The businessman leading a government review of Australia’s research translation struggles has hinted that future public research funding could be tied to translation outcomes and the involvement of industry partners in areas of “national priority”, warning basic research is not finding the “bridges” to commercialisation on its own.
Last year, the federal government appointed Siemens Australia chairman and chief executive Jeff Connolly to lead a scoping study of Australian universities research commercialisation.
So far, the $5.8 million review has proposed new standardised IP contracts to improve negotiations between universities and businesses, but wider reforms are expected, and the university sector wants them accompanied with new funding.
Speaking at Cooperative Research Australia’s virtual event on Tuesday, Mr Connolly said there were examples of commercialisation success but that it was clear “we need to get the linkages working better in a more systematic way to get better outcomes”.
Mr Connolly said his company, the German multinational Siemens, had found success with more “systematic” relationships with universities built on their “use inspired research”.
He said this use inspired research helps pull research through the technology readiness scale towards commercialisation.
“That’s a really important point as we try to understand how to get the relationships between universities – traditionally more focused on early stage – to bring those brilliant researchers through to closer levels of commercialisation.”
Mr Connolly said in Australia there is “a reasonable amount of research funding going towards universities” without a “use inspired outcome in mind”. The funding was also being distributed too widely, he said, and could be better aligned to areas of national priority.
He acknowledged for the approach to work, universities will need to be incentivised to “take that step of across from the foundational research papers into wanting to follow their outcomes through to conclusion” rather than being penalised.
“How do you reach back into basic research with a clear enough message to say ‘look, the funding will continue through the translation provided it’s in these fields.’ And make sure that’s additive and not taking something away from your somebody.”
Mr Connolly said this could be applied to fundamental researchers in Australia with their funding delivered in stages and contingent on being in an area of national priority and achieving translation outcomes and industry partnerships.
“If you make that clear and you say to a basic, fundamental researcher, ‘Do the basic research there [in that area of priority] and there will be additional funding, and at a certain point you need an industrial partner.’
“Then that continuum will happen,” Mr Connolly said.
“At the moment they’re disconnected. I think that basic research side of translation is not finding those bridges, and it’s a matter of providing incentives and describing it as additive not actually penalties.”
He said a more targeted approach to research funding in areas of national priority is needed because of the economy’s size.
“As the 12th biggest economy in the world, you can’t be everything to every industry, if I look at it from an industrial lens,” he said.
“So at some point you have to you have to focus on what are your national priorities.”
Australia needs to define the priority areas, focus on them and establish a research domain and incentives, Mr Connolly said, suggesting these areas may already have been defined but not yet released.
“There’s these sort of definitional things that I think we need to articulate, I’m aware that that’s coming,” he said.
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