Canberra: change IP and pay rules to foster commercialisation

Pay, promotions and intellectual property protections set for ‘refinement’ under new action plan

February 2, 2022
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Australian universities must rearrange their pay and promotion arrangements to favour commercially oriented researchers or risk losing access to more than A$1.8 billion (£950 million) in new funding, a government plan indicates.

Institutions will also be obliged to adopt a standardised intellectual property (IP) framework to qualify for public research grants. And the formula used to divvy up research block grant (RBG) allocations, which help to cover the costs of doctoral training and indirect research expenses, will be tweaked to benefit universities with lucrative industry research contracts.

The changes are outlined in a University Research Commercialisation Action Plan released by the federal education department. The 115-page document details the reforms announced this week by prime minister Scott Morrison, headlined by a A$1.6 billion commercialisation fund.

The plan was informed by the University Research Commercialisation Expert Panel appointed in late 2020. Chair Jeff Connolly said it would give rise to “systemic opportunities” for researchers to pursue commercial opportunities and for businesses to work with universities.

He said the panel had quickly realised that a single programme would not achieve this and that “a more strategic and systemic approach was required”.

New proposals include “refinements” to the RBG formula to reward universities that attract corporate research investment. At present, each dollar of government research funding earns universities 31 cents in RBG funding, while industry research grants yield only 26 cents in the dollar, the document explains, adding that the government will consult the sector on the changes.

Universities will also be encouraged to boost remuneration and career advancement opportunities for academics who commercialise their work and spend time in industry. This will be an eligibility requirement for funding from the new commercialisation fund and the A$243 million Trailblazer initiative announced in November. Universities will also be obliged to outline their pay and promotional policies in “compacts” with the government.

Increasing pay to incentivise researchers’ commercial activities was proposed as part of the Trailblazer initiative, raising eyebrows among critics who said successful research commercialisation offered inherent financial rewards. But the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering said the idea had merit.

“When people who have stepped out of universities into industry want to come back into academia, their industry experience is not as well recognised as it could be,” said chief executive Kylie Walker. “They may not have published because their work was under IP protection, and that can work against them. There’s always been a lot of talk about encouraging industry researchers to work in universities and vice versa, but there’s been no formal mechanism to achieve that.”

The plan also says universities will have to adopt a “Higher Education Research Commercialisation IP Framework” to qualify for certain publicly funded research programmes.

Advocates say a standardised approach to IP could help to address a widespread lack of expertise that stymies the negotiation of commercialisation agreements. The department issued a consultation paper on the idea last September, but the final framework has not been released.

Ms Walker said she did not expect universities to be forced to adopt the framework holus-bolus. “Clear definitions that are consistent across the sector could be very beneficial, and standardised IP licensing and contractual agreements could be useful so long as they’re not mandatory,” she said.

“When universities look at commercialising their research, the huge variety in circumstances means a standard set of agreement templates is unlikely to be robust yet flexible enough to be broadly useful for most partnerships.”

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