Australian commercialisation drive hampered by lack of data

Lawmakers ‘desperately seeking innovation nirvana’ fail to buttress it with steadfast policies or durable statistics

April 26, 2021
Competitors running in a in the bottomless rowing boat as a metaphor for Australian commercialisation push hampered by lack of data
Source: Getty

Australia’s latest drive to monetise university research could falter through long-standing policy inconsistency and a lack of data, experts have warned.

Representative body Universities Australia said that the measurement of research commercialisation “languished” after Canberra outsourced a 17-year-old longitudinal survey to a non-profit organisation – which itself subcontracted the work to a consultancy.

The National Survey of Research Commercialisation, conducted by the federal industry department, collated information on a raft of commercialisation metrics including licences, start-ups, patents, contracts and investment in research and development. Its final report captured the efforts of all 37 publicly funded universities along with 26 medical research institutes and public agencies, using data gleaned every year or two from 2000 to 2016.

But the survey ended there, with the baton passed to membership body Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA). Last September, KCA released a report based on a single survey covering the 2017, 2018 and 2019 activities of a smaller pool of 24 universities and nine other Australian research organisations, along with 15 in New Zealand.

The department had scrapped the earlier survey “to avoid duplication in metrics and survey population”, the report says.

Universities Australia said that the new arrangement was a “precarious” way of informing a crucial policy objective. It urged the government to “urgently improve” innovation metrics by reinstating more timely data collection “across the entire research sector”.

The call came in a submission to the government’s university research commercialisation consultation paper, which sought feedback on a possible scheme to improve the translation and commercialisation of universities’ research.

The paper attracted wholehearted support for a “mission-driven” and “stage-gated” scheme to bankroll the development of promising innovations, particularly in the financially perilous early stages.

The concept has bilateral political backing. Education minister Alan Tudge identified better research commercialisation as the “main goal” of his tenure, and deputy opposition leader Richard Marles signalled Labor’s support. “We need…a different national conversation which places science and technology, and the commercialisation of it, far more centrally in our efforts to change our economy,” he said.

But faith in research commercialisation has not encouraged policy consistency to help it flourish. Central Queensland University patent law expert Amanda-Jane George said that commercialisation and collaboration had been the subject of more than 150 government-commissioned reports and a “plethora” of policies – many of which “never really got off the ground” – as policy fashions drifted between interventionist and free market approaches.

A recent study co-authored by Dr George reported evidence that changes ushered in under the 2015 National Innovation and Science Agenda – particularly the realignment of block grants for university research – had boosted universities’ enthusiasm for collaboration with industry. But these signs emerged “too late”, with more reviews and funding changes implemented from 2017.

Dr George said that new “whole-of-government” principles to guide innovation funding, proposed in January, could supersede earlier guidelines such as the 2015 National Science and Research Priorities. “Where is the deliberative engagement by government in all of this? If they’re going to be fiddling around with something as serious as that, they need to be consulting,” she said.

She stressed the need for better “baseline” evidence to replace the current “fragmented” reporting. “It’s hard to do a decent evaluation of where you are [and] where you need to get to if you don’t have the information at hand to work out how well the current initiatives are performing.”

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