New industrial transformation research program a most welcome addition to the innovation system

I’m not sure how much attention the Australian Research Council’s new Industrial Transformation Research Program has received. The Prime Minister and previous Innovation Minister made the announcement in December 2011 as a new component of the ARC Linkage Program. It consists of Industrial Transformation Research Hubs and Industrial Transformation Training Centres.

Guidelines are expected out soon and information to date is available at the ARC website. The ARC anticipates that the first round of the Industrial Transformation Research Hubs will open for proposals in March 2012 for funding commencing in July 2012, and the first round of the Industrial Transformation Training Centres will open for proposals in March 2012 for funding commencing in January 2013. That seems a very ambitious timetable and research organisations should be preparing themselves now.

The idea behind the Hubs and Training Centres is sound and comes at a time when many industries are feeling enormous pressure due to big shifts in the Australian and World economies, the high Aussie dollar, the skills shortage and the unprecedented , unrelenting pace of changes in technology and services. So this initiative by the Australian Research Council is both welcome and needed.

The program is designed to provide up to $1 million per annum for up to four years. The particpants in the Hub or Centre will have to match the Government’s commitment. With nearly quarter of a billion put aside, that equates to maybe 15 Hubs/Centres per year, reaching 60 in total.A necessary feature of the Program will be a high desgree of flexibility. To be truly “tranformational” these days, the program will need to match the pace of change going on in industry. That’s a huge strain on any research investment program – if they take a year to assess a proposal and another six months to get an agreement in place, they can’t afford to be highly prescriptive about the actual projects because things change too rapidly. I think they’ll need to assess the talent and commitment of the particpants and give them the freedom to get on with things.

The Hubs and Centres will fill an important niche in the Australian innovation system. A Cooperative Research Centre is a massive step up in scale and level of commitment from project-based Linkage Grants, for example. These Hubs offer a good alternative and a potential stepping stone to a CRC (when it is appropriate – they’ll have to perform in their own right of course). I’d like to see the guidelines allow a CRC to apply in its last year or two as well. There are good CRCs where the industrial-academic partnership should continue but not at the level of a CRC. A smaller amount of government funding could have great outcomes in these cases.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has introduced a Health Partnerships program at the same time, but is rolling them out differently and has given strong direction on the area of research. This is a very positive move as well. Naming priority areas of research is a really hard thing to do and requires a big shift in culture. In my experience with one of the the rural R&D statutory authorities it’s relatively simple to organise peer and industry review of a bunch of proposals from researchers. But that is about rejecting things you don’t want and funding what’s left. Actually naming the priority areas you want to fund is much more difficult; the Board dynamic changes completely when they take on that discipline.

A healthy national innovation system will have a mix of strategically-driven priorities as well as lots of opportunities for individual researchers and teams to propose new ideas. It’ll have a mix of Centres with flexibility to pursue interesting things quickly and prune deadwood as well as project-based funding. The ARC Industrial Transformation Research program and the NH&MRC Partnership Program will both contribute to the overall health our our innovation system.