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Go8 Submission: ISA 2030 Strategic Plan Issues Paper

The Group of Eight (Go8) welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) 2030 Strategic Plan Issues Paper, released on 24 March 2017.

The Go8 institutions may make individual and more detailed responses to the report and therefore the Go8 response is deliberately high-level.

The Go8 represents Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, accounting for over two-thirds of Australian university research activity, spending around $6 billion per year on research with the Go8 investing $3.2 billion annually in applied research and experimental development. The Go8 are consistently the highest ranked Australian universities in international rankings, and have educated almost 80 per cent of the Australian-educated Chief Executives of the nation’s top companies. Go8 research has resulted in significant innovations with social, commercial and health applications including the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, the Cochlear implant to assist the hearing impaired and SNAP technology vital to anti-terrorism airport surveillance.


  1. That a new narrative and vision centring on Australia’s innovation potential needs to consider the significance of our role in this regard in the region and the world in addition to the national or local perspective to be truly influential.
  2. That a more nuanced view of the sustainability of Australia’s research strengths as a key contribution to innovation is taken in developing the 2030 Strategy, that recognises that our continued capability as a top-performing research nation depends on addressing key points of weakness in our funding framework.
  3. That efforts to advance Australia’s innovativeness on the basis of collaboration between researchers and businesses, universities and industry must start from a more realistic view of what levels of collaboration exist, where this best occurs and can be productively optimised – versus broader targets of increasing overall proportions of collaboration.
  4. That policy consistency is necessary to a long-term effort to foster innovation and that the development of new regulatory and policy measures by Government must pay heed to the possible impact they may have on fostering or preventing innovation. The Government may wish to consider including a checkpoint for portfolios to consider implications for innovation from any new proposed policy.
  5. That a more fine-tuned understanding of how Australia’s and the global workforce will evolve in the future is needed if we are to refine the ways in which skills are developed with a focus on innovation and innovative workforces of the future.
  6. That international connectivity and prominence must be recognised as vital aspects to progressing Australia’s leadership in innovation, and that isolation would threaten our past, existing and future endeavours.
  7. That a more thorough, regular and prominent celebration of Australia’s innovative successes is activated and continually supported as a basis for a cultural shift towards a consistently high performing innovative nation.

Key points

  1. Innovation at its most impactful extends beyond any single sector or sphere of activity, beyond national boundaries, to the creation of a transformational change for humanity. A new narrative is needed that reflects this breadth of impact and the significant part that Australia has to play, builds the national consciousness of the impact we can have for ourselves and the world, and fosters individual and shared benefits.
  2. A strongly supported and impactful Australian research system, underpinned by effectively and reliably publicly funded university research, is vital to an innovative Australia. Government and others cannot afford to be complacent about the support needed to ensure the continued strength of the research system.
  3. Australian university research is not only a prime contributor to knowledge creation, but universities also play an undervalued role in knowledge transfer and application. Both external and internal perceptions and approaches need to be modified. Any future measures promoting collaboration between university researchers and businesses must take an accurate view of the level of collaboration that exists already, how and to what degree this can in fact be fostered or raised.
  4. Policy consistency and continuity are vital to ensure innovation thrives and that the best outcomes possible result from efforts by universities and industry. Relatedly, more could be also done within Government to minimise regulatory or policy barriers to innovation.
  5. It is important to not only grasp the impact of predicted technological change such as automation on our future workforce, but also what job trends will emerge, where and how these will be sustainable, and what patterns of skill transferability will be likely needed.
  6. Innovation, like research, cannot flourish fully in isolation. Strengthened regional and international connectivity and engagement is vital to Australia’s potential as an innovative nation and should be a central pillar of the 2030 Strategic Plan, reflecting Australia’s growing role in the global arena, and reinforcing and adding to those areas of research and innovation where Australia is world-class.
  7. Australian innovations and innovative solutions, especially those of national or international significance, should be more routinely and regularly spotlighted, recognised and rewarded.
  8. The Go8 endorses the concept of picking our wins and being selective in where and how we invest where it comes to bold, high impact, and ground-breaking projects while fostering broader grass-roots benefits and relevance where possible. However, this must be hand-in-hand with continued longer policy arrangements and investments to support ongoing innovative efforts.

