The Research Collaboration Review, chaired by Mr Donald McGauchie and released last March, recommends funding changes to major public sector research agencies in an effort to encourage greater research partnerships. While no one can deny that the promotion of public and private sector collaboration is a good thing, it is essential that we don’t neglect the value of basic research to the commercialisation agenda.
The report suggests that publicly funded research agencies, such as CSIRO, the Australian Institute of Marine and Nuclear Science and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, “currently enjoy more certainty of funding than is desirable.” While promoting competition among research organisations will have some benefits (like the proverbial pride of lions tossed a carcass… only the toughest will survive), we also risk creating a shallow base of expertise, focussed on short-term gain.
Think about the business sector. One of the common complaints about business is the short-term focus of managers fixated on the generation of shareholder wealth. Place universities and public sector research organisations in the same position and the management will most likely fall into the same vicious cycle; concentrating on science with near term market impact, to generate funds for the next commercialisation opportunity drawn from a diminishing pool of good science.
Why would the pool be diminishing? Let’s not be misled. Basic research is a long-term game. It costs money; lots of money, and with benefits that may not be immediately obvious to those who manage our public coffers. As Government budgets are diluted, spread across competitive grant processes, public/private partnerships and other initiatives, investment in this activity will also decline, depleting the resources needed for future science and technology discoveries that have potential to bring about social and commercial good.
Commercial development versus basic research is not an either/or question. Both have a purpose and both are needed in a well-managed society.
What is required is an investment in foresight capacity to foster a deepening level of socially responsible research that is well supported by commercial development pathways. If commercialisation is over-emphasised, and results in an under-funded, shallow base of science, focussed on quick market returns, both research and commercialisation will suffer, and that will have a negative impact on us all.
Allan O’Connor is Executive Consultant for SME Innovations, lecturer and doctoral candidate in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship. Drawing upon his research, O’Connor regularly works with business, science and education institutions designing, developing and delivering programs that enhance innovation, enterprise and new venture awareness and activity.