Making sense of industry research collaboration

Alan Dormer

The Australian government is spending an increasing proportion of its ‘research’ funding on collaborative programs including Cooperative Research Centres, Industry Transformation Research and Teaching Hubs, and Linkage grants. The rarity of useful outcomes confirm that this is not a good investment.

Our track record of commercialising research falls way behind that of the USA, which funds research in a different way. One contributing factor is DARPA that provides significant funds (currently US$3.5 billion) to academia (to discover and invent) and the private sector (to innovate).

The outcomes are ostensibly for defence, but in reality many of the outputs have other applications. For example, military technology, such as communications and aerospace, also have civilian uses.

Collaboration zone: Getting the balance right in research funding

I am the managing director of Opturion, a spin-out from NICTA (now Data61) and Monash University and I have a keen interest in how to commercialise or monetise research.

For thirty years I have worked – as an industry partner and at CSIRO – with universities in the UK, US, Japan, and now Australia. I believe I have an informed perspective.

The Australian focus on funding collaborations between industry and universities has failed to deliver its full potential for three main reasons:

  • Firstly, universities are judged on their international rankings, based largely on publications and citations. This imperative has led to a desire to get money from industry then publish, rather than get money and deliver the desired outcomes
  • Secondly, the industry partners seek innovation while the universities seek invention and discovery. Thinking these are the same is naïve and dangerous
  • Thirdly, each partner seeks a return on money and effort invested, but a large proportion of the government contribution is typically spent on administration, governance, and overheads

I do not profess to have all the answers, but if we are going to improve, we need to think a bit more clearly.

University research works well in discovery (new materials) and invention (Wi-Fi). Although industry was not asking for them, once they are available, they can be further developed and commercialised, but industry must be made aware. Think car rather than a faster horse.

When it comes to innovation – becoming faster, cheaper, better, and developing new products and services – universities do not work well on such problems. There are tight timeframes, constant changes of direction, unknown unknowns, unreasonable expectations, and many activities that are unconnected to research. These are very difficult for a professor or PhD student who needs stability and time to research and publish.

To extract the best value from Australia’s world-class universities, research funding should go to research; there should be direct support for marketing the research; and industry should be provided with the backing to commercialise it. Specifically:

  • Universities should be funded on a long-term basis to research certain key areas where Australia has a critical mass of expert researchers or significant commercial opportunities. Research organisations may end up being smaller, but discovery and invention are more aligned with publication. The recent Industry Growth Centres initiative has identified priority areas, so why not research?
  • A new funding model could address the current fragmentation of expertise and effort and seek to create critical mass on a global scale where possible. As many people have realised, the competition is not between Australian institutions; it is with the US, China, and Europe.
  • Australia needs an organisation like DARPA that can direct significant resources to universities and private sector innovators to achieve transformational R&D outcomes in priority areas.
  • The focus of universities should be awareness and dissemination rather than collaboration. They should concentrate on marketing discoveries and inventions to industry (or spinning out new companies, like Opturion) as a priority. A few minutes on the ABC is not anywhere near enough. Collaboration may be useful for dissemination, but it is not cost-effective.
  • Industry should have more incentives to innovate; for example, further R&D incentives, programs like APRI and other funding directed to industry for industry.

What we don’t need are more grants that must be spent with universities. This is effectively funding research indirectly, with the associated overhead and additional complexity, to do things that they would rather not do, and frankly are not well suited to do.

Alan Dormer is the chief executive officer of Australian decision-support software developer Opturion.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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