Australia ‘can’t rely’ on ‘chance’ research translation

We want commercial success but can’t build it on an empty research larder, university lobby tells Canberra

March 9, 2021
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The umbrella body representing Australia’s universities has endorsed the federal government’s push for more commercial spin-offs from research on the nation’s campuses, but warned against staking the future on “chance encounters” or an overemphasis on applied innovation.

In a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra on 10 March, Universities Australia chair Deborah Terry was due to concede that the sector performed better on innovation “inputs” – such as journal publications – than “outputs” like patents and start-up companies.

The 2020 Global Innovation Index ranked Australia 13th on the former but 31st on the latter, she was set to point out. “We are global leaders…in research and discovery science, but as a nation we’re underperforming at the back end of innovation,” an advance text of the speech says.

However, the problem will not be resolved by prioritising commerce over curiosity, Professor Terry was due to warn. Researchers must be backed to “follow their ideas, wherever they lead”, she insists. “If we don’t support basic research, there will be nothing to translate or commercialise.”

The speech, a regular fixture in the higher education calendar, usually coincides with Universities Australia’s annual conference, which has been postponed this year because of the pandemic. Professor Terry was due to use the platform to respond to federal education minister Alan Tudge’s February call for academics to become more entrepreneurial, both to boost the sector’s Covid-ravaged finances and to aid the nation’s economic recovery.

In his first major speech in the role, Mr Tudge bemoaned a lack of collaboration between business and higher education. “Too often, our research does not make it through to translation and commercialisation. It falls into the ‘valley of death’ between academia and industry, between theory and real-world application.”

But Professor Terry, vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland, was set to reject the notion that Australia’s “innovation economy is stagnant”. The speech text lists new industry-university research precincts in western Sydney, eastern Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, the northern Queensland city of Cairns and the southern New South Wales centre of Nowra.

It also lists companies that have emerged from university research, such as a Geelong firm that supplies high-performance carbon fibre wheels to car manufacturers including Ferrari. “Indeed, 85 per cent of the world’s solar cell manufacturing capacity can be traced back to the breakthroughs of UNSW [Sydney] solar expert Martin Green.”

A Brisbane-based firm born from “a chance encounter” of three University of Queensland students now commands one-fifth of Europe’s electrical vehicle recharging market, the speech says. “But we can’t build a better future on chance encounters,” it adds, stressing the need for industry to be “less risk averse” while universities “engage meaningfully with the real world”.

“Governments need the right policy settings, incentives and messaging to foster entrepreneurship and innovation,” Professor Terry was due to say.

The speech highlights universities’ contribution to social policy, citing research findings that Australian academics contributed to 67,000 media stories about Covid-19 over the 12 months to January 2021.

“Those epidemiologists, virologists and public health experts inoculated the public against the contagion of misinformation that infected many online forums and contributed to so much death and heartbreak overseas.”

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