Western Sydney vice-chancellor and president Barney Glover has welcomed the renewed push by the states and the Commonwealth to commercialise research through more industry involvement, but warned a short-term focus would see already underfunded Australian research “massively distorted”.
“We need to understand the importance of investment in fundamental research and curiosity-driven research,” Professor Glover said at an Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering symposium on commercialisation this week.
“We can’t have an ecosystem of translational and impactful research if we don’t appreciate the role is played by fundamental research in universities and other organisations.”
The federal government is finalising a scoping study of university research commercialisation led by Siemens Australia chairman Jeff Connolly, while the NSW government has already launched several programs as part of a new focus on growing R&D in the state through business partnerships.
Professor Glover said the pandemic had helped trigger the renewed focus on translation and presented the best opportunity yet for a coordinated tilt at Australia’s long time innovation Achilles’ heel.
“Now, possibly because of the burning platform of the pandemic, we have more alignment of opportunity than we’ve ever had before,” he said.
Professor Glover said the federal government had sent a clear message with the Connolly review’s focus on industry and research collaboration, and with the national priorities and industry linkage fund, where grants go to universities working with industry to produce more “job-ready” graduates.
“We’re seeing a pretty clear national agenda here — a very, very clear national agenda — and universities need to respond to that,” he said.
The Western Sydney vice chancellor said it was critical to keep in mind the importance of fundamental research amid the renewed translation push, including investing in fundamental research bodies like the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.
“The pipeline gets massively distorted if we’re focused only on those areas which come out quickly,” he said. “[The] short-term commercial opportunity might be there but we miss the deeper, richer, industry-building, impactful research that emerges very much from that fundamental research base.
“And we need that fundamental research phase.”
Australian research is already under stress, Professor Glover said, primarily from the impacts of COVID-19 and the associated lost revenue of international students.
The federal government largely excluded the tertiary education sector from its JobKeeper stimulus, instead making a one-off injection of $1 billion in last year’s budget.
“To be frank, we need more,” Professor Glover said.
“We need long-term [funding] and we need a readjustment in that baseline activity around fundamental research [and] the way it is supported in this country, and to move significantly in that direction as we move significantly to boost our industry collaboration activity.”
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