Australia 2030: the role of universities in our economic and social future

19 March 2018

Bill Ferris AC, Chair, Innovation and Science Australia

BillFerris200x300.jpgIn January 2018 the Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) Board released our report to Government entitled Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation. The report includes 30 recommendations to Government aimed at strengthening Australia’s innovation performance and put our nation into the international top-tier by 2030.

Innovation is the key to a sustainable prosperity less dependent upon the performance of our commodities exports and historically favourable terms of trade, and more widely driven by the development and commercialisation of our own ideas and inventiveness.

The ambition and vision for our plan is for Australia to, known and respected for the excellence of its research, science and commercialisation, with plentiful and meaningful jobs in a fair, inclusive and healthy society.

To get there by 2030 our plan calls out five imperatives to be tackled if Australia is to close the present considerable gap in innovation performance between us and key competitor nations.

Clear to us in developing the plan was the critical importance that Australia’s universities and publically funded research institutions will play in this task, and in particular the need to drive greater integration and collaboration between our world-leading researchers and Australian businesses and entrepreneurs.

Australian researchers produce world class knowledge and ideas. But we badly lag our competitor nations in commercialising this intellectual property. The level of collaboration between business and researchers is also lagging our competitors. For example, the contribution of Australian industry to higher education R&D is just 5%, and sits below the OECD average.

The fantastic talent we have in PhD students is not being taken up by Australian business to the extent that is seen in our competitor nations. For example, recent data shows that for business researchers per thousand employed by industry we sit 21st out of 36 comparable nations.

Changing this dynamic, and unlocking the economic and social value of our best ideas both at home and through our exports to the world, is critical to lifting our innovation potential.

Collaboration between our businesses and universities provides access to high-cost infrastructure, data and talent that they would not otherwise have.

Further, it delivers strong benefits for industry, with estimates placing business impact as being up to twice as high for projects with academic partners as those without.

Industry and research collaboration, such as research contracts, consultancies and joint IP filings, will be crucial to Australia’s efforts to boost the translation of Australian research into commercial applications.

These joint initiatives produce great outcomes for businesses and their bottom lines, for universities and their researchers, and most importantly for the nation and our innovation system as a whole.

Our plan recommends incentivising collaboration between researchers and businesses by adding a collaboration premium to the R&D Tax Incentive, encouraging more movement of researchers between industry and institutions and more businesses to reach out to our universities and other publicly funded research organisations including CSIRO and the Medical Research Institutes.

We have also recommended that the Government release an Australian Innovation Precincts Statement to help shape their involvement in the emergence of local clusters of innovation around the country.

One of the case studies highlighted in the report shows a glimpse of where we need to head. It tells the story of the Geelong Future Economy Precinct. In five years since the shutdown of the auto industry, the precinct has created over 1,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing, with a particular specialisation in carbon fibre technology. It brings together pioneering companies including Carbon Nexus, LeMond Composites and Carbon Revolution, and is anchored by Deakin University.

Carbon Revolution supplies Ford USA with all of its carbon fibre wheels for the Mustang range. These kinds of success stories serve as vivid illustrations of the possibilities when industry seek to partner with and leverage the expertise of our universities and publically funded research agencies.

In recognising the increasingly vital role played by our universities and research system in securing Australia’s future prosperity we have also strongly reaffirmed the need for the Government to establish secure, long-term funding for national research infrastructure, which is a key foundation for our innovation system. This is aligned with the recommendations of the 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, which was developed under the expert guidance of my colleague and ISA Deputy Chair, Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel.

We’ve also recommended that commercialisation capabilities within universities be strengthened through the introduction of a new stream of funding dedicated to translation activities, which we expect to have a significant multiplier effect of translation outcomes.

Innovation drives productivity, which drives GDP growth which drives living standards. And fast-growing companies that innovate, export and scale are responsible for virtually all new net jobs in the economy.

History shows us that in the long term the places that practice innovation – new and better ways of making things and delivering services at home and abroad – are the ones that keep creating sustainable jobs and prosperity.

It is clear that Australian universities will play a key role in this most important of national priorities.

The Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation report can be found at industry.gov.au/isa