Work smarter to keep pace with Asia, says CSIRO Chief


The head of Australia’s leading scientific research body, the CSIRO, says Australian scientists will be left behind by their counterparts in China and the rest of Asia, unless they radically change the way they work.

The CSIRO’s chief executive, Dr Megan Clark, says Asia has surpassed the Americas for the first time this year in terms of spending on research and development, a situation that wasn’t anticipated for at least another ten years.

Dr Clark has just returned from Beijing where she held talks aimed at strengthening Australia’s research links with China.

What do you think? Post a comment below. 

Listen to the audio here, or read the transcript below.

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Dr Megan Clark, head, CSIRO

CLARK: We have a extremely good relationship with the Chinese Academy of Science where we work with the on four particular areas in terms of climate, nanotechnology, health and agriculture and we agreed to extend that partnership and now include work in biosecurity, particularly diseases that can pass from animal to humans, like we had a few years ago, Swine flu, bird flu, those kind of issues that affect the region.

EWART: Now, you’re on record as saying that the CSIRO can’t match China’s investment levels. So are these sorts of partnerships one way that Australia can attempt to keep pace with China?

CLARK: Well, China is investing at a level which is really extraordinary, so they’ve been increasing their research and development spending by 20% a year each year now for 15 years and so what’s happened for the first time is that the Asian region is now investing more in R&D than all of the Americas and that’s around 519 Billion dollars a years, versus around 512 Billion in the Americas, so this has been a sustained, consistent investment.

What we also know is the Chinese government now aims to increase that, so they’re currently spending around 1.8% of their gross domestic product on R&D and they aim to move that to 2.5%, which will exceed what Australia spends. We currently spend around 2.2% and, of course, a much smaller economy. So when the second largest economy in the world commits to spending 2.5%, that’s a major commitment. So Australia can’t match that level of investment. It’s really beyond what’s realistic.

But we can hold our head high and we can position ourselves to be competitive in this new Asian region.

EWART: So when you talk about radical changes in the way that scientists and researchers in Australia work, can you perhaps give us an example or two of what you mean?

CLARK: Well first of all, our collaborations must be with the best in the world, and that includes the emerging best that’s coming out of China. For example, our counterpart in China, which is the Chinese Academy, now is in the top ten in the world for some eight areas of science. CSIRO is in the top ten in three areas of science and there’s only four major institutions ahead of the Chinese Academy on that kind of analysis, so groups like Harvard and Stanford. So China is really moving up there, not just in quantity, not just its number of researchers, but the quality of what it’s doing and the level of work is now really challenging the very best in the world.

EWART: Now, I’m interested in terms obviously a). additional funding that the CSIRO can get is obviously welcome in terms of giving pace, as you’ve indicated, but do you think sometimes that in the past, the CSIRO has been a little bit complacent in projecting and commercialising its own research? I mean, if we take, for example, the WiFi discovery, which was CSIRO’s and that now is a global thing, of course, not covered by patents as I understand it in Russia, Latin America, China and India. I mean a huge amount of money that could have been made won’t be?

CLARK: Well, we cover our patents in areas that’s realistic and that particular patents been covered widely. As you mentioned, there were a couple of countries where we don’t have coverage, but in fact we cover most of our patents broadly around the world and it’s one of the largest patentors ?? in the nation. We’re quite proud of our commercialisation efforts. So we really don’t sleep. Our researchers don’t sleep until their research is out there being used and it’s not so much generating in current force, CSIRO. What we want to do is generate value for our partners, so new export technologies, new opportunities for our companies that we work with, new opportunities in health for the national health and for preventative health, and, of course, applications of our technologies into the environment. So we really make sure that everything we do is aimed at having a profound impact and delivering a return, which is not just money, but really value.

EWART: You mentioned earlier the figures in terms of research spending in China and Asia and the figures in the Americas and we’ve established that Asia has overtaken Americas for the first time. Now, do the politicians in Australia have a grip on that, do they understand that that’s happening and are they prepared to assist? Because there’ve been accusations, of course, against governments of both persuasions that they’ve essentially pulled the rug from the CSIRO. They’ve reduced your funding?

CLARK: Well actually, we’ve had record funding from the government in our last agreement which is a four year agreement.

EWART: But is it enough to keep up, is the point, isn’t it?

CLARK: Well, when you look at those numbers, two-and-a-half per cent of GDP of the second largest economy in the world. As I said Germany, the US, Japan, everyone will be struggling to keep up with that.

Australia needs to work smarter, so how do we make ourselves more attractive when it’s not just a matter of pouring money in. And one thing we can do better which CSIRO’s working on is how do we take the very best of what we have, put it with the very best that you have in universities, the very best we have in medical institutes, the very best we have in other research organisations and industry. How do we put that together to truly get globally standing and scale and that actually doesn’t cost a lot of money, that is simply the breaking down the barriers between the players in our innovation system and really taking the very that Australia has. That we’re doing, and we’re seeing much greater collaboration of our partners here in Australia and then together, we can then collaborate much better on the global scale and the global stage with some of the bigger players. So there are things that we can do and in the way we work and be more aggregated.

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