Research innovation – It takes three to tango, says Former Chief Scientist

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Innovation Statement – unveiled in December – marked a cornerstone for the national agenda, introducing an ‘ideas boom’ set to usher in a new era for research and development (R&D).

From strengthening the relationship between business and the research community, to enabling greater R&D funding, the stage is set for Australia to take a leading role in research innovation.

Through a planned investment of $1.1 billion earmarked for the ideas boom, the National Innovation and Science Agenda has already ignited a flurry of activity. The CSIRO is gearing up for an early stage innovation fund estimated at $200 million; while a $250 million Biomedical Translation Fund will drive more partnerships with the private sector. Even leading US tech investors are making the way Down Under to check out the local start-up scene.

With research innovation and collaboration now firmly on the national agenda, there are multiple considerations that need to be addressed – not only a policy level, but a strategic and economic level, too.

Professor Ian Chubb, Former Chief Scientist of Australia, is one of the key figures in paving the way for outcomes of the Innovation Statement, having consulted extensively at Federal level and publishing several ground-breaking reports on scientific research contributions to the national economy.

Ahead of Research Innovation 2016, Professor Chubb shares exclusive insight into trends, challenges and considerations in the wake of the ideas boom. If there’s one thing he notes at the outset, it takes three to tango.

“The Agenda is a good start. It’s very positive. But it will take three to tango this time,” he says.

“The government needs to ensure it gets the policies, incentives and messaging right; the scientific community needs to be aware of how the world works, and ask paradigm-shifting questions that are fundamental to the knowledge of their discipline, as well as pushing application of that knowledge. And private sector companies need to be less risk averse, and take on partnerships that foster R&D and innovation on a scale we’ve never reached.”

The value of scientific contributions

At his farewell speech on Friday 22 January, Professor Chubb released two major reports, highlighting $330 billion that science research has added to the national economy. It is the first time ever that such a contribution has been quantified, particularly for Advanced Physical, Mathematical and Biological Sciences.

“We tried to find out what recent advances had contributed to the national economy. We came up with a figure of $330 billion, by first going back and asking researchers what they thought the contribution of their discipline was to identified industries, and then validating their responses with the businesses – seeing what they thought,” Professor Chubb explains.

A series of case studies were noted in the report, reinforcing key points that linked Australian research with commercial partnerships. For example, creation of new medical device products has become a hallmark of innovation in advanced biology.

CSL, an Australian company that develops new vaccines and therapies, has multiple research facilities worldwide and builds partnerships with universities at the same time. From 2014 to 2015, the company’s R&D spending exceeded $463 million and yielded a return of $1.4 billion.

The company’s CSL654 therapy – which treats cases of haemophilia – is at the tail-end of development, and will become available to the market this year.

As the report notes, CSL654 “is a good recent example of a treatment that was discovered, developed, trialled and manufactured within a single commercial setting.”

Commercialising scientific research into a product, treatment or service reflects what effective partnerships and collaboration can achieve. But according to Professor Chubb, there is a balance that needs to be struck.

“There’s a lot of science underpinning economic advance and economic development – not just in Australia, of course, but around the world. But we make the mistake sometimes when we think that every researcher has to make a direct link between their research and a commercial outcome – the translation of their research into innovation,” he explains.

“It’s rarely the case that researchers themselves come along and say: ‘Now I can make what I have done (or discovered) into a good or service that people want’. Sometimes, yes; often no. And why would they?

“They need to do what they are good at, and engage others who have experience in patents and route-to-market strategies. It’s really about ensuring that we’re sensible about what we expect, and having the policies and incentives in place to facilitate the partnerships.”

Creating an innovation-led economy

On 30 October 2015, a paper – Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia – was published, linking entrepreneurship to an innovation-led economy. The report highlighted a series of outcomes, including key factors behind successful countries that have high levels of technology entrepreneurship.

For example, giving urgency to technology entrepreneurship that is supported by a national innovation and entrepreneurship strategy, and giving recognition to the role of schools and universities as drivers of entrepreneurial culture.

This factor directly addresses what Professor Chubb has frequently advocated in the context of Australian universities and their research efforts.

The abstract of the report notes: “Now is the right time for the government and the university sector to work together with industry to bring about a transformation in which high-growth, technology-based businesses become a driving force behind Australias economy.”

While this observation ties back to the ‘three-to-tango’ analogy, Professor Chubb was clear to note in the interview for this article, that the definition of technology-based businesses (start-ups in particular) needs to be addressed.

“Start-ups are incredibly important. And we need to ensure we identify which ones have the capacity to grow. But it can’t be exclusively about digital – although that seems the dominant flavour at the moment.

“Yes, digital transformation is an important part of our life and what we do, but it’s not the only thing we do. We need to make sure we get the biotechs in there, the small engineering companies, and support the people who have good ideas that can grow across our profile.”

At the same time, however, any competitive advantage of Australia is somewhat precarious. According to Professor Chubb, the national willingness to change is vital to keep ahead.

“Doing what we have always done, or making small incremental shifts in what we do is not good enough. Nor is it good enough to get bogged down in the present,” he says.

“I would hate for us to spend so much of our effort looking at ourselves that we find, when we look up, that we are wallowing in the wake of the rest. The world is moving and we can learn from that – the major message is that we have to move, too.”

His observation highlights the need for Australia to remain adaptive, especially at a time when technology and research is advancing at an incredible pace globally.

“I do think that we should be exploring our national needs, our comparative advantages, our capacities and our capabilities – comprehensively and coherently. There are areas where we have real advantage, not necessarily unique, but real.

“For example, we could be world leading in renewable energy, or energy storage.  We have what we need to be ahead of the world – talent, and supplies like solar in abundance. Why would we not aspire to be world leading?” he remarks.

“And another example: agriculture. Why would we not prepare ourselves to be able to meet the often stated desire to be a major contributor to the food demands of an ever-growing global population that already cannot provide adequate nutrition for all humanity?” Professor Chubb adds.

The ideas boom will take three to tango, and it is an exciting prospect for Australia’s future. Innovation is no longer a jargon-infused concept, but a tangible outcome through which meaningful investment will enhance the value of scientific research many-fold.

Professor Ian Chubb will deliver the keynote presentation at Research Innovation 2016, focusing on the impact of the National Innovation Science Agenda on research partnerships, collaboration and commercialisation.

Download the brochure or visit www.researchinnovation.com.au to know more about the program.