Australia’s bad case of lucky-country-itis

Innovation report: complacency will endanger the shared prosperity Australians have enjoyed 

plus new dean of science at Monash

and not all quiet on the western front as union and managements talk at some WA universities

Ready for my close up Professor DeMille

Universities Australia invites PhD students and early-career researchers to present their work to the people who run higher education. A selection of two minute video pitches will screen at UA’s annual conference in March. There is a $1500 prize but the exposure is worth much more.

Wanted: an innovation umbrella

“The latest performance review of the Australian Innovation and Science Research System has indicated business engagement in research and development needs to improve. In other news water is wet,” postgraduate research student association president Peter Derbyshire on yesterday’s innovation report. He says the feds should address this by investing direct in commercialising research.

Tony Peacock from the Cooperative Research Centres Association is more charitable, suggesting the new guide “has the potential to become the reference material for judging performance of programmes and their contribution to an overall Australian innovation strategy.” But reporting is one thing, recommending entirely another; “it’s hard to disagree at the moment when the conclusions are that we need to do better in a number of general areas. The contentious part will come much more in the strategic planning and implementation stage where change will be needed.” Scroll down for CMM’s report.

New science dean for Monash

Jordan Nash is the incoming dean of science at Monash University. The physicist joins from Imperial College London and will take over in July. The hire has taken a while. The previous dean, Scott O’Neill announced he was standing down to return to research in January last year, (CMM January 19 2016) since then Cristina Varsavsky has been acting.

CRC P winners announced

Second round funding for Cooperative Research Centre Projects was announced last night, with 17 consortia winning a total of $34m, industry partners will kick in another $79m. CRC Ps are collaborative research-industry short-term projects. There were 91 applications in last March’s first round (CMM March 22 2016).

Universities and research institutions participating in winning bids are CSIRO, University of Queensland, Swinburne U, University of Melbourne, Deakin University, UNSW, Edith Cowan U, University of Tasmania, Western Sydney University, Southern Cross University, University of the Sunshine Coast, Monash University, Flinders University, University of South Australia. Third round applications close on March 22.

Talking quietly

It only looks like it is all quiet on the enterprise bargaining western front. Certainly talks are stalled at Murdoch U, where the National Tertiary Education Union is still appalled by management’s move to end coverage of the now expired agreement as a way of pushing the union into accepting the university’s offer. But CMM hears there are low-key conversations at the other public universities where the sticking points appear to have changed. Where it looked like union and managements would dig in on employment conditions, money now seems the big issue. Managements have offered 3 per cent to 3.75 per cent, over four years, not annually, that’s in total, but negotiation watchers say the union wants at least one per cent per annum more. The possibility of progress is said to be strongest at the University of Western Australia.

But where’s the R&D report?

Oh good, another innovation report (below), which new minister Arthur Sinodinos says the government will use “as a basis for advice” for a strategic plan through to 2030. However, there is a report with more immediate impact which the government is less keen on discussing. The Ferris, Finkel, Fraser report on tax treatment of research and development funding recommended a $2m cap on the cash refund for expenditure, a payment much loved by investors, less so by university researchers (CMM September 30 2016). Former portfolio minister Greg Hunt received the report six months back and never got around to responding. Perhaps Senator Sinodinos has not got far enough down in the in-tray, CMM hears his office is still getting up to speed with his huge industry, innovation and science portfolio.

Australia complacent about commercialising research

Australia barely makes it into the top 20 on the Global Innovation Index but now Innovation and Science Australia has created a performance ranking designed for local conditions – on which we perform ok-ish. On knowledge creation criteria Australia rates from three out of 36 OECD and associated nations for FTE researchers per thousand employed to 16th for GDP per centage expenditure on R&D. On knowledge transfer Australia is 27th of 38 for papers with industry-affiliated co-authors. On knowledge application we are 8th for early-stage entrepreneurship but 22nd for patents filed. The ranks for outcomes and outputs are not good, a rating of 23 from 31 for firms introducing new to market product innovation and 27 from 27 for employment increase in high-growth enterprises.

This, ISA argues, does not mean innovation is anathema in Australia, its just the structures aren’t right; “Although there are common references to Australia’s ‘risk-averse’ culture, no strong evidence of this was found. To the contrary, although Australian incentive structures do not consistently encourage risk taking behaviour, in many places there is strong evidence of a vibrant and healthy appetite for risk. There is also evidence suggesting a focus on the short-term at the expense of the long game, which could inhibit our progress towards a more dynamic and innovative future.”

And we have a bad case of luck-country-itis. “In too many areas, a lack of connectivity across the ISR System means that strong performance in research is not matched by similar performance in commercialisation. The business innovation that we do see can be characterised as incremental rather than new-to-world, and our education system is not equipping young Australians with the skills and entrepreneurial perspectives necessary for achieving a stronger innovation, science and research system in the future.

“There is an apparent lack of urgency and understanding about this national mission in the broader community. Complacency will endanger the shared prosperity Australians have historically enjoyed.”

The education system is a part of the problem, although the report is ambiguous about how big this is. Thus it points out that no Australian university is in the global top 20 and VET training takes a long time to change.

So what’s to do? We will have to wait for ISA’s plan for the innovation, science and research system through to 2030.

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au