by Amanda-Jane George

The debate on government funding for “pure” versus ”applied” research has recently reignited, but again seems set to fizzle in the higher education sector.

Education Minster Alan Tudge reiterated the government’s commercialisation agenda for academics (CMM, March 1), which has been a consistent feature in government’s innovation policy narrative for the last 25 years or so. And while Universities Australia Chair Deborah Terry agreed, she also unsurprisingly advocated for pure basic research (CMM 10 March).

But there is a new voice in the well-worn innovation policy debate, and a new sense of urgency.

In Australia’s post COVID-19 economy, innovation stimuli and well-aligned policies will assume even greater importance, as all sectors seek to recover lost ground and generate new opportunities.

So, enter the timely new policy voice: non-R&D innovation.

A 2020 report by Industry, Innovation and Science Australia (IISA) recommends a policy “rebalancing” towards non-R&D innovation, which is simple or incremental innovation, like changing delivery methods or shifting on-line. It is this kind of innovation that is crucially important to many “mum and dad” companies trying to adapt and survive in the post COVID-19 environment.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that, during the early part of 2020, 38 per cent of businesses responded to COVID-19 by engaging in non-R&D innovation. IISA’s latest 2021 report suggests five years’ progress was made in digital adoption in just eight weeks.

It makes sense to support this kind of innovation. It would confirm the long-held view of some economists that “R&D is no longer the total sum of innovation performance, if it ever was,” and that non-R&D innovation must be better integrated in the policy narrative, with a greater systems thinking focus, incorporating targeted measures.

A newly revamped innovation policy focus would also smooth over the government’s difficult track record in boosting Australia’s level of collaborative R&D.

However, a new CQUniversity-QUT study shows there is some stakeholder optimism on the R&D issue, and while the business-research sectoral divide remains, there is a shift in research sector focus towards industry impact. The realigning of HE block grants towards collaboration appears to be having a greater effect than engagement and impact reporting.

Industry Minister Karen Andrews has indicated the government will continue to support collaborative R&D, but this does not mean a spendathon of new initiatives. However, IISA’s latest 2021 report recommends a move away from broad-based policy initiatives and “a progressive shift toward direct investment mechanisms to achieve targeted outcomes for business- and higher education-performed ISR [innovation, science and research].” As for non-R&D research, IISA recommends “significant” additional support.

Whether government accepts IISA’s recommendations remains to be seen, although early indications suggest it will receive a warmer embrace than its previous policy framework. The timing does seem right for a shift in policy focus, but a sustained commitment to collaborative R&D is equally important. The development of the COVID vaccine is a prime example of the need for applied research.

Where this all leaves blue sky research is unclear, although it does not seem to have much of a voice in IISA’s proposed new policy narrative. In the meantime, the HE sector will have to watch and wait.


Dr Amanda-Jane George teaches law at CQU. She has an LLM in intellectual property. Her PhD dissertation in patent law has been cited by the High Court.




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