Article—Science must experiment with business

On 12 August 1997, the following article by Professor Sir Gustav Nossal, President of the Australian Academy of Science, was published in The Australian.

Despite having many runs on the board, a crucial research and development scheme is under threat.

The Cooperative Research Centres Program is one of Australia's best kept secrets. Set up to forge closer links between industry, government laboratories and academics, it is under threat from the recently released Mortimer report, raising issues that must concern all Australians.

Australia has a proud record of scientific achievements across a broad front. Our Nobel prizes are just the tip of the iceberg. The consistent record of inventiveness, chiefly from the CSIRO, universities and the medical research institutes, makes our scientists welcome and respected figures at meetings or forums anywhere.

Yet turning that creativity into commercial outcomes has not been easy. In the past, three factors conspired to limit the economic benefits flowing from our research and development:

  • The truncation of Australian industry: much manufacturing, and most of the 'high-tech' end, is performed by multinationals, which traditionally confined their R&D to large industrial centres near head office.
  • A gulf between the academic and commercial worlds: there was little understanding and virtually no movement between the two sectors.
  • Risk-averseness and poor technological awareness in corporate boardrooms: R&D was seen as a luxury somehow taking away directly from the 'bottom line'.

During the past decade, all of this has been changing. Governments of both political persuasions have come to realise that innovation, advanced technologies, and science-rich goods and services will dominate global trade. Excellence in these areas, underpinned by a sturdy science base and first-class education system, will determine the success of nations. Much government policy has been aimed at increasing industrial R&D and at bridging the cultural gulf between town and gown. Industry is focusing more on R&D, with a big lift in spending, and the multinationals are seeing the advantages of R&D outposts in Australia.

Enter the Cooperative Research Centres or CRCs. Started in 1991, each centre is built around a particular area of endeavour and aims to produce concrete commercial, environmental or social outcomes. The scheme rests on a government grant of about $2 million a year per centre, which has to be matched by the participants.

In the event, most centres managed to contribute much more than their required share. With 65 centres funded by the government to a total of $146 million a year, an exciting new research system spending more than $500 million a year is transforming the national R&D scene.

In its brief history, the scheme has achieved some notable successes. The photonics CRC has developed a signal-dispersion compensator and a fibre-optic current sensor as contributions to the vastly expanding information-communications technology sector.

The CRC for tissue repair and growth factors based in Adelaide has developed cheap and cost-effective new animal husbandry technologies. The CRC for mine site rehabilitation is producing answers to a vexing national problem.

The CRC for Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research is providing highly original data for the climate-change debate. The new CRC based in Darwin is attacking the worst problem of Aboriginal health. Beyond all that, the centre's vigorous postgraduate training programs are providing a new breed of scientist, comfortable in bridging basic research and industrial realities.

The Mortimer report, a review of government-funded business programs issued last month and now on the Cabinet agenda has many admirable features. The Australian Academy of Science welcomes its overall strategic thrust, which seeks to increase economic growth. But we strongly oppose the suggestion that funding for the CRC program should shrink from $146 million to $20 million, the latter purely for 'public good' research. The only reasons the report gives for this are doctrinaire and flawed. It argues that the program 'funds institutions rather than research activities' and that this is 'inconsistent with the review's program design principles'.

In fact, each CRC performs only research and related training activities, embraces many institutions (favouring no single one) and complies in all ways with what Mortimer is arguing for.

Mortimer considers that the program confers 'a private benefit to participants'. If there are such huge private benefits, why attack the program as being too oriented to research providers? In any case, most CRCs have multiple industrial partners, contributing to and benefitting from research in many instances.

Mortimer acknowledges that the CRC program has helped to remedy business under-investment in research and has successfully brought disparate but complementary research interests together.

The Academy would go further. The CRCs have brought about a sea change in mind-set. They have built a momentum of cultural change in research and industry that must not be slowed or halted.

They are the best means we have of boosting the uptake of innovation and are being imitated in several Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

In a harsh, competitive world, schemes to support industry R&D are one of the few World Trade Organisation-approved tools left to improve economic performance. David Mortimer, you have done a good job for the country; please don't throw out the baby with the bathwater!

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science