What’s behind the alarming drop in water research investment?

Posted 3 April 2017

Ozwater'17 articles
There's been an alarming drop in urban water research investment in recent years, and the industry must act now to turn that around, an Australian study shows.
Water research
Research and development funding for the water sector shrank from an estimated $100-130 million in 2013 to just $40-50 million in 2015, according to a paper co-authored by Jill Fagan, recently R&D Manager of Water Services Association of Australia.

Another of the authors, Hon Research Fellow, CSIRO Land and Water Peter Dillon, said it was unwise for the industry to “sail blind into a future where challenges continue to intensify” as it’s “not sustainable for any organisation that intends to have a long life”. 

“There are many examples of urban water research where benefits significantly exceed costs, and the benefits include reduced capital and operating costs for utilities, improved environmental outcomes, avoidance of emergencies and services better tailored to customer needs,” Dillon said.

“Cutting well-focused research investment is not only detrimental to bottom lines, but also to the resilience, adaptability and innovation culture of water utilities and other water service organisations.

“Research is essential to the future of the Australian water industry, and we cannot rest on our past research success to maintain our position among world leaders.”

The summary paper, entitled What is the Optimal Level of Investment in Research for the Australian Urban Water Industry?, showed Australian utility investment in urban water research as a percentage of revenue more than halved between 2010 and 2015, from 0.5% to 0.2%. 

It also demonstrated that figure was comparatively low, pointing to the UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) recommendation that 1-2% of capital and operating expenditure be invested in research (equating to 0.6-1.2% of revenue).

The report sets out a number of steps the industry can take to improve the situation:

1. Set industry-agreed research priorities to efficiently utilise new funding opportunities as they arise
2. Collaborate and leverage coordinated delivery of national research priorities to maximise efficiency; 
3. Effectively transfer knowledge to extract maximum value from existing and past research investments;
4. Quantify and communicate the value of research investment; and 
5. Maintain a stable and adequate level of research investment that maximises net benefit to customers.

According to the report, some of these are already in the works, but the country lags behind on the last two points. 

“Variable investment in research is inefficient compared with stable investment that sustains the best research capacity,” Dillon said.

“Historical and overseas models of research investment were reviewed as part of the study and warrant consideration.”

The summary paper was put together in conjunction with representatives from the Water Services Association of Australia, Water Research Australia, the National Centre of Excellence in Desalination Australia, CSIRO, the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, and Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence.

Interested to learn more about revitalising Australian water research? Want to share your own thoughts on the topic? Representatives will present in greater detail the appropriate level, collaborative models and potential support mechanisms at the Ozwater’17 conference in Sydney. Click here to learn more.

Open discussion will allow further input before the paper is finalised.