Submission—Evaluation of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) Program

On 8 March 1995, the Australian Academy of Science made the following submission to the evaluation of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) Program.


Summary

In this submission we consider how Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) were established in an attempt to realise more of the potential contribution to innovation of Australia's high quality basic research. The principal objectives of

  • building links between research and industry
  • encouraging the participation of industry in research
  • encouraging the participation of industrial researchers in education

have, we conclude, been met to a greater or lesser degree. That achievement has justified the decision to establish the centres.

We also recognise some problems faced by centres in the difficult task of managing research, education and commercial objectives in a publicly-funded research system that is under financial stress.

Finally we recommend that the CRC scheme be continued beyond the seven-year review term, provided that there is the flexibility to review objectives, and individual centres, in the light of their performance.

Background

The draft report of the Industry Commission on Research and Development (R&D) concluded that R&D was a major source of innovation and an important contributor to economic growth. It emphasised the importance of spillover of R&D in the exploitation of new knowledge, while acknowledging the distinct roles played by universities, government research agencies and private sector in the innovation process. It saw the main research role of universities as in the training of students and the performance of basic research for the advancement of knowledge. The Commission considered that CSIRO's principal role was to undertake 'public good' research, which has 'direct value to industry and the community but lacks sufficient private returns to be performed or sponsored by firms'.

The Commission recognised that 'formal and informal linkages play a key role in the functioning of national systems of innovation. Linkages provide a means to access existing sources of knowledge. Even more importantly, linkages facilitate the continuous interaction which is necessary to sustain advances in knowledge.

The Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program was established to build new links between research institutions as well as to strengthen existing links. A main objective was to build greater research concentration in areas of perceived national importance, while the involvement of industry or users of research was considered important, it was not a central feature in the selection of centres in the first round. The principal objective was for universities and government research laboratories to work together in teams with a critical mass; and for results to be exploited by industry where possible and appropriate.

In subsequent rounds, industry or user participation in a centre was of far greater importance in the evaluation of applications and the selection of centres.

Linkages

The Academy considers that the CRC scheme has been successful in building new links between research groups and institutions, and strengthening links between researchers who were already collaborating. There is little doubt that the provision of significant extra resources was a factor in the building of stronger research teams, but the collaboration was strongly influenced by the establishment of centres with their own boards, and the formalising of links between the participating institutions. Co-location was seen as a strength for good interaction when the CRC scheme was established. Although co-location is desirable for day to day interaction between researchers, the scheme has been succeeded in linking some of the best research groups in Australia in different locations and cities. Networking is particularly important for a country with a relatively small and geographically dispersed population of researchers.

Linkages between researchers and industry or users have been improved by the CRC scheme, but the involvement of industry or users in priority-setting and the work of the centre varies considerable between centres, ad on the whole it is not strong. Industry membership of the board of a centre has been very positive in promoting links between researchers and users and breaking down the cultural barriers between researchers performing basic research and industry.

Industry participation and commercialisation of research

The increased involvement of industry with the CRCs is very encouraging. The Academy believes that industry association with CRCs will enhance their appreciation of the value of strategic research to their industry, but industry dominance of CRCs could militate against strategic research for the public good.

An input which the Academy has received from one of its Fellows relates to the question of confidentiality. He considers that confidentiality is at risk because of the general lack of commercial awareness throughout the CRCs and the imperatives of research in academia. With more than one industry partner, conflicts will undoubtedly arise in the exploitation of research results. Commercial rivalries can seriously compromise the extent of involvement of an industry partner. He believes that a CRC is less able to respond rapidly to changing circumstances than industry itself.

Intellectual property is also an issue with commercial partners, and can be a problem if there is a conflict between a commercial partner and CRC researchers wishing to publish research results.

Education

An important objective of the CRC program was the active involvement of researchers from outside the higher education system in educational activities, particularly in the training of graduate students.

The involvement of joint supervisors of research students from outside the higher education system varies considerably between CRCs, but where it occurs it can be beneficial to the students involved. The perspectives of a research topic are broadened and the student can gain valuable insights, not only into the potential application of their own research, but to the carrying out of more applied research in industry and government research laboratories.

There are reservations, however, about the value of the CRC scheme to graduate students. Projects must be selected to ensure continuity for the student during the time of his PhD studies, and abrupt changes in response to commercial imperatives must be avoided. There are difficulties of commercial secrecy for graduate students, who see publications in the scientific literature as important to their future career.

Impact of CRCs on universities and CSIRO

Most universities see advantages in being associated with CRCs, but CRCs do have the potential to cause considerable administrative and teaching problems to university departments. Often key personnel are removed or at least become distracted from departmental duties and the tasks are not covered adequately by staff who are not members of a centre. Other administrative pressures are encountered by Chairs of departments related to centres.

Another issue is the impact of CRCs on research priorities in universities and CSIRO. In situations where a major part of the research effort of a university department is concentrated in a CRC, it could lead to a decline in important areas of basic research and research training. An appropriate balance between CRC funding and funding from other sources is important.

CRCs can influence priorities in CSIRO, but they are less likely to have impacts which can not be addressed by CSIRO. A matter of concern to some Chiefs of Divisions is their loss of control over CSIRO personnel seconded part-time to CRCs.

Continuity

The evaluation of the CRCs should give thought to the future of the scheme after seven years, particularly for those CRCs that are more at the strategic than the developmental end.

The Academy believes that the Government should make a commitment to the continuation of the program, but with the flexibility to terminate some centres and to form new ones, based on performance as well as changing priorities.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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