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Australia to push research-industry links with big cash infusion

Posted on behalf of Stephen Pincock.

Australia will invest more than AUS$500 million in establishing up to ten innovation precincts to help promote collaboration between academia and business,  the government announced this week.

Inspired in part by the United Kingdom’s Catapult Centres and the US National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, the precincts are supposed to drive business innovation and growth in areas of Australian competitive advantage, said Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The initiative is part of a wider AUS$1-billion jobs plan.

“Precincts will bring firms, research institutions, technology experts and business service providers together to achieve the innovations, connections and scale our businesses need to succeed in the future,” the government said in a press release.

The government’s vision is for these precincts to be led by industry, where collaboration with researchers will “enable innovative practices to emerge from the workshop, the factory floor and the laboratory”.

According to the government’s plan, there will be up to five precincts in areas of the economy in which Australia already has a global lead, and up to five where there is a strong export potential. Industry-led applications to establish these precincts will be judged by a national precincts board, to be headed by John Grill, former chief executive of energy company WorleyParsons.

The first two precincts will be a manufacturing precinct in Melbourne and Adelaide, and a food precinct in Melbourne. However, according to The Australian, the state government of South Australia had not been consulted about where the precinct would be built or if it would be incorporated into an existing hub.

Robin Batterham, former president of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, told Nature that the plan was welcome if it connected Australia’s research and development effort with industry.

“I think getting focused and having industry input is the right kind of thing,” says Batterham, who was formerly also the chief scientist of Australia and chief technologist for the multinational mining company Rio Tinto.

However, Batterham points out that the plan did not provide any new sources of funding. “I think concentration of effort is a smart thing, but it needs to be with new money,” he says.

The new precincts will be able to access a dedicated fund that will build to AUS$50 million a year, the government’s plan says. The jobs plan will be funded by cutting a research-and-development tax incentive to companies with an annual turnover of AUS$20 billion, and each precinct will direct a total of AUS$236 million of current funding in Australian Research Council Linkage grants.

Universities Australia, which represents 39 universities, also welcomed the news. “Universities have long promoted the need for a closer relationship between the research community and industry to take full advantage of innovative Australian research,”  said Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson.

“What’s been missing, though,” Robinson added,  “is industry and research integration and collaboration on the scale needed to extract the maximum value and impact of Australia’s research effort.”


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