News that an extremely small proportion of large Australian businesses collaborate with universities on research and innovation is disappointing and surprising. According to OECD findings cited by The Australian, companies working on new products or services in Australia are less likely to be working with universities or government research institutions than business anywhere else in the advanced world.

This state of affairs has been blamed on a “mix of structural factors” including poor incentives and a decline in the domestic manufacturing industry.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb was quoted as saying that in other countries businesses had large research departments and “spoke the same language” as universities:

“In Australia, 60 per cent of our researchers are in universities and another 10 to 15 per cent are in publicly funded agencies. There is only a small proportion of ­researchers in business.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull explicitly centred on the importance of research and innovation in his appointment of Christopher Pyne as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science.

Mr Turnbull said that if Australia was to remain a prosperous, first world economy then “we must be more competitive, we must be more productive.  Above all we must be more innovative. We have to work more agilely, more innovatively, we have to be more nimble in the way we seize the enormous opportunities that are presented to us.”

It is not hard to work out that lack of collaboration between business and academe will remain a barrier to innovation unless something is done to remedy the situation. Business needs to show goodwill and a cooperative attitude – not to mention self-interest, after all who knows what profits may flow from a change of focus – while universities need to be prepared to aggressively promote their research and innovation credentials in the right quarters.

This is important because universities that do have strong relationships with business and industry provide valuable experiences and rewards to students at all levels: for example, work-integrated learning and Masters level industry project units. Such “applied learning” enables students to be better prepared for the workforce, which in turn rewards employers.

Further, strong university-business links provide opportunities for Doctoral candidates to develop their research in a real-life science or industry setting, co-supervised by experts in the field. This adds another pool of resources for industry, creates more “rounded” graduates, better graduate outcomes and, consequently, excellent marketing and recruitment propositions for universities.

Mr Turnbull said that Australia was not seeking to proof itself against the future, but rather was “seeking to embrace it”. Let’s hope that business and university leaders adopt the same attitude and embrace the challenges of increased cooperation: not just for the sake of themselves, but also for the future of the next generation of students who will have to inherit, and deal with, what is left to them – good or bad.

DM