Larry Marshall in Q&A controversy

James Riley
Editorial Director

Australia’s commercialisation woes are more due to the private sector’s unwillingness to solve new problems rather than cultural issues at universities, according to Q-CTRL founder Michael Biercuk.

On Monday night the ABC’s Q&A program hosted a special panel focused on ‘technology and creativity’. CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall was on the panel, and was asked about Australia’s struggles in commercialisation, with the questioner pointing to a recent report which ranked Australia as 17th in the OECD for inventiveness but 76th in terms of translating research into commercial outputs.

“It’s our culture,” Dr Marshall replied. “Scientists in Australia are not taught in the same way as they’re taught in the US, or places like Stanford.”

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Dr Marshall also pointed to some CSIRO programs that are aiming to improve commercialisation in Australia.

“CSIRO created two programs, one called ON, which is Australia’s first science accelerator that teaches scientists how to take something off the lab bench and get it into the market or society to solve a real problem,” he said.

“It’s not so much about commercialisation as it is about solving real problems using science.”

But these comments were criticised by Professor Biercuk, who is also a Professor of Quantum Physics at the University of Sydney.

“It’s disappointing when people in power reflexively insult the dedicated scientists and researchers who dedicate their lives to solving problems which may well change the world 20, 30 or 50 years from now,” Professor Biercuk told

Professor Biercuk said the cultural differences between Australia and other more successful commercialising countries are to be found in the private sector rather than the universities.

“As a technology startup founder and CEO, an academic scientist and also a US expat trained in the highly innovative US PhD programs that are frequently referenced, I see first-hand the differences between systems and cultures that contribute to the disparity between research outcomes and commercial translation in Australia,” he said.

“The differences are not in how we train scientists, they are in the shape of incumbent Australian industry,” Prof Biercuk said. “In our discussion of technology commercialisation and translation we should be cautious not to misuse the phrase ‘solving real problems’ when referring to solving near-term problems.”

“Australian science and research is always solving real problems, including those which may require decades of effort.

“Australian industry, by its own reporting to the Chief Economist, is largely opting to avoid solving new problems at all. Our discussion is now centring on shifting academics to fill this gap.”

It’s crucial that Australian researchers continue to be able to focus on long-term issues and projects, he said.

“Our innovation system works because of a separation of time-scales – it’s essential to maintain part of our research focus on long-term problems of public interest,” Prof Biercuk said.

“When we shift university researchers to attack problems with nearer-term commercial interest or applicability, we’re drawing resources away from those long-term problems which can largely only be addressed by the public sector. Achieving good policy outcomes requires us to attack the challenges we face with open eyes.”

Tech industry analyst Sandy Plunkett said we need to ask different questions when it comes to commercialisation and research and development.

“It’s ridiculous to dance around this issue when in fact Australia has already chosen that selling tangible goods is going to keep them happy and alive for the next 50 years, when all the indications are that this is actually not going to be the case,” Ms Plunkett told

“Our lack of IP and lack of R&D and scalability means we are literally losing the right to be taken seriously in the international forum about a 21st century economy that is galloping way beyond our ability to keep up with it.”

The Q&A panel was also questioned about the impact of the government’s recently passed and highly controversial encryption laws.

Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes said his company was already feeling the impact of the new laws around the world.

“We’ve already seen examples of customers asking these questions, and competitors will use this against us. It can do a lot of damage. We should be very cautious and to some extent a little fearful about its potential,” Mr Cannon-Brookes said on Q&A.

“I think the main damage done to the Australian technology sector is from the PR perspective. It is globally a little bit of a joke piece of legislation, but we have to live with it,” he said.

“Any consumer around the world looking at two pieces of technology, two apps, is going to be less likely to choose the Australian one because of the fear that someone is looking at their data.”

The definitions included in the legislation are too broad, Mr Cannon-Brookes said.

“The AA bill has very loose definitions of a whole series of these terms, and laws with loose definitions are extremely dangerous. They will be used and interpreted differently five years from now. The government says they don’t really mean that, but that doesn’t mean anything if you pass a law that has these broad interpretations,” he said.

“It was rushed through. I think it was very broadly written and we are continually hopeful it will be amended and changed.”

New laws need to balance the need to fight bad actors online and the rights of every day Australians, Dr Marshall said.

“It’s very hard to keep up with and defend organisation against intrusions, the technology used by black hats. I worry about the delicate tension between being able to protect from black hats without interfering with the right to privacy or the competitive advantages of Australian companies,” he said.

“I think it’s a very technological environment which means it’s very hard to quickly do a law to deal with it. We need more time to get our arms around it. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was rushed, but because of technology changing exponentially, you set the law today and it probably needs to be changed a few days from now.”

The tech-focused Q&A program fell on a public holiday around most of Australia, but these debates need to be taking place much more widely, Ms Plunkett said.

“The only time we can actually incorporate science and technology issues [into a program like Q&A] is on a long weekend on Monday, when all the politicians are saying ‘don’t call me’. Technology is an also-ran, innovation is an also-ran, because in Australia we don’t value it,” she said.

“It’s the same questions over and over again and we never advance, we never move forward. I worry about a supposedly highly educated culture that for seven years has not changed its questioning about modern technologies. How long do we need to keep asking the same questions and get the same answers?”

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