It's time Australia became a card carrying member of the global R&D club by overhauling its system of public research funding, argue UNSW Vice-Chancellor Professor Fred Hilmer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Les Field.

Successive governments have spent decades crafting innovation policies aimed at dragging the Australian economy back up the world's various competitiveness indices. But they have all missed one fundamental point.

As successful businesses know, consistency and long term vision, planning and time frames are the key to turning good ideas into solid, ongoing returns.

Governments have long recognised that creating jobs and ensuring future prosperity depends on our ability to build an internationally competitive innovation system, which in turn relies on world class universities. That's because public research generates three-quarters of the world's patents; if universities slip, innovation slips, and national economies follow.

Yet here's the innovation paradox. Despite Canberra's fine rhetoric and outstanding levels of tertiary education Australia is achieving less than we could. Why? Because our critical university-based innovation system is shackled to one of the least efficient public funding processes in the world.

No government has yet quite been able to bite the bullet and invest in long-term continuing research programs. Almost all of Australia's major research programs support only three to five year projects. When this system throws up the results that will benefit generations into the future, it does so against the odds. For the most part, however, short term programs leave visionary thinkers on the starting blocks, reluctant to begin research they cannot finish in a restricted timeframe.

The consequences are clear. The World Economic Forum Competitiveness Index 2010-2011 ranked Australia equal first in the world for university graduates, 12th for the basic requirements of competiveness, like infrastructure, 10th for "efficiency enhancers" like higher education and technological readiness, but only 22nd in the world for innovation.

Australia also has an above average ranking in the OECD for researchers per 1,000 of population, for scientific papers published and for the percentage of the workforce with technical skills. But, our "follow through"- our patents per million and our government and business spending on research and development further along the innovation chain - ranks below average.

Yet it is no secret that brilliant ideas can't be rushed. It took Professor Ian Frazer over two decades to turn his research into the human papilloma virus into Gardasil, the world-first vaccine for cervical cancer. All the while he was looking over his shoulder for the next tranche of research funding that would allow him and his team to continue the work.

We know that some research projects turn up little of social or commercial value at the ten year mark, but lead to remarkable outcomes in their second decade. A case in point is UNSW's ground-breaking photovoltaics research, which began in the 1960s. We now hold all the significant world records in efficiency -this Australian IP underpins the global solar power industry.

There is a relatively simple and cost effective way to dramatically improve our research funding system. We need to reset its time frames.

Researchers need continuous career pathways that allow them to realise their potential, instead of wasting much of their productive research time tied up on the paperwork and administrative tasks demanded by short term funding cycles. With success rates for grant applications sitting at around 20%, a 12 month application process and a three year funding cycle, it's no exaggeration to say that two out of four research years can be lost to jumping funding hurdles.

It's hard to imagine a more wasteful diversion of our intellectual assets from the real goal of discovery. Consider the Federal Government's extraordinary decision in 2009 to put $42 million on the table to progress work on an Australian "bionic eye". Yet, the grant was for just three years - which means teams are already starting the process of applying for the next round of funds.

The world's most innovative nations, the United States and Japan, have a relatively visionary seven-to-ten year grant cycle, as well as other schemes that provide on-going support for successful research programs. China, which has tripled its number of university graduates since 2000, is also actively promoting longer term research.

Australia, too, should be supporting longer term, significant programs, coupled by a more rigorous review system to ensure they stay on track. We should identify the right individuals or teams, build up capacity and ensure we continuously back researchers who are making promising progress.

Unfortunately, the reality of the "long, hard slog" is too often obscured by a global illusion of instant success. We see companies founded on new technology like Apple and Google bursting onto the global stage without taking into account the many years their founders spent working in obscurity. In reality, most hot tech companies are at least 15-20 years old, and the most successful corporations are still those that invest long term in capacity and expertise.

We believe a visionary research funding strategy would go a long way to repositioning Australia much closer to the top of the world competitiveness rankings. Longer grant cycles would also separate the grant process from the election cycle, and so depoliticise our innovation efforts. Getting the time frame right is the critical missing element in the innovation debate.

Our aspirations as a nation assume we will continue to enjoy life in a first world economy. But to secure that future, Australia must begin operating at the cutting edge of research and development, not as a branch plant office.

We've been talking about a "clever country" and "brain-based industries" for too long. It's time we became a card carrying member of the global R & D club.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

Media contact: Judy Brookman, UNSW Media | 0421 061 251 |