Release type: Op-Ed

Date:

From ivory towers to engines of successful industry

Ministers:

The Hon Alan Tudge MP
Minister for Education and Youth

How do we get our universities to be more like Stanford or Hebrew University where it is not just about publishing more and more academic papers, but working closely with industry to create innovative products, new businesses and drive economic growth?

This is the challenge we have set for our universities and today we are releasing the first stages of our policy to help us get there.

Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist without Stanford; Israel wouldn’t be the remarkable centre of innovation without Hebrew University.

We can be like them and it is in our economic interests to do so.

We start from a strong position.  We have large universities consisting of many brilliant minds. We have pockets of incredible innovation and examples of new companies launched in university labs.

But these pockets of innovation tend to be isolated examples rather than the norm.

The norm at our universities is to publish academic papers. And then publish more.

Over the last twenty years, the number of academic papers written and published has increased fourfold from 23,000 in the year 2000 to over 100,000 in 2020. This has increased in line with annual expenditure on university research which has also grown fourfold to more than $12 billion.

But on nearly every measure of research commercialisation, our performance is poor and we have barely moved over those same twenty years. 

In many ways this is not surprising. Almost every incentive is geared towards more and more publications.

Of the four major global rankings, just one includes a metric on commercialisation, and even then, it is weighted to be just 2.5% of the overall score.

Moreover, most research funding is also oriented towards primary research, rather than translational research.

All these incentives have created a culture of ‘publish or perish’ at our universities, and as Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry points out, they are simply “not incentivised to consider commercial application” of their research.

So how do we change this equation?  How do we encourage our universities to not only produce world-class basic research, but translate that to have greater impact on the Australian society and economy?

The first step is to re-orient significant amounts of government research funding around national economic priorities and then fund key challenges which are in the national interest.

The experience abroad is that the countries that do well in research commercialisation focus their efforts and set clear missions for what they want the research to achieve.

We will go down this path, orienting more research funding around our six modern manufacturing priorities where we already have comparative advantage as a nation — resources technology and critical minerals processing, food and beverage, medical products, recycling and clean energy, defence, and space.

The second step is to create a broader integrated system of collaboration between universities and business. Commercial success in part comes about by people being in the same room to analyse problems together.  But in Australia, there is scepticism among some academics about business, and vice versa.

The amount of movement between academia and business bears this out — it is one third the rate that occurs in the United States and half the rate that occurs in the United Kingdom.

Finally, we need to recognise that not all universities will move at the same pace as others in meeting this new agenda.  There are some universities that are hungry to aggressively go down the research commercialisation path and we want to back them in to be leaders in the field and showcase the pathway for others.

This is where the Trailblazer Universities policy that the Prime Minister outlined yesterday comes into play. 

We are investing $243 million in four new Trailblazers to build world-leading commercialisation capability in the priority areas. The Trailblazers will have to get co-funding from industry, have a commercially oriented board and industrial relations structures which reward academics who commercialise, not just publish.

Additional policies will be announced soon to further this overarching agenda.

We have some of the nation’s most brilliant minds in our universities.  Let’s get more of them focused on translating their research into cutting edge products and companies so that in the years ahead, we can have our own Silicon Valleys focused on Australia’s core economic priorities.