research and collaborations with QUT and Monash University that had been progressing slowly due to a lack of funding and capacity.
The CRN resulted in successful joint applications for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project, two ARC Linkage Projects, an Office for Learning and Teaching research grant, and four research tenders. CSU researchers led five of the eight funded projects, with more proposals for ARC funding currently under review or in development. The CRN collaboration also produced more than 47 CSU/QUT or CSU/Monash joint publications.
The research supported by CRN funding will have a practical impact on early years education across Australia, with stakeholder meetings held in five states, engaging 43 organisations and enabling 22 prospective partner organisations to be identified.
How will it work?
The program will fund collaborative research projects that aim to boost research capability in regional, outer-metropolitan and smaller metropolitan universities and help them build research partnerships with more established, research-intensive institutions. The 2012 program guidelines identified the following specific objectives:
- Help less research-intensive smaller and regional institutions adapt to a research system driven more strongly by performance outcomes.
- Facilitate collaboration between less research-intensive institutions and other institutions with established research strengths.
- Encourage less research-intensive institutions to focus their research activities in areas of existing or emerging strength.
- Help address the challenges associated with undertaking research in regional institutions.
- Improve the level of collaboration between different parts of the innovation system, and, in particular, between universities.
- Meet local and regional priorities.
Guidelines for the new funding rounds will take account of the evaluation and feedback from stakeholders, to ensure CRN remains well-targeted and effective.
The previous Labor Government increased investment in science, research and innovation by more than 50 per cent between 2006‑07 and 2013‑14. Labor invested in a targeted suite of measures aimed at delivering against Labor’s National Innovation Priorities, as outlined in the 2009 National Innovation Strategy, Powering Ideas.
One of these priorities was that “the innovation system encourages a culture of collaboration within the research sector and between researchers and industry.” Labor effectively delivered on this priority with programs that worked – including CRN, the Industrial Transformation Research Program, Researchers in Business, Enterprise Connect, Commercialisation Australia and more.
Building a culture of collaboration takes time, but Labor’s approach was working. More universities were coming together to collaborate on research, while businesses were learning the capabilities and value that Australian science and research has to offer. This progress was undermined when the Liberals’ 2014 Budget imposed savage cuts.
Bill Shorten has made science, research and innovation a priority from day one. By the time Malcolm Turnbull released his over-hyped innovation agenda, the Labor team had already announced three tranches of science, research and innovation policies that will drive innovation and productivity in Australia to create the jobs and industries of the future. These initiatives have been added to throughout the election campaign.
Labor’s commitments on science, research and innovation encompass a range of measures that will boost rural and regional innovation, including:
- Setting an aspiration for Australia to devote 3 per cent of GDP to research and development by 2030, with governments, universities, research organisations and industry all contributing to a strong innovation ecosystem.
- Creating a Regional Innovation Fund to lift the role of Australia’s regions in the national innovation effort, including through the establishment of university-based incubators and accelerators.
- Supporting 100,000 young people, especially women, to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics by writing off their HELP debts on completion.
- Putting more focus on quality and completion at university with around 20,000 more graduates each year and a Student Funding Guarantee, not $100,000 degrees.
- Creating a new Startup Year at universities so students can develop their ideas, get business knowhow and connect with finance.
- Backing in great ideas by co-investing in early stage and high potential companies through the $500 million Smart Investment Fund.
- Reversing savage cuts to the CSIRO with an injection of $250 million over the forward estimates, and halting the current round of job cuts.
- Delivering $500 million to protect the future of our Great Barrier Reef – not only a priceless environmental resource but a major part of the regional economy – including $50 million for the CSIRO to conduct climate and reef research.
The Liberal alternative
While it is their $115 million cut to CSIRO that has made headlines around the world, the Turnbull-Abbott Government has also sought to cut more than $3 billion from science, research and innovation programs overall. For universities, that includes cutting $75 million from research funding via the Australian Research Council, $300 million from research block grants, and $174 million from the Research Training Scheme. And Tony Abbott’s plan to charge fees for PhDs is still on Malcolm Turnbull’s agenda.
Despite talking and talking and talking about innovation, Malcolm Turnbull has supported every one of the Liberals’ cuts to Australian science and innovation, which also include:
- $107 million from Cooperative Research Centres.
- $84 million from National ICT Australia.
- $28 million from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.
- $8 million from the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
- $16 million from Geoscience Australia.
- $20 million from the Bureau of Meteorology.
- $120 million from Defence Science and Technology.
- $298 million from Industry Innovation Precincts.
- $350 million from the Innovation Investment Fund.
- $260 million from Commercialisation Australia.
After more than two years of cuts and disrespect, it is clear that the only plan the Liberals have for science, research and innovation in Australia is cuts.
 ACIL Allen Consulting, Mid-Term Evaluation Report – Collaborative Research Networks Programme, https://docs.education.gov.au/node/39366, April 2015, p. ii (Note: Not all projects reported against all criteria.)
 Information provided by Charles Sturt University; ACIL Allen Consulting, Mid-Term Evaluation Report – Collaborative Research Networks Programme, https://docs.education.gov.au/node/39366, April 2015, p. 24
 Australian Government, Collaborative Research Networks: Program Guidelines, https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/collaborative_research_networks_program_guidelines.pdf, October 2012, p. 5
 Australian Government, Powering Ideas, An Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century, http://www.industry.gov.au/innovation/InnovationPolicy/Pages/PoweringIdeas.aspx, May 2009, p. 4
 Totals may not sum due to rounding