Further discussion

An ambitious vision

While increments of innovation, for instance at the internal firm level or within universities, are valid and need support, the ISA vision could systematically reset the conditions on which innovation will thrive on the basis that what we should be striving most for is new-to-world innovations. In other words, ISA’s vision cannot be limited to just what is valid and important in the national context, but must be geared to what role Australia and its innovation actors have on an extended regional and global scale. Implication of this are that:

  1. University researchers must among others revisit their perceptions of themselves as key players in this environment, beyond simply their institution or their locale, to active actors in a more national and global effort.
    1. Efforts to involve university researchers in the innovation ecosystem must extend beyond researcher to business collaboration to re-establishing the concept of researcher as innovator, not only by virtue of the research they do and the discoveries they make, but through their role in embracing opportunities to galvanise wider use and end-benefits of their research.
    2. Researchers can be more systematically exposed to instances of research translation, not simply by virtue of the serendipity of interaction during an internship or in an industry-facing lab. In addition to embedding university researchers into industry, recruiting industry and research translation practitioners or experts – including those of international renown – into university ranks would help foster a continuous experience with industry.
  2. Efforts to galvanise innovation at the local scale cannot be unfocussed and instead need to be strategically and appropriately crafted to optimise the impact Australia has.
    1. Serendipity plays a large role in galvanising collaborations that lead to innovation, and it is impossible to thoroughly predict where the opportunities may arise. Nevertheless, government and other efforts must be targeted at areas where Australia has the potential to make significant advances – in that regard, a wide but thinly spread approach to fostering further interactions between universities and businesses, as a mechanism for innovation, will have limited benefits.
    2. Activities could be more targeted if it were better understood where precisely the opportunities exist for improved engagement between universities and businesses, and where it is integral that such collaboration occur.

A foundation of research strength, including in our universities

  1. As discussed in ISA’s Performance Review of the Australian Innovation, Science and Research System, Australian research and researchers are world-class in many fields, and this forms an excellent basis for a strong and healthy innovation system. However, the degree to which the university research system is sustainable and can continue to generate the outcomes and impact upon which innovation relies is very much dependent on certainty and sufficiency of research funding.
    1. ISA gained a view during its Performance Review of relatively higher levels of funding for Australian R&D activities in higher education. However, it does not necessarily follow that the higher education research system is safeguarded or secure. This finding presents the risk of dismissing the reality that university research suffers from a distorted funding model that results in inadequate funding for indirect costs of research (less than 25 cents in the competitive grant dollar versus the cited benchmark of 50 cents in the dollar), lower than optimal funding for direct costs (such as through research grants[1], where in some cases only just over half of fundable applications receive grants), and a perpetual lack of certainty for research infrastructure funding.
      1. The Government received advice from the Watt Review (2015) that universities need further, very substantial discretionary sources of research funding[2] and that current arrangements needed to be monitored to ensure there was no significant deterioration in research quality, in view of the concerns around less than optimal research funding. The report also pointed out universities’ reliance on cross-subsidisation of their Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) income to support their research effort, as do other reports[3]. Yet in the Government’s recent announcement of a 2.5 per cent cut consecutively on the CGS in 2018 and 2019, as part of its higher education reform package, there was no discussion regarding the possible impacts of the cuts on university research.
      2. The recently finalised 2016 Research Infrastructure Roadmap and the 2015 Research Infrastructure Review point very clearly to the high and diverse capital infrastructure needs, which remains so far unaddressed even with the injection of operating and maintenance costs via the National Innovation and Science Agenda into the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. Instead the Government continues to pursue its redirection of Education Investment Fund remnant $3.7 billion for budget repair and other purposes.
    2. Levels of support for other parts of the research system (such as industry R&D) also have a run-on effect on university researchers undertaking collaborative research effort with other sectors. As indicated in the Go8’s response to the Report of the R&D Tax Incentive Review[4], the continued sustainability of the incentive is vital. The Go8 also reiterates its support for the Government’s uptake of the recommendation of that review for a collaboration premium of up to 20 per cent to further support collaborative R&D between universities and businesses.

