Some innovation in the innovation debate, please
26 November 2015, by Prof. Leo Goedegebuure & Prof. Lynn Meek
We’ve never made it a secret that we had serious doubts about the potentially damaging combination of tuition fee deregulation and significant budget cuts for tertiary education. Nor were we very much taken by the ensuing debate. So it was with more than a sigh of relief when we saw the debate shift to innovation. After all, two years ago we ran a conference on the theme of innovation and socio-economic development in Canberra with a line-up of international key notes. We also ran a one-year program for eight countries in Africa and South East Asia on innovation and research policy and management in 2014, building on a 10 year research program through UNESCO and OECD . Innovation is also a centrepiece of our research management and policy Graduate Certificate. So it’s fair to say we take innovation seriously at the LH Martin Institute.
This focus makes it increasingly painful to see the current Australian innovation debate unfold. It started as a serious discussion on what we need as a country for sustained socio-economic prosperity and growth once we have dug out and sold most of our natural resources. This suggested at least a mid-term vision on innovation for a country that primarily is a services economy. A mid-term vision that is a luxury not to be too lightly discarded in the context of political pragmatism and very short-term policy horizons. Unfortunately, almost in a blink of an eye this broader vision has been reduced to research commercialisation and the measurement of impact to replace publication metrics. This completely misses the point on what innovation in a service-dominated economy is all about.
The mere idea that we can sustain economic growth and a solid and stable society if only universities get better at commercialising their research output is totally flawed. If we have learned anything over the last couple of decennia of international experimenting, it is that universities do not excel at commercialisation. We never have and we never will because it is not who we are and what we do. Of course, we celebrate the great economic successes of the odd virus breakthrough drug, the spectacularly successful IT spin off and the invention of Wi-Fi. Researches that go on to become commercial successes do exist, and are wonderful when they happen. But let’s not make the exception the cornerstone of a misguided debate. Universities are the powerhouse of innovation through their long-term commitment to fundamental research, applied research of local relevance and, in particular, the production of highly trained human capital – not their capacity for product commercialisation per se.
While not questioning the importance of the advancement of knowledge, it should be recognised that producing knowledge workers and developing human capital is the key function of all tertiary education systems. Skilled human capital is a prerequisite to innovation, but educating people is not only about equipping them with the ability to generate and apply knowledge but also to make use of knowledge generated elsewhere and equipping them with the skills to engage in continuous learning. A range of education and training programs that can best produce people who can think and find ways to improve work practices is required. Educated people are also needed to transform discoveries into a product or processes, which generally happens outside the university. Education of managers and policy developers is also crucial. Although a claim to be further developed another day, we have consistently argued that differentiated systems of tertiary education, maintained and regulated through formally articulated policy, provide more rational, effective and efficient means for production of both research and skilled human capital than unitary systems based on market-driven, laissez-faire approaches to institutional mission articulation.
It is worrying that we seem to only be capable of debating these issues within the confines of research funding – or lack thereof. The current hype about the misguided emphasis on publications as drivers for research funding seem to miss the point that in the block grant system publications only make up some 10% of the drivers.
There is a world of learnings and expertise out there that can tell us about effective innovation strategies. What it tells us is that innovation is grounded in a complex ecosystem where different actors play different roles and interact with each other, rather than duplicate one another. There is no denying that basic research is a crucial component of this system. And if we have an industry structure as we have in Australia with very limited multinationals with serious R&D capacity, then obviously this research needs to be concentrated in the university sector. But equally important is a significant emphasis on applied research. This is not the same as research commercialisation, it is the interaction of knowledge producers and the productive sectors. The Germans have got this nailed through their renowned Fraunhofer Institutes, which conduct applied research commissioned by industry to improve the competitiveness of their local regions and economies. A number of European countries have followed this model by creating a research function in the non-university institutions, referred to as ‘universities of applied science’. For these countries the goal is to develop a research culture and capacity that is all about innovating professions and service industries.
So, rather than focusing on publications and impact metrics or whatever is the latest fashion in the UK, Australia would be much better served by actually thinking, and then discussing, about how we can build a truly innovative culture across our tertiary education system that will awaken and ignite the institution-industry interface that is currently dormant. This would mean accepting the undeniable reality that we have a strongly stratified research system across our universities that has been stable over the last twenty years and will remain so for the next. So let’s not kid ourselves about a level playing field for it never has been, nor will it ever be.
Let’s not spend vast amounts of time and energy on grant proposals that will never have the slightest chance of success. Or force staff to write academic journal articles that only serve the interests of publishers rather than the academic community at large. Let’s shift the goal posts in a constructive and productive manner. Let us recognise that highly trained human capital is at the heart of an innovative society. We already have good examples of institutions graduating students who have the skills and capabilities sets needed for the 21st century. They can collaborate, are creative, and can work across disciplines, contrary to some persisting rhetoric to the contrary. They are not averse to risk-taking, are entrepreneurial and do create jobs that did not exist before. But we can do much better across the tertiary spectrum in this respect. And we must, for our students are the engines for innovation.
Let us also focus on building an effective applied research culture in tertiary institutions, universities or otherwise, that are not currently known to be bastions of basic research. Let them effectively deal with industry-related issues and problems that will never be on the radar of our most gifted researchers. Let them drive innovation across our professions and services industries, including their students in the process. Such an approach will get us a long way on the road to a truly effective innovation ecosystem.
Prof. Leo Goedegebuure is Director of the LH Martin Institute. Prof. Lynn Meek was the Institute's Foundation Director and currently leads its Graduate Certificate in Research Management and Policy.