Research to innovation: the role of multidisciplinary teams

The following is a short speech given at Melbourne Business School 3 April 2012 at the launch of the Australian Council of Learned Academies report on multidisciplinary research.

I’d like to preface my remarks by saying that my job with the Cooperative Research Centres is to help them “make new mistakes”, in the words of Peter Cullen. CRCs come from very different backgrounds but have similar governance, structure and aims, so there is a possibility they can repeat old mistakes. Consequently, part of my job is to help them avoid mistakes that another CRC has already made – to learn from the nearly 200 CRC’s experience.

The most common “mistake” I encounter, whether it is a CRC from mining, the environmental sector or medical sector is that we consistently underestimate the time, effort and money required to translate research into innovation. It doesn’t simply happen; it needs to be driven.

A short walk from here you will find:

  • A Cooperative Research Centre whose technology is embedded in half the hearing aids on earth;
  • one that helped develop a laser-based system to manage the maintenance of rollers in mills to cut cost and downtime;
  • a CRC that reversed world thinking about your teeth irreversibly deteriorating through your life. To the extent that they developed a product to recalicify your teeth; it’s made in Melbourne providing good jobs and it’s selling $300 million worth a year. The publications from the work helped Melbourne University’s Dental Faculty achieve a top score of 5 in the Excellence in Research in Australia exercise.

Take a slightly longer walk from here and you’ll find a group of scientists and engineers who are amongst the world’s best in advanced composites. Four percent of the Boeing Dreamliner will be made in this State and exported to Seattle for assembly, in a 25-year, $4 billion contract.

My point is that we don’t have to look far to find really successful interdisciplinary groups that are having a big impact.

My observation is that the scientists involved thoroughly enjoy their jobs. They get good pay to do interesting stuff that stretches their knowledge and skills. It results in something tangible – as a scientist you can’t ask much more than that.

Each of these examples needed a large degree of multidisciplinary skills: – designers; engineers; economists; demographers; physiologists; audiologists; dentists; materials scientists and lawyers to name a few.

In my experience the common issues between the groups are:

  1. Strong governance with direction. Virologists look for viruses. Scientists will often simply divide a pot of money and do their own thing if leadership and direction is missing. In governing applied research, you must get the end-users in the driver’s seat . In Churchill’s words “scientists should be on tap, but not on top”.
  2. Flexibility to lead and get on with the job. This means moving money or people around; taking opportunities and reversing from dead ends. This is can happen when a program of work is undertaken but it is really hard if project-by-project investment is made. We strangle creativity and leadership if we control the dollars too much.

These requirements imply long-term funding that is performance managed and flexible rather than the stop and start of peer review; project; peer review; project. I think as a country we tend to vastly underestimate the value of longer-term funding and scale. CRCs are really privileged in that most get a 7-year go at a problem and that’s a vast advantage over 5-year funding and most publicly funded scientists don’t even get five years.

CRCs are of course only a tiny bit of the innovation system – less than 2% of the Federal spend and unfortunately shrinking. They are just one example of where multidisciplinary research is currently practised successfully. My suspicion is that if we want more multidisciplinary research to flow into actual innovation that improves the lives, environment and wealth of Australians then we need to trust those teams and give them more time and money so that they can exercise good governance and leadership. A better balance of performance management during work over doling out small investments based on onerous pre-investment review would see more research converted into innovation.


“Strengthening interdisciplinary research. What it is, what it does, how it does it and how it is supported” Gabriele Bammer AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL OF LEARNED ACADEMIES February 2012. Accessed here.