The collaboration challenge

Australia can’t become an ‘innovation nation’ all by itself

Brody Hannan

Government and governance, Science and technology, Education | Australia, The World

30 August 2017

There is substantial room for improvement in Australia’s research collaboration with the United Kingdom, Brody Hannan writes.

If Australia wants to be a top tier innovation nation it needs to significantly lift its game.

That’s not just my view – it was the key finding of Innovation and Science Australia’s 2016 performance review. Since the report’s publication, Australian research policy has sought to follow one of its main recommendations: to enhance research collaboration between Australian universities and other universities and businesses around the world.

But what is the current state of Australia’s research collaboration with other nations, and where is there room for improvement?

To help answer this question, I conducted a pilot study to provide a preliminary map of Australia’s collaboration with one of our most important partners when it comes to academic research: the United Kingdom.

My findings provide contextual information in developing recommendations for the UK’s Science and Innovation Network, a global initiative seeking to enable more effective policy and support for countries such as Australia who want to improve their international and intersectoral research collaboration with the UK.

I collected data by interviewing and surveying Deputy Vice-Chancellors and Deans responsible for research and commercialisation at 14 Australian universities, asking about their key research collaborations, as well as the benefits, impacts and challenges they perceived when collaborating with organisations in the UK.

More on this: Ideas boom or innovation bust?

All the Australian academics surveyed saw working with the UK to be incredibly beneficial to both the university and industry sectors. Working with industry in the UK was also seen as an important pathway to foreign markets, creating globally impactful research that is “fast tracked” to European audiences. This was particularly important for Western Australian universities, given their geographical isolation from most other Australian universities.

Many universities also noted the UK’s global reputation for research, recognising the larger pool of people and research infrastructure as offering key expertise to Australian researchers, and raising the international the profile of their research. This was particularly important for smaller universities who said that working with the UK allowed smaller fields higher funding and better data, due to greater attention of the discipline in the UK.

The findings also describe significant challenges faced by universities when engaging in international and intersectoral collaboration. Smaller universities reported difficulties in establishing connections with research institutions due to the high costs of communicating across the long distance and time-differences associated with the UK, and found it particularly difficult to reach out to British multinationals or companies that did not have a presence in the UK.

Smaller universities also reported difficulties in formalising research agreements due to the differences in legal systems between Australia and the UK. Whilst larger universities did not report this as an issue, smaller universities suggested that “guidance to minimise such potential [legal] obstacles would be a valuable resource”.

More on this: Supporting innovation in an age of disruption

Some universities also noted that neither Australia nor the UK includes the other on its regional funding priorities, with the Australian government primarily focused upon building research partnerships with Asia, and the UK’s attention mostly directed towards Europe. This makes it much more difficult for Australian researchers to gain government funding in UK projects. These same universities, however, also saw an opportunity to strengthen links with UK companies and funding organisations in the context of Brexit and the new political environment in the United States.

To address these challenges, there are several clear developments that must be made.

First, the Science and Innovation Network should facilitate the introduction of British business leaders with Australian academic researchers to overcome the challenges of establishing connections with the UK. This could be done by leading a tour of UK business leaders to meet with Australian academics, like existing programs in the United States.

Second, guidance should also be provided to smaller universities to help them understand and formalise research agreements with organisations in the UK, which could be done by making templates for research agreements more accessible for all Australian universities.

Finally, the British High Commission should play a more active role in promoting the global research reputation of the UK, and reaffirm Britain’s commitment to supporting Australian research, amidst an era where Australia has a large regional focus upon Asia.

Australia has been told that in order to lift its innovation game, it should improve its research collaboration with the rest of the world. The case of the United Kingdom shows that there are significant collaborative opportunities not just for Australian academics, but also for other countries hoping to benefit from all that an innovative Australia has to offer.

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