24/01/2006 - 21:00

Playing catch-up on funding as CRC lobbying intensifies

24/01/2006 - 21:00

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It’s no news in academic ranks that the Cooperative Research Centres funding game is a highly competitive one, requiring lots of old-fashioned lobbying.

Playing catch-up on funding as CRC lobbying intensifies

It’s no news in academic ranks that the Cooperative Research Centres funding game is a highly competitive one, requiring lots of old-fashioned lobbying.

But it’s a process that has proved well worth it for R&D powerhouse Queensland, as that state continues to surpass the rest of the nation in attracting crucial CRC research dollars from the federal government, winning $55.6 million last year – the most of any state or territory.

The dilemma for Western Australia’s academics is how to mirror this kind of investment in the state’s collaborative research programs, after making some headway in the past three years.

Since WA Business News first tackled the issue of CRC funding in 2002, the state has improved its standing in the country’s peak university grants scheme, but the quantum of this progress does not accurately reflect the true state of play, according to University of WA pro-vice chancellor research and innovation, Doug McEachern.

“CRCs were one of the cleverest ideas in R&D. There are some really healthy partnerships developing,” he said.

The CRC program was introduced by the Hawke government in 1990 to improve the effectiveness of Australia’s research and development effort. It links researchers with industry to focus R&D efforts, the ultimate objective being commercialisation.

After taking the wooden spoon in 2002, collecting just $5.9 million, or 1.2 per cent, of the $478 million on offer, WA captured 8 per cent of $194 million in 2004-05, or $15.7 million, according to Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) documents.

Last month, applications opened once again for the latest round of CRC grants, with the merits of each to come under the close scrutiny of DEST.

Applicants from around the country will be assessed over the coming year, but WA is likely to miss out yet again on a significant level of CRC grants, despite a booming economy and record capital investment.

But the process of attracting more research funding to the state was a slow one, Mr McEachern said.

“If you look at it in incremental terms, the CRC programs have come a long way in this state,” he said.

Mr McEachern praised the efforts of WA researchers, singling out commercialisation outcomes such as Advanced Nanotechnology Ltd and Dimerix Bioscience Pty Ltd as examples of what the state had done with the funds it had received.

“I think the state government has invested heavily and it’s improving the relationship between industry and universities,” Mr McEachern told WA Business News.

In the past, the state government has been criticised for not taking a more active role in bringing home federal CRC grants, with the Gallop-led administration often compared with Queensland’s Beattie government, which has been highly successful in promoting Queensland as an R&D centre.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has often been seen at national R&D conferences, drumming up support for his innovation agenda, while Mr Gallop’s 2002 Innovate WA policy was met with lukewarm support initially.

But a fundamental point when it came to funding decisions, Mr McEachern said, was the difference in the composition of WA’s economy and the kinds of research programs presently supported by CRCs.

While there was probably more industry emphasis on R&D in WA than in other states, he said, research on technologies with wider appli-cations was often left to universities.

“The two sides conduct different kinds of research but there are always elements that would benefit from collaboration,” Mr McEachern said.

A key question was how more attention could be brought to the minerals sector.

Singling out the Parker Cooperative Research Centre for Integrated Hydrometallurgy Solutions contri-bution to the extractive minerals industry, Mr McEachern said there was a need for more attention to the sector.

It is true that WA is home to the nation’s largest resource projects, but more serious investment in research within the minerals sector remained elusive.

“There are two sides to it – energy and minerals. I think there is still a need for more R&D in minerals,” Mr McEachern said.

There have been many attempts to bring together the vast array of stakeholders in the mining industry over the past decade, but Mr McEachern said a program that closely linked the CSIRO and industry was still missing.

Nonetheless, “attitudes are changing”, he said.

Despite having just five of the 72 CRCs based in WA, the state’s major universities contribute considerable resources to programs headquartered in other states.

Murdoch University manager, research centres, Jeff Billman said the main issue for his institution was its size in comparison with the larger universities, such as UWA and others in the eastern states.

Despite its size, Murdoch has still managed to contribute towards 12 CRCs nationally.

One of those is the AJ Parker CRC for Hydrometallurgy (run by Murdoch), which received $2.4 million in federal funding last year.

A widely respected research centre, it has become known for its contributions to the minerals processing industry.

In some ways, Mr Billman said, the funding problem faced by smaller universities was a chicken and egg one.

Trying to attract dollars from DEST for more WA-based centres could often require there to be a program already under way, he said.

But in Queensland, a cornerstone of the Beattie government’s innovation policy has been to encourage seed funding to help R&D projects off the ground, supporting Queensland University’s $35 million seed fund with the University of Melbourne.

The goal of the fund is to successfully commercialise the outcomes of research from the two universities.

This year, a new framework changing the way CRC funding is allocated will be introduced.

It is designed to change the selection criteria to better take into account quality of research output rather than quantity.

WA Business News understands that DEST is yet to finalise this new selection formula.

But Mr Billman said whatever the final selection method, it would create uncertainty at universities initially.

“It’ll be a big shake-up,” he said.

Despite this change, the CRC program has enabled smaller universities such as Murdoch to become more involved in research, according to Mr Billman.

“We’re quite happy with the way it’s going,” he said.

“It allows us to branch out and there’s always the carrot of commercialisation at the end.”

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