OPINION — Research Commercialisation

Time to tie pieces of research translation pipeline together

8 April 2022

manufacturing robot

Commercialisation action plan is not the game changer required to turn around Australia’s economic, environmental, or social fortunes.

The university research commercialisation action plan has some thoughtful design features, but its scale is utterly unambitious.

Funding for the plan would increase gross national spend on research and development by less than 1 per cent, bringing to mind the words “drop” and “ocean”. For decades now, we have tinkered on the edges of our R&D landscape; government and business investment have been declining for a decade and we are well below the OECD average for both.

All of the new $1.6 billion funding is focused on commercialisation in relation to the national manufacturing priorities. This overlooks the broader need for research translation and appears to ignore Australia’s constraints created by the structure of our economy, the relative cost of labour, the scale of our markets, and our areas of pre-existing research strength.

What we need is a bold national strategy that is focused on research translation and the benefits this can provide.

Research translation more than making a new app or drug which can be put to market. Research translation is any outcome from research that changes how we do things; it is a new business model, it is a technique to restore reefs, an approach to healthy ageing.

Eureka moments

The outcome of research translation may not be an object you can sell, but it will have an effect you can measure.

Research translation happens at the pointy end of a broad pipeline, one that stems from curiosity-led investigations and encompasses all areas of exploration from fine arts to physics. It is also a long process.

Eureka moments might seem serendipitous, sparked by an apple falling from a tree, but they are built on decades of steady work driven by fundamental research and by the curiosity of dedicated researchers who move in and out of the commercial world.

The Gardasil vaccine, which prevents cervical and other cancers, would not exist without curious scientists having a look at the uterine lining of mice.

The research commercialisation action plan recognises the uncertainty of the translation process through its stage-gated design. It also recognises that failure is an option and that businesses need support to be bold.

Who will do the translation? The plan has built into it a small number of entrepreneurial student scholarships and fellowships that are ostensibly open to all researchers, but the focus on national manufacturing priorities may limit opportunities for talented people with skills in critical translational disciplines such as the social sciences and psychology.

Small enterprises

We must also support the evolution and uptake of new knowledge by users on the ground such as builders, nurses, analysts, and farmers. This will require further investment in training and the upskilling of our existing workforce.

The Australian economy is made up mostly of small enterprises, with 97 per cent having fewer than 20 workers. They do not have the capital and capacity to undertake groundbreaking research translation. A substantial strategy that includes ambitious and long-term support for research translation from government, industry, universities and non-governmental organisations is needed otherwise our chances of competing at an international level are slim.

With an election looming, an economy in transition, a world in conflict, and a climate emergency that is creating more substantial challenges by the day, the honest truth is we needed a national research translation plan about 30 years ago. One that can be updated every five years but remains in place to support the nation.

What we can do now is take all that we know from the countless reviews and initiatives, along with international examples, to create a plan with substantial financial backing, that ties all the pieces of the research translation pipeline together.

Every party should be heading into the election with a clear and comprehensive proposal, one that builds on what we have, engages the entire nation, and looks to the creation of an exciting future built on Australia’s exceptional research expertise.

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This opinion piece was originally published in the Australian Financial Review on April 3, 2022.

Professor Emma Johnston

In July Emma will become Deputy vice-chancellor (research) at University of Sydney

Peter Derbyshire

Director, Policy and Government Relations, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering