Benefit test to optimise research investment

Ongoing assessment of project outcomes is helping the FRDC ensure it gets the best return from its research dollars

By Catherine Norwood

Illustration of a shark in the ocean

FRDC research projects completed in the 2016-17 financial year are expected to return a benefit of almost 6 to 1, according to the results of an economic analysis of the investment. These benefits will accrue over 30 years from the time of the original investment.

Conducted by Agtrans Research and Consulting in conjunction with the FRDC’s Research, Development and Extension Plan 2015–20, the economic analysis is part of an ongoing program to evaluate the effectiveness of FRDC investments.

The analysis showed that 20 randomly selected projects completed in 2016-17 will average a benefit–cost return of 5.7 to 1 – an improvement on the 2015-16 projects, which had a return of 4.5 to 1.

The best performing of the 2016-17 projects was the FRDC’s investment creating the Centre for Aquatic Animal Health and Vaccines, which is part of the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment in Launceston. This new, biosecure facility has a 30-year benefit–cost ratio of 15 to 1.

Senior research agronomist at Agtrans Research and Consulting Talia Hardaker says FRDC’s 2015-16 results were on par with the national benchmark. This was established in 2016 in a review conducted for the Council of Rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs). The review assessed 300 projects from across all 15 RDCs.

“In general, in agriculture we would expect accrued benefits of between 2 and 5 to 1 over 30 years. With a result of 5.7 to 1 for the latest evaluation, the FRDC is performing relatively well,” Talia Hardaker says.

“When we have results from additional years, we will be able to aggregate our findings. This might help managers identify constraints to adoption and how resources can be better allocated.”

She says researchers are already being asked to consciously consider their projects from beginning to end, and to include pathways to impact, to optimise the benefits.

Projects that have industry ownership and participation had better adoption, accrued greater benefits, and tended to have high benefit–cost returns – as demonstrated by the Centre for Aquatic Animal Health and Vaccines, jointly funded by the Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association.

The FRDC’s second-best performing project from 2016-17 was the emergency response to the outbreak of Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome in Tasmania, with a 9.3 to 1 benefit–cost return. This was followed by a project to revise the Australian Shellfish Quality Assurance Program Manual in response to FRDC research into paralytic shellfish toxins, with a ratio of 5.6 to 1.

The projects for evaluation, which were selected randomly from the 96 projects completed in 2017, represented all five of the FRDC’s research programs: environment, industry, communities, adoption and people development.

Talia Hardaker says it is difficult to put a monetary value on the outcomes of some projects.

“For example, there is no market value on the ‘sustainability of ecosystems’,” she says. “There is a lot of research being done to develop ways to assess this, but it is complex and it hasn’t been included in our evaluations.”

She says the FRDC works with a public resource, which makes it unique in terms of the RDCs – and that a significant portion of its research is public good in nature.

“It’s also clear from the projects we are evaluating that improving social licence is a driver behind some of the fisheries research, not just a spill-over benefit. Reputation is something the FRDC is specifically targeting, more so than the other RDCs.”

The full details of projects assessed and the findings are available from the FRDC’s website.

More information

Talia Hardaker, Agtrans Research and Consulting
FRDC's Benefits of Research