The Hon. Wyatt Roy’s experiment in innovation policy development has just finished: now we are all downstairs in The Cuban Place under Bluechilli’s Sydney office, beers in hand and the conversations haven’t stopped. I’m nestled on a lounge in a dim corner of the bar, having a great yarn with Greg Mullins (Head of Policy, Research Australia) and Shayne Flint (College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University) work-shopping the ideas our group developed during the day. Others close by are also in animated discussion, nutting out their ideas on napkins such as Bluechilli evangelist Alan Jones.
Only a few hours earlier, a diverse group of 100 entrepreneurs, academics and policy experts had streamed upstairs and coalesced into groups to develop pitches in 10 widely differing areas of innovation policy. Each policy topic had been selected based on public input and an open voting system through the OurSay website. Each group was given a ‘facilitator’ and a ‘champion’ to capture and communicate the ideas of the group in a 3 min pitch, to be judged at the end of the day. Winning the day wasn’t really the point, but everyone likes a bit of healthy competition.
Led by our team ‘champion’ Tony Peacock (Chief Executive, Cooperative Research Centre Association) and brought together by our interest and expertise in the university sector, we were tasked with developing and pitching a new policy to pull Australia up from its current place at near the bottom of the league table in research engagement with industry. I was there as an executive member of the Australian Science and Innovation Forum – our interest is in championing this precise area of policy development.
The question was: which policy lever should the government pull to get industry and academia together, to get new conversations going, to build relationships of trust that are needed to underpin a culture of risk taking and entrepreneurship? Now, flushed with the success of the day and our Mexican ales, it all seemed so simple. We just need to connect talent to opportunity. And it shouldn’t cost all that much.
Mavericks and moving the food bowl
If managing universities said to be like herding cats, we were happy to take the metaphor and use it to our advantage. If you want the cats to move to where you want them to go, put a little bit of food in a bowl and move it to the right place.
We all agreed very early on that universities, on the whole, do research and teaching pretty well. Importantly, both of these activities have long been integrated with each other and there has been an established mobility of ideas and personnel between the two areas of activity. That makes sense, because that’s what universities are paid to do and are rewarded for in university league tables.
But there are very few incentives for the third activity that we all want them to do to underpin innovation: to engage with industry and develop a mobile exchange of ideas and personnel that could enable research translation and the creation of new, tech-based industries.
As a Tony Peacock pointed out, Australia can point to people that have done ‘innovation’ well and that work closely and productively with industries. However these are the ‘mavericks’ who have fought against the incentives built into the system.
So change the incentives to reward engagement with industry and change the behavior. Can it work?
Yes said Dr Kevin Cullen (Chief Executive Officer, UNSW Innovations), another member of our group . He pointed out that in the UK, a ₤150 m investment in incentivizing industry collaboration changed behavior in a ₤4200 m university sector, a 700% payoff on investment.
Our pitched boiled down to this: how about we increase the block funding for universities by $300 m and tie this to increased engagement with industry? One great idea would be to encourage strategic staff and student secondments in tech-based companies. Later on, Greg, Shayne and I reconvened in the The Cuban Place to nut out how this might work in practice.
With a trademark dry wit and cat pictures, Tony delivered our pitch to high acclaim. Tony was even ‘whooed!’ for the first time in his life. Importantly, we also got the attention of MP Wyatt Roy who liked our pitch and our idea of using a small amount of additional money to leverage a large change in behavior and innovation outcomes.
Watch this space as they say.
All hot air?
Even if our policy never saw the light of day – and of course it should (here’s looking at you Wyatt!) – there was a general agreement that the organized chaos of the day had created a unique opportunity simply by squeezing a passionate bunch of people into the same room to make new connections and to start new conversations. Kevin Cullen commented that he’d worked in the innovation sector for years and was surprised by all the people in the room that he didn’t know, who had great ideas and a passion for change.
This is precisely what we want our policy to do: to create new connections and new possibilities.
Let’s keep the conversation going.
About the author:
Dr Martin Rees attended PolicyHack as an executive member of the Australian Science and Innovation Forum. Working in Medical Affairs at Boehringer Ingelheim, Martin engages with a diverse community diverse community of clinicians and medical researchers in Australia, providing scientific information. Previously a medical researcher at the Heart Research Institute and University of New South Wales, his interdisciplinary collaborations developed novel treatments for cardiovascular disease. Martin’s professional activities in science communication build on a passion to engage wider audiences to champion the role of scientists – particularly ‘blue-sky’ researchers – in underpinning and enabling innovation.