A clearer picture of university collaboration with industry

  1. Australian university research is not only a prime contributor to knowledge creation as highlighted in ISA’s Performance Review, but universities also play a role in knowledge transfer and application – as other key aspects of innovation – that may be undervalued[5] both from the outside and from within the university sector. This has ramifications for future measures.
    1. Efforts to drive innovation need to be based on a thorough understanding and perception of how universities play a key role along the spectrum of knowledge generation to application.
    2. Beginning with a perception of poor connectivity between university researchers and business, as cited in ISA’s Performance Review, may undermine efforts to foster such connectivity. The question is whether we have a clear enough picture of the true quantum of collaboration and of existing and valid instances of collaboration as the basis to understanding, consolidating and building on these. As a single example, national research infrastructure facilities offer and host more opportunities for researcher-industry collaboration than is currently understood and known[6].
    1. A limited understanding also runs the risk of intervention being less than unfocussed on key areas of need or where potential exists. While several government programs, such as the Cooperative Research Centres and the Industry Growth Centres facilitate engagement in focussed areas, an expectation that researcher-industry collaboration can be significantly lifted through more generic approaches risks disappointment – in the absence of clear priorities.
    1. In that regard, innovation – including university – precincts provide a useful model of what can be possible when focussed effort occurs. Continued Government policy or financial support for such precincts that foster productive interaction between universities, businesses and industry is needed. The Go8 welcomes any future work through the Government’s National University Precincts Committee and the ISA towards this end.
    2. The end goal should be the pursuit by our key scientific and research talent of promising, viable and breakthrough innovation rather than the lifting of Australia’s record in industry-research collaboration. In other words, the potential that our leading researchers present cannot be spread too thin through a focus on all or any collaboration with business and industry. Instead, a strategic aspiration should be to emphasise breakthrough innovation as the end game with a focus on new-to-world innovations.

Policy consistency and continuity

  1. Policy consistency and continuity is vital to ensure the benefits are optimised from efforts within the university sector and by industry. A bipartisan approach, aided by long term policy settings that provide the necessary conditions for cycles of innovation to flourish, is needed. In the present day, better policy consistency is needed across the various portfolios of government.
    1. More could be done within Government – let alone by Government – to minimise detracting regulation or policy. A truly whole of government approach is lacking, and a recognition of the government’s innovation agenda must be more consistent. The university sector can be subject to unfortunate and unnecessary distractions indicative of a disconnected perception within the federal government regarding the importance of its innovation-driving measures. For example, the Australian Taxation Office’s review of taxation arrangements on scholarships threatens efforts under the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) to foster greater university-industry engagement. Changes to 457 visa changes appear to have been developed without regard to innovation goals.
    2. Government needs to be measured yet agile in responding to key policy and strategic reviews or statements, and in that regard, the Go8 would welcome an imminent Government response to the Review of the R&D Tax Incentive and the 2016 Research Infrastructure Roadmap. The Government’s critical role in driving Australia’s innovative potential relies in part on its capacity to work effectively as a whole and in sync in this regard, in addition to placing its support in instrumental ways.

Readiness for future workforce and challenges

  1. Anticipating and understanding what the jobs of the future will be is a necessary factor in preparing our future workforce to contribute to a highly innovative Australia. This entails not only grasping the impact of predicted technological change such as automation and robotics, but also what job trends will emerge, where and how these will be sustainable, and what patterns of skill transferability will be likely needed.
    1. Governments, policy makers and thought leaders need to be able to embed detailed forecasting – or consideration of key recent studies on the future workforce – in all significant direction to support innovation. This in turn will impact on how education and skills development can be kept at the leading edge including in and by universities.
    2. In addition to informing policies and measures that influence the evolution of our education system, workforce studies are necessary to help inform how a future ageing workforce[7] can be best leveraged as we approach 2030.
    3. Whether Australian levels of university to industry collaboration are as low as presented by OECD data cited in ISA’s Performance Review, the Go8 nevertheless advocates for the continued emphasis on skills – such as engagement and collaboration – that are vital for sectoral, cross-sectoral, and global innovation to occur. To that end, the Go8 supports any key direction focussed on fostering these skills and in embedding a culture of collaboration as second nature to its researchers and graduates.

