It’s five minutes to midnight and a policy burps to life

James Riley
Editorial Director

No-one in research is going to argue against an extra $2 billion aimed at improving the commercialisation and translation outcomes of university research, and the creation of new industry scholarships. Not the CSIRO, which stands to benefit greatly, and not the venture capitalists.

The quest for better commercial returns from Australian research prowess has been the Holy Grail pursuit of industry policy for decades. The goal is surely worth it, and the Prime Minister is not wrong to go after it.

But having spent $5.8 million on a scoping study and report for the University Research Commercialisation Scheme, the industry – and the researchers – might reasonably have hoped for a more robust, public and mainstream discussion about this issue.

While no-one’s arguing against additional dollars for research, there are plenty of researchers who would argue the toss about priorities, and who are concerned about commercial imperatives encroaching on research independence.

These are discussions that should rightly take place in public. But here we are, a few short months from an election and the Prime Minister has pulled $2 billion out of his ear and dropped it on research commercialisation.

Scott Morrison when he was selling the Ideas Boom

The executive chairman and chief executive of industrial giant Siemens’ local operation Jeff Connolly was appointed to run the review in 2020 after $5.8 million was set aside in the 2020/21 budget. A consultation paper was published last February, and submissions were called for, which were due by April last year.

And then it’s been in stealth mode ever since. Until, that is, Scott Morrison stood up and the Press Club and dropped $2 billion in the issue (albeit with a big chunk of that money spread into the unknowable future, a decade hence.)

The Connolly review is understood to have been finished many months ago, but was not released publicly until the day after the Morrison policy announcement (it was eventually published the Education department website a day after the policy was announced, along with the more than 100 submissions, all unhelpfully published as a single PDF file.)

What’s the point of a scoping study and report if it is not made public? At $5.8 million, this is a chunky piece of work. It was paid for by the public, and yet the public was not able to see it or the recommendations of its authors.

So why the stealth? And why not build on the existing work already out there, rather than build on work already done.

The National Innovation and Science Agenda in 2015 was a signature piece of policy work of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison years. It was a whole-of-government state of policy direction and included inputs and policy impacts across multiple portfolios.

The NISA included a swathe of work around improving research commercialisation outcomes, as did the Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) report Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation.

So you might think a cleared-eyed, whole-of-government assessment of the impact of those policies might be a good starting point in formulating a go-forward strategy for research commercialisation outcomes.

If you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it, right? In fact, the ISA 2030 report recommended that the government review the way it measures the component parts of the Australian innovation system.

The Industry department set up a taskforce in2018 and an Innovation Metrics Review was conducted – complete with recommendations – and handed to the then Minister Karen Andrews. And the review has never been seen since.

Successive Industry ministers have also declined to make this piece of work available to the public.

It is maddening that this government turned its back on the National Innovation and Science Agenda, given that much of it was so successful and had a positive impact. Why not assess the program? Not every policy will work every time, but how else do you adjust and move on?

It is no irony that one of the policies Scott Morrison announced this week at the Press Club was additional funding to deep tech-focused Venture Capital firm Main Sequence – whose origins can be linked directly to the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

It’s no irony because the Main Sequence initiative – along with some reforms to the tax treatment of VC – is one of the standouts of NISA.

Anyway, back to the University Research Commercialisation Scheme. As is usually the case, the international ‘consultants’ enjoyed a feast over these ruminations.

The geniuses at the Boston Consulting Group were paid $322,575 for a ten-day contract in late January and early February 2021 to provide and “independent report on policy design, rationale and implementation issues on the University Research Commercialisation Scheme (URCS).” A confidentiality clause is attached to this contract as being commercially sensitive.

The University Research Commercialisation consultation paper was released a couple of weeks later as a 12-page compendium of well understood issues that were well covered in the Innovation and Science Australia report Australia 2030; Prosperity through Innovation.

Around this time, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu was given a three-month contract starting January 29 last year worth $181,676 to provide a scoping study for the URCS (this contract started at $93,472 but was revised up once it was under way.)

The Boston Consulting Group later received a further $770,000 for a two-month contract for an ‘Independent Market Case Study examining the University Research Commercialisation Scheme missions shortlisted by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE). This contract was completed by the end of June, and also had confidentiality agreements attached.

If anyone in research is looking for directions to the good paddock, they should ask Boston Consulting Group.

That’s a company that knows the way.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

1 Comment
  1. Why is this limited to University research? There’s lots of good privately funded research too. R&D grants are fantastic, but they are a self-reducing resource. We could do with a bit more help. Deep Tech is impossible to fund in Australia. Main Sequence are too focussed on University and CSIRO. We’re about to turn our private R&D into a $270M global space comms project for Australia. We could do with a little help please! Rhett Sampson, founder and CTO, GT Systems.

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