Australia’s innovation performance is “appalling” compared to other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a former chief scientist.
University of Melbourne Professor Robin Batterham, a former scientist, was a keynote speaker at a Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) Association conference in Adelaide yesterday.
According to Professor Batterham, Australia has only one third the average number of patents that other OECD countries have.
“We are also near the bottom of the list on the OECD table for business and higher education collaboration,” Batterham said in his speech.
“If we are reliant on innovation, then we are not doing so well. There is an argument that Australia needs to get smarter, but innovation does not come easily.”
Batterham said the secret to innovation is collaboration, and the secret to collaboration is people, quoting Harvard neuroscientist Jason Mitchell.
Mitchell said: “The most dramatic innovation introduced with the rollout of our species is not the prowess of individual minds, but the ability to harness the prowess across many individuals”.
According to Batterham, the way in which current collaboration is funded – through Australian Research Council linkages and transformational hub grants is “wrong, wrong, wrong”.
Batterham argues it is “wrong” because successful funders are chosen by academics alone, rather than by academics and industry.
He said CRCs should be funded in a two-step process “so that all the funding for the next seven years “does not need to be sorted to the nth degree right from the start”.
“We have to see a doubling or trebling of funds going to collaboration as this is our competitive advantage in Australia,” he said.
Professor Batterham’s thoughts were echoed by fellow keynote speaker Ben Waters, director of GE’s Ecomagination for Australia and New Zealand.
GE is a global infrastructure, ﬁnance and media company. Ecomagination is a GE initiative that aims to develop innovative solutions to environmental challenges.
“Innovation today is often led by small companies rather than large and is driven by creativity rather than scientific research” Waters said.
“Australia has a low level of innovation, which is fragmented.”
Waters said Ecomagination will be announcing a $10 million initiative later this year to fund new ideas for low carbon technologies in Australia and New Zealand.
The news comes after Industry Minister Greg Combet said he wants the federal government’s new Manufacturing Technology Innovation Centre to ensure publicly-funded research is more closely linked to industrial results.
Speaking at an industry forum in Melbourne yesterday, Combet said the MTIC could provide stronger links between taxpayer-funded organisations, such as the CSIRO, and companies.
Combet said for smaller companies in particular, the ability to access research organisations came down to personal networks.
“We have to be a bit more systemic than that,” he said.