CRC scheme backed by buried report

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The Hawke-era Cooperative Research Centres program has delivered big returns on government investment for three decades and should be continued with increased funding, according to a review of the program completed more than a year ago but only released Friday.

The evaluation, done by outside consultants ACIL Allen in 2021, found the industry-driven, medium and long-term collaborative research program had delivered “excellent” outcomes, including $32.5 billion of economic impact from $4.8 billion in government investment.

“It is estimated that for every $1 spent by the Australian Government on the CRCs between 1992 and 2025, GDP is cumulatively $2.61 higher than it would have been had that $1 instead been allocated to general government expenditure,” the report said.

The projects were also found to have delivered additional social and environmental benefits, like improved therapeutics, thousands of people trained at doctorate and masters’ levels, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and the protection of endangered species.

A researcher at the Future Fuels CRC. Image: University of Wollongong/Wesley Lonergan

The positive report was only released on Friday as the 24th round of the scheme was opened by Industry and Science minister Ed Husic.

It’s unclear why the report was not released by the former Coalition government when it was received more than a year ago. But while sitting on the report, the then-government was facing calls for the scheme to be expanded from the peak representative body for industry-research collaboration.

The Morrison government was also accused of politicising the scheme with a “drip feed” of successful project announcements during the federal election campaign.

Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are grant funded collaboration projects between industry and the research sector that can stretch up to 10 years. Grants total around $150 million every year, with partners typically adding another $200 million in private investment annually.

CRCs are a Hawke-government initiative launched in 1990, but the new report focuses mostly on the period between 2012 and 2021, when $1.5 billion in grants went to 57 active CRCs. ACIL Allen also evaluated the program in 2012, finding similarly positive impacts.

The impacts attributed to the CRCs are based on their outputs, including new technologies, cost-saving measures, revenue for partners, spin-off companies, efficiency gains and income from licensing of intellectual property.

“This evaluation found CRCs will contribute about $32.5 billion towards economic productivity by 2025 through commercialisation of new technologies, products and services that solve real problems for industry,” Mr Husic said on Friday.

“The evaluation also concluded CRCs will continue to help address Australia’s economic, environmental and social challenges by enhancing capability of the research workforce.”

The report concluded the CRC program had continued to meet its objectives and recommended it be continued and its funding increased. Only minor adjustments to strengthen and improve outcomes were recommended, including better lead times for applicants and an expanded advisory council.

There are opportunities to expand the CRC program into new areas, the report said, such as synthetic biology or artificial intelligence, and in existing CRC areas which are currently under-serviced.

The CRC Project component of the program — launched in 2015 to target more involvement from smaller business partners – could not be evaluated as thoroughly and should be re-evaluated in future when more of the smaller projects are completed, the report said.

The report was released by the government as Mr Husic launched the 24th round of the CRC scheme. Applications for the fist stage of the round are due by March 7. Successful projects will commence in 2024.

“This funding can provide an often-missing step between research and commercialisation,” Mr Husic said.

Last year, the minister pledged to bring more structure to some of the CRC timetables with a routine schedule for the opening and closing of future funding rounds and the commencement of funding.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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