Vice-Chancellor's Report

Our world of innovation

Dr Michael Spence

Recent newspaper headlines have painted a confusing and even contradictory picture about the current state of innovation in this country.

“Australia is no innovation leader,” read one; “Business has a poor view of Oz innovation,” claimed another; a third declared, “Australia is among the world’s best countries for supporting innovation.”

As always, there is a far more interesting and nuanced story beneath the headlines. The sources of the confusion were two fascinating reports released by the US-based technology company GE, which examined the current state of innovation in 22 different countries, including Australia.

The first, The Milken Innovation Report, prepared for GE by the US economic think tank the Milken Institute, ranked Australia among leading nations for its performance in such measures as patent production and collaboration between industries and academia.

However, the second report, GE’s own Innovation Barometer, which surveyed nearly 3000 executives of large companies, including 100 respondents in Australia, painted a very different picture. It is clear that international perceptions of Australia as an innovation leader are low and that Australian business executives feel their nation’s innovation environment has not improved in the past five years.

While The Milken Innovation Report found Australia is leading in five of seven innovation indicators and is above average in the other two, the GE Innovation Barometer survey was far more sober, ranking Australia 16th of 30 countries in innovation. This is despite the fact that between 2000 and 2008 the R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP in Australia increased at an annual growth rate of around 10 per cent – more than triple the average of OECD countries.

The heartening thing in these reports was the clear recognition that Australia has been a leader in facilitating collaboration, particularly between universities and industry. The $3.5 billion of Federal Government support for the national Cooperative Research Centre program is an obvious example.

Learning from other countries

However, we have much to learn from other countries such as Sweden, where as much as 97 per cent of publicly funded research is carried out at universities, complemented by networks and agencies to support industry and university collaborations. According to the World Economic Forum, Sweden ranks among the top five nations for investments in R&D and performance in knowledge creation for innovation. Yet Sweden’s outcomes are relatively modest in terms of producing profitable innovations or commercially viable products and services. According to Anders Hallgren, Director of Sydnovate, the University’s commercialisation arm, this “Swedish Innovation Paradox” has close parallels with the current situation in Australia. Although we have rich potential, intellectual capital and obvious research strengths, there is still a fragmentation of critical mass and allocation of resources.

We have adopted a strategy of building excellence in the fundamental sciences and using this expertise to address some of the major problems facing the world today.

Professor Ben Eggleton heads up CUDOS, a collaborative research centre working at the frontiers of nanophotonics and optical signal processing. The centre’s work in optical science is considered to be as revolutionary as the work in silicon electronics that has reshaped the world over the past 50 years. Professor Eggleton and his colleagues are engaged in excellent collaborations with local industry partners Finisar and Silanna.

Another of our strengths is the important area of green chemistry, or the chemistry of sustainability, where researchers such as Professor Thomas Maschmeyer are at the forefront of devising options for renewable chemicals and fuels as well as for low-carbon power. Together with several industry partners, Professor Maschmeyer is making great advances in the use of catalysts to convert biomass to fuels and feed stocks and in the use of nanoporous materials particles to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

These are just several examples of the enormous energy which is evident in our research labs as we develop new tools and ways of thinking that lead to innovation and to finding genuine solutions to real-world problems.