Ways back to basics in research

The previous government was keen on accelerating the economy by commercialising research. The plan seems to have stalled

The plan was to fund research from lab to market, with industry advisors to make biz connections and a commercially focused board to oversee progress (CMM February 3) – presumably because a business focused committee would be quicker than a university one.

But although the new government has not formally nixed it,  the accelerator looks like yesterday’s idea.

For a start ministers now like nimble, Jason Clare and Ed Husic  yesterday announced 2000  “HECS style” scholarships to fund student/recent grad entrepreneurs to work on their business plans in university incubators.

And as the Productivity Commission points out in a new paper on innovation there is more to applying research than a quick map to market.  “Recent policy initiatives to increase knowledge transfer are too narrow in their scope in that they focus on direct commercialisation activities and advanced manufacturing industries,” the Commission writes.

“By focusing on research commercialisation, policy initiatives to increase knowledge transfer treat knowledge transfer as synonymous with commercialisation, even though other channels (e.g. consulting by academics) may be more relevant for certain types of firms and industries (especially service industries), research areas (e.g. social sciences) and research institutions.”

Chief Scientist Cathy Foley also has ideas on how economy-growing research happens, using “the rapidly developing field” of quantum information science and technology as an example. Dr Foley points to two crucial factors in Australian Research Council funding of 12 centres since 2003 that helped created Australia’s strength in QIST;

* “explicitly funded basic science research without commercialisation requirements (although end-user engagement was a key performance indicator)”

* no priorities in research. “The growth in Australia’s QIST capacity therefore happened as a natural consequence of research freedom and excellence in relevant areas.

As to what can happen next, Dr Foley suggests,

“virtuous cycles in other STEM industries can be created through patient investment in foundational research, coordinated efforts across institutions, world-class STEM education and support for attraction, retention and development of a diverse STEM-skilled workforce at all career stages.”

Which would be a tough-sell to an advisory board who want to forecast earnings for the foreseeable future.