Analysis and Commentary

Mary O’Kane recommends more uni R&D – but that’s not the innovation answer

Analysis and Commentary

By Peter Roberts

Much has been written about the Australian universities accord – final report from scientist and engineer Mary O’Kane (pictured).

But from an industry innovation point of view her panel’s recommendations fall short of what is needed to kickstart Australia’s fading innovation – and I mean business innovation – performance.

National R&D has been falling as a proportion of GDP since at least 2012 – and no, it is not all the former coalition’s problem – the fall is continuing under Labor.

O’Kane says that university research is uniquely important to Australia – in few other countries does university research comprise such a large proportion of overall national research.

It may be highly regarded, but all this excellent medical and other research is not ending up as economically important innovation by business.

This has long been seen as the fault of business which apparently does not recognise the excellence of research – but in fact it just as much the fault of universities whose research is so divorced from economic outcomes.

In fact few manufacturers read scientific journals, and university scientists are recognised for publications and citations of their research.

O’Kane said: “Despite the high quality of Australia’s university research and development (R&D), the nation does not currently utilise its full potential as a source of innovation. The Review devoted considerable time to the question of how to increase the amount and quality of university R&D and its uptake by government, business and industry.”

So yes there are useful recommendations – a new fund is proposed to reward universities that demonstrate effective use of their research expertise and capability and application of their research findings to big national challenges by governments, business and industry.

Former industry minister Kim Carr tried to introduce an impact measure for research linked to research funding, but failed to do so.

And there is a recommendation that there should be a multi-agency government strategy to significantly increase national R&D spending as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product.

A major issue rightly highlighted here is the lack of overall national co-ordination of research with numerous ministries and organisations pulling in different, though no doubt well meaning, directions.

But without national leadership, this is not going to change.

But then this recommendation: “The ARC should also be given increased funding to invest in fundamental research.”

If you are trying to boost business investment in innovation, you don’t need more basic research – you need more applied research initiated by industry.

This, then is the nub of what is wrong with the Australian universities accord report as seen through a manufacturing lens.

The answer is seen in the university sector doing things differently.

What needs to be done is not for more excellent research that then goes looking for an industry partner.

The need is for structures that respond to real industry needs with applied research, that is more industry/research hubs that perform work for industry, not the other way round.

This is the model for the UK’s Catapult centres and Germany’s Fraunhofer Society which has 76 institutes around the country focused on applied science.

A number of such centres have become established – around the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in Sydney, the medical research institutes in Melbourne, the ARM robotics hub in Brisbane and the Line-Zero Factory of the future of Flinders University and BAE Systems Australia, in Adelaide.

But despite such standouts, these centres are not a feature of national policy.

Picture: Mary O’Kane

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