Poor research-industry collaboration: time for blame or economic reality at work?

‘There are relatively fewer large-scale research-intensive industries for universities to partner with in Australia,’ says Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor, University of Melbourne. Alan Porritt/AAP

Australia produces great research but it ranks last in the OECD tables for collaboration between researchers and business.

In a debate last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull noted that other countries with similar academic cultures are “well ahead” on industry engagement with university research.

Does this reflect the Australian economy, with its relatively few large-scale research-intensive industries for universities to partner with? Not so, said the prime minister.

“Everyone I talk to,” he said, “believes that the problem is academics … their incentives are very much associated with publish or perish.”

This is a popular view, often expressed. Yet like much conventional wisdom, it offers a too simple answer for a complicated question.

Academic incentives such as appointment and promotion procedures, rules for external work, and remuneration from commercial income in Australian universities are broadly consistent with those in public universities in the UK and the US.

Intellectual property policy at Australian universities usually mirrors international practice.

Since 1990, the Co-operative Research Centres program has connected companies and researchers to encourage collaboration.

Every Australian university can point to ideas developed on campus that are now in the marketplace.

Technology transfer companies have operated within the sector for decades, along with successful investment schemes such as UniSeed, which helps universities target investment in new technologies.

Campus start-ups and incubators are thriving. For example, Australia Post recently invested A$1 million to expand the Melbourne Accelerator Program, judged among the top 15 such initiatives in the world.

Why does Australia score so poorly on industry engagement?

Last year the Departments of Education and Industry argued Australia is not capitalising on its public investment in research.

They cited a low proportion of researchers working in business and academic-industry research publications.

The report also drew attention to structural challenges beyond the university sector. Australian business, it noted, prefers to “adopt or modify existing innovations”.

An issue with universities or business?

But the Commonwealth’s chief economist is far more blunt.

His 2014 report identified Australia’s “moderate to low performance on innovation”, particularly in getting new products to market.

Reasons included poor management skills, inadequate networking and collaboration, poor levels of venture and private equity capital, fragmented and obstructive government regulation, an isolated economy dominated by small businesses, and risk aversion.

This tough assessment raises awkward questions for university, business and political leadership alike.

It recalls historic debates about why Australia failed to develop the complex industrial base of other advanced societies.

We are home to a handful of large and innovative corporations, but for a nation of small businesses and modest overall commercial investment in research, it seems unlikely academic incentives are the major impediment.

The academic contribution, at best, is a small part of a much bigger picture.

The reliability of the OECD data has also been disputed. The measures used are based on a European survey not implemented in Australia, and there’s been heated debate around whether the repurposed data provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics compares like with like.

How can we boost collaboration?

The forthcoming innovation report offers a chance to rethink complexities in the block funding scheme for research.

There are opportunities to adopt global best practice in collaboration, such as the UK’s Catapult initiative – a network of world-leading centres designed to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in seven specific areas and help drive future economic growth.

Assessing the balance between individual and program grants could shift research toward more long-term goals.

The national innovation statement should encourage more start-up programs on campus so the next generation of Australian entrepreneurs get started.

It could investigate adopting the very successful Small Business Technology Transfer program from the US, which encourages small businesses to engage in research that has commercial potential.

It is time to address the gap between the point when research funding ends and investment begins.

We need teams of managers with the expertise to translate promising early research into commercial development.

Such talent is hard to find in Australia, but the large diaspora includes just the right skills and experience.

These people – venture catalysts – could work with inventors to package opportunities for investors. In our small system, they could work across multiple universities and research institutes to secure a sufficient flow of viable deals.

Know where to start and be clear about the goal

The Australian economy, with all its strengths and weaknesses, is our setting. It is not fulfilling its potential as measures of activities such as industry-university engagement make clear.

Our shared task is to make this economy more innovative, more productive and more diverse.

If we begin with a realistic assessment of our circumstances, and build on evidence, we can fulfil the prime minister’s ambition for an innovative nation.

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