I don’t like it when I disagree with someone I respect, particularly someone as accomplished as Professor John Bell FTSE. So when I felt my need to grab a soapbox after the launch at National Press Club of the report he co-authored under ACOLA’s auspices, The Role of Science, Research and Technology in Lifting Australian Productivity, I chose to take a good look at what I was really soapbox-y about. Good thing too, as it turns out.
The report has three major recommendations, one of which is:
Improving collaboration in Australia, between businesses and between business and publicly funded research, will significantly enhance innovation. International collaboration is also critically important. Both domestic and international collaboration improves the productivity and competitiveness of Australian technology-based firms.
And quite right too. The full report is comprehensive in its analysis and, when one actually reads it rather than just scanning the extracted Executive Summary and yelling at one’s misperceptions (oops), has a wealth of ideas with serious potential that will, simply by being raised, add constructively to the discussion of this well-established, persistent criticism.
However, in its desire to balance the depth of its analysis with accessibility for less-motivated readers (no, I’m not getting up on that soapbox today: WHS precludes stacking soapboxes), the report prefaces each chapter with dotpoints. And those dotpoints, on first glance, brought slammingly to mind another report I recently digested that was, to put it kindly, somewhat less constructive and is apparently still driving me nuts.
The Commonwealth Government’s Australian Innovation System Report 2013, also referred to our low rates of innovation compared to other OECD nations and similarly low rates of industry-research collaborations. However, it went on to conclude this was evidence of “low demand for employing researchers and collaboration with researchers in Australian industry despite decades of government policies at state and federal levels to encourage more industry-research collaboration” (p116). It went on to recommend, “More systemic policies may be needed to allow this knowledge market to function effectively by:
- Encouraging a broad cultural shift in Australian businesses to one of enquiry, linkage and collaboration; and
- Providing stronger systemic incentives for the research sector to engage with industry.” (op.cit.)
For a report that could, on one hand recognise a new approach was needed, it seems at the very least to be inconsistent to then take an approach identical to government policy over the last decade. There is no consideration of the possibility that the acknowledged skill limitations noted by Chief Scientists, formal and informal feedback by both emerging and established members of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, consultants and industry associations alike may be a factor in both sets of low rates. That perhaps the problem is not one of low demand but a recognition that there is a disconnect between the two, an inability to communicate that some simple language lessons may begin to bridge.
Australian industry is under significant competitive pressures domestically and internationally that may well preclude taking on what is in effect a group of exchange students who don’t speak the language but, quite often, seem to disapprove anyway. Yet of the two groups involved in this particular collaboration challenge, the onus for change is placed on the group that currently receives vastly different proportions of direct to indirect support for innovation activity, and which not only has primary responsibility to support itself independently but, in effect, to raise its own kids (or employees and suppliers) while placating its parents (governments and investors) that its plans and activities are right and being pursued appropriately. Alright, the analogy is a bit stretched, but don’t those two quoted dotpoints look awfully like a textbook set up for favoured second child syndrome or is it just this Older Sister?
Maybe it’s not about preference of one industry sector over another. Maybe it’s just that breaking the policy paradigm just seems too much like hard work. Innovation necessarily requires not only acknowledging that the existing system isn’t working or at least not as well as it could, but then coming up with something better. And blaming industry or businesses is an easy option, given that the associations that represent their interests have plenty of other issues at the top of their hit list, certainly sufficient to not be overly critical of a couple of paragraphs in a report that, admittedly, will probably sit on more shelves than it will top reading lists. And any policy that gives the research sector incentives do something for which someone else is receiving most of the related criticism is sure to be well received, particular when the key issues to the associations representing that sector are all about funding bases. But easy options do not necessarily make good policy.
I should probably note that, if it is a question of whelching out of a hard policy question, Australia would not be entirely alone in that. A 2013 OECD survey of seed and early stage funding of start-ups across its member nations – effectively all the developed nation plus the leading emerging economies – found that “many programmes, especially publicly funded ones, focus solely on sources of finance and presentation skills, not on the more pertinent business issues which are the determining factors for whether or not investors are willing to provide funding.”
But whatever the option, me getting aerated won’t make it any better. Particularly if I’m aerated at the wrong person. And, given Professor Bell once led the OECD’s Division responsible for policy and program analysis in science, technology and innovation as well as serving as Deputy Secretary and Chief Science Adviser in the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources, I should have had known better. Mea culpa.
More information regarding The Role of Science, Research and Technology in Lifting Australian Productivity is available at the website of the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), including the full report in downloadable format.
Information and copies of the annual Australian Innovation System Report are available from the Department of Industry and Science (NB this is an updated link that reflects the 2015 portfolio responsibilities).