Tough lessons of the bionic eye
Leigh Dayton: Australia's bionic eye project tells us how not to innovate
'Australia punches above its weight'. It’s a claim guaranteed to increase my blood pressure. As a science writer and broadcaster, last with The Australian, I appreciated the quality and impact of the nation’s fundamental research, but its applied science?
It seldom made the journey from the laboratory to the marketplace. All too often, a new product or process would die on the vine or its intellectual property (IP) – and even its people – would be taken overseas.
I’m not alone in the observation. Analysis from the United States Studies Centre highlights the dilemma, and a suite of internationally-respected metrics make the case. In 2018, for instance, the Global Innovation Index (GII) ranked Australia 20th of 126 countries in terms of research performance.
But on the measure of how much output ‘bang’ a country gets for its input ‘buck’ (its innovation efficiency), the nation ranked 76th. In contrast, New Zealand, with a population smaller than that of Sydney, ranked 59th in innovation efficiency.
Further, Australia was dead last on the most recent (2017) OECD Science, Technology and Industry (STI) Scoreboard on a measure of high-growth enterprises.
Clearly, Australia has a problem. It’s wasting, its time, talent and money. Why and what can be done?
As I discuss in a new brief for the United States Studies Centre – based on my PhD from Macquarie University – the Australian Research Council's (ARC) bionic eye initiative, funded from 2010-2014, offers a productive way to assess the structural and cultural barriers to successful innovation in Australia: it is a lesson in how not to innovate.
Announced in 2008 at the end of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit as a national goal, the initiative was, at nearly $60 million over five years, an unusually well-funded project that sought to bring together the research and industry sectors.
But this support was not enough to develop and commercialise an Australian bionic eye, an implanted prosthesis for restoring functional vision in those with partial or total blindness. In contrast, the first practical device entered the international market in 2011 .
A close look at the fate of the initiative reveals a R&D system bedevilled by the nation’s three-year political cycle, resulting in a lack of continuity in policy, programs and the funding allotted to them. Planning is difficult, particularly for the university sector and funding bodies like the ARC.
Additional structural barriers include geographical distance between partners, making productive interaction difficult; a comparatively small population and, thus, a smaller talent pool; and the ‘valley of death’ where many early-stage results perish for lack of investment.
The complex, expensive and time-consuming ‘translation’ environment worsens the impact of the valley. Especially negative factors include a complicated IP system, rigid regulatory regimes for biotechnology developments, and weak or non-existent evaluation of the performance of large, publicly-funded research projects.
Collaboration across, and often within, the political, research and academic, and industry arms of the innovation system is weak. Each sector has its own ‘metrics’, or measures of success.
In a nutshell, researchers want papers and publications, industry players seek profits and patents, while politicians chase votes. People are frequently reluctant to talk to others outside their sector, and generally do not know how to do so.
What can be done?
Obviously, there is no a magic wand that can sweep away the barriers in Australia’s ad hoc science and innovation system. But a starting place is recognition that the system is just that, a system.
By viewing barriers broadly, not individually, it is possible to identify a mix of actions which, if taken together, may enhance the system’s performance. This requires a role for government, as the leader in policy and funding.
There is no room here to detail my recommendations. But a first step – with the potential for bipartisan support – is legislation establishing the federal advisory body, Innovation and Science Australia, as an independent and permanent agency. It would be responsible for developing and overseeing a national strategy for science and innovation in Australia, and for linking the research and innovation activities of the political, academic and industry sectors.
Change is possible.