Well at least it’s not a Review – PM’s Roundtable to Seek Ways to Get Innovation out of Unis

According to Ben Potter in today’s Australian Financial Review, the Prime Minister is continuing his hands-on approach to tackling some of the seemingly intractable problems in the Australian Innovation System with a small and focused discussion in Western Sydney, touted by many (well, at least many in Western Sydney) as Australia’s current focal point for start-ups and innovation:

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has summoned university and research agency chiefs to a private meeting on Friday aimed at finding ways to drive more industry collaboration and innovative businesses….It marks a return to “industry policy” more typically associated with Labor governments, but with less emphasis on “picking winners” and more emphasis on pushing researchers to see if they can turn their ideas into businesses.

And while I’m not at all sure about the call for Christopher Pyne to ‘release his inner revolutionary’, one can’t hoping that from within the group of Bright Minds – CSIRO’s new-ish CEO Larry Marshall and Super Scientist Professor Ian Chubb are among the 20 attendees – there will be some frank and honest talk that admits if the higher education sector were going to come up with a solution to this problem on their own, they would have done so by now.

As I said last month, it’s not exactly news that workforce capability and development outside technical aptitude has been a recurring challenge for the innovation industries. Nor is it a breakthrough insight that most of our research capability is in the higher education sector or government, with Australia’s proportion of researchers and research graduates in industry waaaaaay down the bottom of the OECD leaderboard.

Yet despite years of reports calling for a broadening of skills sets in Australia’s researchers and improvements in their rates of collaboration and interaction with industry, and every university in Australia having their own business school (at least to my knowledge), we have yet to see any significant or systemic change. Or any real attempt at it.

Sure, we’ve added a lot of qualifications in commercialisation to our course offerings nationally, and even helped a few brave souls with the costs of enrolling in them, but is that really the solution to the problem at hand or just creating a new source of potential post-graduate students (and with them, fees and government funding) for the universities? Is there any suggestion of a causal link between this action and the desired consequence, i.e. that people in the higher education sector will/are able to engage better with industry, or be more effective in transferring the outcome of their research to the non-higher education sector in some meaningful way because of their effort in attaining these letters after their name?

I’ve been spending some time this month in the wonderful world of training and assessment as I pursue YCF’s path towards becoming a registered training organisation. One of the key things I keep hearing, over and over, is that when designing or developing training, the first step is to undertake some kind of needs analysis to find out what the gap between current abilities and desired competency is, and not only what training is required to meet it, but whether in fact any training is going to address this problem. There’s a reason going back to basics works, both in reality and as an aphorism people….

I’ve said it before, and I expect I will say it again, and again – you cannot expect people who have spent their entire lives learning how to do one thing to suddenly be vested with the ability to do another, completely different thing.

Until we get serious about giving researchers some understanding of industry, and not just a list of theoretical steps towards and dazzling expectations to be achieved from venture capital backing “their” start-up, we’re just marking time. Setting up uni spinout companies is all well and good, but outsourcing instinct has never worked yet.

Better yet, let’s start rewarding them for this sort of behaviour, and not just with some token personal IP rights while the employer universities take the benefit of work created by their employees.  No, I’m not suggesting a radical overhaul to IP rights or any shift in the ownership pendulum – let’s talk real rewards, immediate rewards rather than some-day-if-you-crack-the-big-time.  After all, you want to change someone’s behaviour, you use an incentive that works for them: it’s been the basis of HR departments and reality shows for generations (thank you Cesar Milan and SuperNanny).

If unis are serious about increasing the performance of their researchers in industry engagement, knowledge transfer and/or commercialisation, why aren’t these measures dominating the basis of employment ads and performance measures for academics around the country? If they really want people to collaborate, partner and interchange with industry, why are publications in recognised, peer review journals more relevant to promotion and tenure decisions than measures focussed on collaboration, partnership and interchanges? Or is all this disruption something Australian universities consider better studied than practised?

You know, for a discipline that is was built by “standing on the shoulder of giants”, innovation has come a long way from Henry Ford…. Or maybe it’s not the distance travelled, but the blinkers added that are the problem – perhaps we’re just too precious about whose shoulders we are prepared to stand on these days.

Read more of the Australian Financial Review article

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