Noble prize winner Brian Schmidt. Photo: Joe Armao
Pressure is building for the federal government to overhaul the way science is funded in Australia, with leading researchers describing existing arrangements as inadequate, inefficient and lacking focus.
Nobel prize winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt described the government-funded Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards, this year worth $75 million, as a ''bit of a lottery'' because bureaucratic rules meant judges, himself included, were not allowed to contact the researcher's supervisors.
The Australian National University scientist said the awards, administered through the Australian Research Council, were oversubscribed by a proportion of 13 to one and designed for young researchers at the start of their careers, so it was impossible to sensibly assess proposals in the absence of background checks.
Professor Schmidt did not receive the ARC grant he applied for this year and said more money was needed through the council to support research.
He branded Australia's higher education funding system as ''crazy'' for giving incentives for teaching as many students as cheaply as possible. ''You get what you pay for in education; clever country, my ass,'' he said. ''You spend money, you get Nobel prizes; you spend money, you make breakthroughs; you spend money, you get research output.''
Professor Schmidt said government funding for scientific research was largely administered through a series of short-term policies and grants that meant research institutions struggled to do long-term planning, a problem that had persisted under successive governments.
Under present arrangements, scientific research may receive sudden injections of money but when economic times were tough, funding fell away dramatically, he said.
''When you've got $2 million worth of stuff and you suddenly don't have any money to run it, you're mothballing brand new equipment because you can't run it. It's not an obvious way to do it, it's clearly a bad way to do it,'' he said.
Immunologist Ian Frazer, inventor of the human papilloma virus vaccine and 2006 Australian of the Year, joined Professor Schmidt in identifying key deficiencies in a business-as-usual approach to funding science.
Professor Frazer said biomedical research was fairly well resourced in Australia but not enough money was spent on clinical research and the social sciences.
He said Australia should identify key areas where it could excel rather than directing money towards a range of small-scale research that would never compete on the world stage. ''Lots of little cottage industry efforts in science is not nearly going to be as productive with the same amount of money as well-funded centres that have got specific areas of excellence,'' he said.
Professor Frazer said globally science was funded largely on short-term contracts, but more effort should be made in Australia to provide stable career paths for researchers.
''You want people who are sufficiently secure [that] they are prepared to take risks in the work they do, so they really push the frontiers, but not so secure that they don't bother taking any risks at all,'' he said.
A spokesman for Education Minister Christopher Pyne said the government would consider a range of options before the next budget.
The government's mid-year economic and fiscal outlook indicated it would redirect $103 million in ARC funding towards medical research, a move it proposed in opposition.