ISA review has some big holes

Paul Cheever

The Performance Review of the Australian Innovation, Science and Research System 2016 is, like its name, a very lengthy document. It seeks to provide a comprehensive profile of the System as the platform from which to develop 2030 strategic plan for the nation.

But while the content certainly has value, there are important pieces missing relevant to the successful construction of the 2030 plan. And it could have done with an edit.

The report seeks to present the innovation system as a set of data points, benchmarked to OECD+ data points with the broad theme that we have the core ingredients for success, but that we fail at translation and as such have too few high growth companies.

This quantitative profile is a necessary and useful step for policy development; indeed, the Australian Institute for Innovation addressed most of this data in its papers more than five years ago.

But this data profile alone is not sufficient for the development of a strategic plan. Innovation is a process, not merely a set of data. In order to have a constructive planning dialogue, we need to develop a framework for the discussion of process.

In the interests of filling this gap, we can think of the innovation process as connected activities of:

  • Idea Generation
  • Validation
  • Setting Direction
  • Connecting
  • Execution

And for effective planning, we need to make explicit critical observations of our starting circumstances, even if these appear obvious.

We are only 24 million people, and importantly among the actors in the system, there is for the most part no more than one degree of separation any of us. That’s a small market, but its also manageably connected.

A few years ago, at the time of the Ebola crisis, I penned a blog noting that if the then PM felt an action plan was needed in response, he could have had a report on his desk within a week summarising our relevant scientific knowledge and capabilities by making only three phone calls – to the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI), Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA) and the CSIRO.

We also need at the outset to be explicit about the general characteristics of effective systems, because we will need to test the plan against its probability of delivering these characteristics.

For example, effective systems operate with predictable and accessible processes, and appropriate governance, with feedback loops, ideally self-correcting.

This latter point touches on another weakness in our starting point.

The ISA report remarks on our good fortune to have longitudinal data outputs from the industry department’s BLADE database (Business Longitudinal Analytical Data Environment), which replicates the findings many years ago of the Kaufman Institute and US Small Business Association that startups are job-generators.

But we also need to recognise that we have no longitudinal observations – and almost no case studies – on the processes of commercialisation and innovation. This absence needs to be included in the list of starting-point weaknesses.

Two stakeholders were notably missing from the ISA report’s consultation list.

KCA, the association of Tech Transfer Offices, was not consulted as an organisation, although the panel would have no doubt spoken with some Tech Transfer personnel.

But aligned to this, is the recognition that as a system we do not view ‘commercialisation’ as a profession, and is in fact a profession that is highly regarded in the US, UK Israel and other nations we seek to emulate.

Also missing in action, was the superannuation industry, with neither ASFA (the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia) nor any individual fund apparently consulted. And we wonder why we have so little engagement here!

As a personal comment, I also believe that at some near point, we will need to address the impact of technology and innovation on our social construct.

This is a topic beyond the remit of ISA, but if the plan is to be ‘fit for purpose’ to take us to 2030, some consideration may be required.

The success of the NISA project to prepare a 2030 Innovation Plan will depend more on how we as market players prepare ourselves, rather than how the Departmental team conducts the project.

On this premise, this column is not only intended as feedback to ISA but is also to kick-start the engagement process and encourage market participation in the conversation.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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