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Growth through innovation and collaboration: a review of the Cooperative Research Centres Programme

Research Research economic aspects Research institutes Collaborative research Australia
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Executive Summary: The Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Programme has been a feature of the Australian Government research and innovation agenda for 25 years.

The programme has been subject to many reviews, each initiated to determine whether it was delivering on its stated objectives. In response to these reviews, successive governments have taken the opportunity to revise the programme to maximise the delivery of the objectives and its flow-on value – largely through amendments to guidelines and processes.

The Allen Consulting Group found in 2012 that the programme has proven to be highly important to the Australian research and development scene and, by linking researchers with domestic and international end users, has delivered significant economic, environmental and social impacts. Their report showed a 3:1 return on investment and cited examples such as the sale of products manufactured in Australia using technology developed by the CRC for Polymers increasing sales revenue by $25 million, the CRC for High Integrity Australian Pork delivering cost savings of $14 million annually since 2010 through advances in grain technology and feed efficiency, and the HEARing CRC technology used by Cochlear adding value of approximately $120 million to 2012.

At the beginning of my review there was significant stakeholder uncertainty about the programme’s future, against a backdrop of fiscal restraint. My main focus has been to determine the effectiveness of the programme in supporting government’s priorities for applied science and research.

Stakeholders had the opportunity to provide feedback on the programme through open information sessions held in Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, individual meetings and submissions.

The consistent message I have received is that the programme is valuable and effective, but there is scope for improvement. After careful analysis of the 251 submissions, programme data and other information from a variety of sources, I have concluded that the programme should continue with a new, more targeted focus.

The programme continues to be extremely important in encouraging and facilitating industry-led collaboration between industry and research. Retaining the CRC Programme as a stand-alone programme serves to put science at the centre of industry policy.

The programme is known and highly regarded internationally. While accounting for only 1.6 per cent of Australian Government spending on science, research and innovation, the programme occupies an important place in building scale, scope, and duration of collaborative activity and increasing the range of partners involved. It also plays a valuable role in providing industry-relevant research training.

The recently announced Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda (the Agenda) and the related Boosting the Commercial Returns of Research strategy clearly articulate the government’s desire to better translate research into commercial outcomes, with the latter stating that ‘we must build better bridges between research and industry’. Industry-research collaboration is crucial for Australia to be a competitive and forward-looking economy and therefore the preservation and enhancement of government support through the programme is imperative.

The Industry Growth Centres (Growth Centres), announced as part of the Agenda, will be pivotal in driving business-to-business and business-to-research collaboration by helping define the needs (research and otherwise) of the sectors on which they focus. The CRC Programme can be the engine of innovative research to support the work of the Growth Centres and develop ideas identified by industry and Growth Centres, commercialise them, and take them to domestic and international markets. The programme should also continue its vital role in training the next generation of researchers and entrepreneurs, and inspiring cultural change in industry and research so that innovation and collaboration become the norm.

In recent times CRC Programme funding has been used to support initiatives which, while meaningful and worthwhile, have led to a dilution of funds available for the original objectives and a muddying of the programme’s purpose. To support the government’s priorities for applied science and research, the programme should have industry front and centre. It should be refocused and targeted to deliver outcomes for industry through industry-led research.

While placing a priority on the growth sectors, the programme should continue to be available to all industry sectors to allow for building capability, promoting innovation and industry-research collaborative relationships in sectors that are not currently considered to be an area of existing competitive advantage for Australia.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are a significant part of the Australian economy, accounting for more than two-thirds of GDP, national output and jobs. Much can be gained from having more SMEs involved in industry-research collaboration activities supported by the programme. There are, however, a number of perceived barriers to SME participation, which I believe can be addressed by providing a simpler entry mechanism and lower cost threshold to enable participation in the programme. A new stream of activity, CRC projects (CRC-Ps), supporting industry-focused research projects, with shorter timeframes and smaller budgets should be introduced. The funding for this new activity should come from the existing programme allocation.

A simplified selection and review process should be established, including a new, smaller, more industry-focused advisory group. The new arrangements should prioritise timely and cost effective research commercialisation and application of research outcomes for industry to lift the competitiveness and productivity of industry, while recognising the importance of research outputs to knowledge transfer and future career opportunities for researchers and postgraduate students. As far as possible the new process should make use of best practice frameworks, including for intellectual property.

Streamlined administration is also needed to enhance programme efficiency. In addition to providing advice on applications, the advisory group should identify which existing CRCs could potentially link to Growth Centres. It should also assess the performance of existing CRCs against current contracts to determine which of them are on track to achieving stated outcomes, and which need to improve. Only those that are on track to delivering against their stated outcomes should continue for the period of their current funding agreement.

Given the CRC model has proved successful, consideration should be given to rolling the model out across government to support the policy objectives of different portfolios. There is an existing example in the Defence Future Capability Technology Centre Programme which is funded by the Department of Defence and administered by the Department of Industry and Science.

If the suite of recommendations outlined in this report is implemented, the programme will be well placed to support the government’s current agenda to boost the commercial returns from research while providing the flexibility required to respond to emerging economic challenges and opportunities.

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