Commercialisation ‘not every researcher’s job’

Train up translation specialists and fix anomalies that discourage collaboration, Australian representative group says

April 30, 2021
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Embedding research translation modules in doctoral programmes would be overkill, because many PhD students do not have the aptitude to be “bench to boardroom scientists” – and it would overlook commercially inclined early career researchers who already have their doctorates, according to representative body Science and Technology Australia (STA).

In a submission to the federal government’s university research commercialisation discussion paper, STA argues against making technology transfer part of every scientist’s skill set. Rather, translation should be the responsibility of a relatively small band of specialists with the “aptitude” to be “linchpins” of university-industry liaison.

“We don’t need every researcher to become a commercialisation expert,” said chief executive Misha Schubert. “We should focus instead on equipping up to 2,000 leading researchers with the specialist skills and remit to champion the translation of technologies.

“They would be a small proportion of the research workforce with the potential for vast social and economic impact. Turning more of Australia’s ‘nearly there’ research into ‘really there’ products and services would generate vast economic and social benefits from a relatively modest public investment.”

But it would require cultural change in universities, she added. “The nature of innovation is that some failure is inevitable. Researchers [must be] supported…to fail fast and move on, just as they need to be applauded for success.”

Like other groups, STA backs the idea of a new “mission-driven” and “stage-gated” fund to finance the development of promising innovations, but it says the plan requires “smarter incentives” as well as specialised skills.

The submission highlights anomalies in current policy settings that encourage “in-house” rather than collaborative research. For example, the research and development tax incentive – the government’s principal mechanism for stimulating industry investment in research and development – contains no requirement for cooperation.

Collective research should attract a “collaboration premium” that boosts the tax offsets available through the scheme, STA says.

Its submission says that the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects scheme, which is supposed to encourage research collaborations with industry, assesses funding applicants using “traditional research metrics” – such as journal publications – rather than commercial successes like patents and new products.

This means researchers who put effort into translation risk derailing their careers by diluting their publication track records, the submission suggests. “Any attempt to invigorate research commercialisation must come with a close look at how researchers are able to move between research and industry without penalty.”

Another weakness is a tendency to encourage collaboration between organisations rather individuals. “Research and collaboration does not typically occur because of the institutions, but rather due to the specialist expertise within them,” the submission says. “The focus…should be on industry-researcher collaboration.”

STA recommends a “single point of entry” for industry partners wanting to collaborate with universities on particular innovations. The entry point should be the lead researcher rather than the host institution, with projects given “strong autonomy” from universities.

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