Perhaps the most telling indictment of Australian research is that most Australian businesses think it’s completely irrelevant. Forty nine out of every fifty firms, in fact, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In an era when innovation is becoming the new mantra for firm sustainability and growth, and when there is a renewed push for a third wave of national economic reform centred around productivity and innovation, one might think that businesses would be clambering to collaborate with the research sector to find new products and services to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy. After all, the evidence is overwhelming that companies that innovate enjoy substantially higher profit margins than those that do not. Recent surveys by the Boston Consulting Group and Arthur D. Little both indicate that profit margins can be as much as four percentage points higher for innovative firms.
Recognising this, a National Innovation Agenda was first proposed by the Victorian Government earlier this year. It was further discussed and embraced at a recent meeting of all state and territory government representatives, together with other supportive bodies such as the Business Council of Australia (BCA), the Australian Business Foundation (ABF), and the Australian Institute for Commercialisation (AIC),. The Agenda, which seeks to establish a platform for innovation leadership by all Australian heads of government through the COAG forum, currently has five pillars that would strengthen Australia’s innovation system, and through it seek to lock in future national prosperity:
- Increase business innovation
- Provide the infrastructure to enable innovation
- Develop skills for the innovation economy
- Create a better regulatory environment for innovation
- Forge better connections and collaborations.
Where is research in the list, one might ask? It’s buried in there, but many businesses appear to have forgotten to ask the question. Evidence presented by the ABF at the discussion forum indicated that levels of collaboration between innovating businesses and the research sector in Australia are only 2 per cent, compared with 6-7 per cent in similar economies like Ireland, Sweden, and Denmark, and a phenomenal 26 per cent in Sweden. With only one Australian firm in fifty working with the research sector, the question of relevance needs to be raised. Levels of collaboration with customers are no better in Australia and stand at only 12 per cent, compared with typical values of 25-28 per cent for similar economies. Collaboration with suppliers is equally poor.
Such is the disparity that many businesses are questioning the role of R&D in innovation completely, with suggestions that although research is important for some, the majority of Australian firms innovate through new processes or business models. The degree of discomfort with the notion that innovation has become too R&D centric, and the low level of industry collaboration with research, points to a fundamental failure within the innovation system.
What can be done?
Two major government reports released this year set the context. The first was a report released in March by the Productivity Commission into Public Support for Science and Innovation. To the relief of most in the research community, the Commission economists concluded that strong rationales for public funding of research did exist, and that such support produces sizeable benefits. But the report also found problems in commercialisation and knowledge diffusion mechanisms – many of them identified by the AIC in its own submissions to the Commission. It went on to argue that public funding of ‘commercialisation’ was less justified than it was for funding the basic research itself, because the economic benefits from ‘commercialisation’ tended to be captured by more confined interests – those companies that commercialised the intellectual property. In other words, although ‘commercialisation’ is laudable, public support for such needs to be carefully balanced.
The second report, the National Survey of Research Commercialisation, was released in August. Although some headline results appear encouraging, the inflation-adjusted income received from licenses, options, and assignments halved from $112 million in 2000 to $58 million in 2004. What is important is that licence income represents one measure of the value – thus relevance – of research to industry and is a measure of industry engagement. The reduction in its value would be less discouraging if research organisations had decided to licence their IP for free (indicating there was still knowledge transfer and industry engagement). However, this is not the case, for the total volume of licences executed per year actually decreased over the period.
Equally concerning, over the five-year period the investment in public research rose significantly (a good thing!) so that the number of licences per research dollar executed with businesses each year, and the number of start up companies formed each year, dropped by half. Worse still, the licensing income per research dollar dropped by a factor of three to a low of around 1 per cent, compared with 3.3 per cent in the US.
Thus on the one hand we have the Productivity Commission saying businesses need to commercialise publicly funded research on their own, but on the other hand the national commercialisation survey indicating businesses are not. All this during a period when the impact measure within the research quality framework (RQF) is being hotly contested!
What are the answers? Organisations like the AIC are at the forefront of seeding business collaborations between the research sector and companies, using intermediaries to bridge cultures, improve access and build trust, but that takes substantive support of a much greater scale than is currently made available. It also requires receptive businesses on the demand side and participative researchers on the supply side. Boards of companies need to recognise innovation as a driver of growth, and include it as a standing item on their board agendas. Boards stacked with auditors will excel at managing risk, not innovation! Research institutions need to nurture a culture supportive of commercialisation and provide proof of concept funding. The goal of the National Innovation Agenda is to set the environment and infrastructure so that collaboration occurs naturally.
For our future, it will need to.
Dr. Rowan Gilmore is CEO of the Australian Institute for Commercialisation, a leading service organisation helping research organisations and researchers take their ideas to market.
Editor's Note: First published in the Australian on 24 November 2007. This opinion was published in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Commercialisation. For permission to reproduce this article please contact ScienceAlert.