An internationally connected innovation system

As the consistently highest ranked Australian universities across the major international ranking systems, the Go8 would attest to and fully support the value of enhanced connectivity to international universities, researchers, industry and government as a basis for its members’ research excellence. This extends benefits in many ways, most notably in attracting key international research talent and in fostering Australia’s international education industry as our third largest export industry. As noted in our submission to the Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017[8], the Go8 has a multifaceted and significant role in Australian’s international relationships and standing – including by virtue of our strong research collaborations with key international organisations and memberships of key global university groups – such as the Global Research Intensive Universities network.

  1. Australia’s research efforts constitute a fundamental pillar of our international engagement and, conversely, strategically important international research partnerships foster the enhancement of skills, expertise and networks necessary to a viable and growing research and innovation system. The ISA vision and the Government’s own position must reflect a recognition of this.
  2. Key to the role Australia has to play in fostering and driving innovation is the awareness of the contribution and impact we have and continue to make in research discoveries including those that have far reaching social, health and economic benefit. In that respect, Australia is in a strong position to capitalise on relationships with key trading partners including China and India as well as build on relationships with others such as the European Union.
  3. An integral aspect supporting Australia’s connectedness is its researchers’ access to international research infrastructure, which offers beyond specific projects new opportunities for Australia to participate in key global research collaborations. Australia has an excellent track record in participating in and leading key projects such as the Square Kilometre Array, the Research Data Alliance, and the Global Biodiversity Institute while access to infrastructure such as the European Synchrotron and the European Southern Observatory has afforded it capability it could not otherwise build.

Bold high impact initiatives

The Go8 participates in numerous big science projects that exemplify where significant and lasting advances can be made and remains positively poised to lead or contribute to these in an ongoing way. Effective collaboration in a competitive environment has been a hallmark of the Go8’s capability in this regard.

Extending the notion of impact beyond local or national will and can prompt innovation at a more significant scale, for instance for the region or the world, and this is where a key potential for bold initiatives can surely exist. However, we should also focus our attention in areas where Australia has unique advantages or perspectives, and where issues are peculiar to our settings, for instance by virtue of our indigenous or geographic characteristics.

In addition, any effort towards bold, high impact initiatives must also be weighted against a strategic preference for long term and consistent support of the innovation system, which in itself will foster unforeseen and remarkable advances.

[1] More than 55 per cent of the grant applications considered under the National Health and Medical Research Council in 2013 were evaluated as fundable but were not funded. In the equivalent Australian Research Council Discovery Grant program, only 65.7 per cent of funding applied for in successful applications was granted

[2] Watt, I J, 2015, Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements, p.13

[3] An example is the Grattan Institute 2015 report, The cash nexus: how teaching funds research in Australian universities

[4] A copy of this submission is at https://www.go8.edu.au/publication/go8-submission-go8-response-report-rd-tax-incentive-review

[5] For example, a recent IP Australia report, IP Report 2017, claims that Australian university – industry collaboration is not the crisis that is often cited – based on analysis of 15 years of IP applications co-filed by private sector and universities, including patents, plant breeder rights, design rights and trademarks.

[6] Successive national Research Infrastructure Roadmaps have referred to the role that national research infrastructure plays in research-industry engagement, with the 2016 Roadmap referring to the strong evidence for this perception. Yet, no comprehensive picture of the role that NCRIS and other national facilities play in this regard is yet documented.

[7] The median age of Australia’s population (37.3 years at 30 June 2012) is projected to increase to between 38.6 years and 40.5 years in 2031 and to between 41.0 years and 44.5 years in 2061 (ABS, 3222.0 – Population Projections, Australia, 2012 (base) to 2101)

[8] A copy of the Go8 submission to the Foreign Policy White Paper can be found at https://www.go8.edu.au/publication/go8-submission-foreign-policy-white-paper