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‘Australia’s future is in peril,’ says departing ANU vice-chancellor

Image: Jamie Kidston/ANU


Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt fires research funding salvo as he announces intention to step down

Brian Schmidt is to step down from his role as vice-chancellor of the Australian National University—and he used his announcement to take aim at Australia’s research funding system.

In his annual ANU vice-chancellor’s address on 2 February, Schmidt (pictured) said that “Australia’s future is in peril unless it ramps up its investment in research”.

He said that even after stepping down as ANU vice-chancellor at the end of this year, he would continue to advocate for better funding. “I hope government will listen and help engage business and philanthropy in the cause,” he said.

“We have been working in a financially constrained environment. The Australian government has slowly shrunk its support of foundational research,” he continued. “It has never been harder for a researcher to win a competitive grant. And when they do, we face the dilemma of how to cover the gap in funding between the dollars in the grant and the true cost of the project.”

“Research is like the nation’s superannuation—if you save money now by not investing, you have a much poorer future. We have run a major deficit last year, and will again this year, but we are on a path to recovery—this is not the time to turn away from excellence down the blind alley of mediocrity.”

Making progress

Schmidt, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2011 for his work in physics, has been vocal on research issues in recent years. He became vice-chancellor at the ANU in 2016. After stepping down, he will return to a research and teaching role as a professor at the university.

Among his successes, Schmidt listed increased participation of women in ANU research, a high rate of commercialisation and a unilateral decision to top up postgraduate research stipends by A$5,000 a year.

“We continue to see fewer people from diverse backgrounds reach the highest levels academically or professionally. But we are making progress,” he said. 

On 1 February, Schmidt commenced his role as chair of the Group of Eight research-intensive universities. Deputy chair Mark Scott, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, will replace Schmidt as chair in 2024, a Group of Eight spokesperson said.