Nurturing a science nation
To ensure Australia’s innovation system remains competitive, CSIRO is developing Global Precincts to support research and development capabilities that are not only of global standing and scale, but also connect and collaborate with Australian industries.
5 September 2013
Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. When describing Australian science on the world’s stage the line ‘we punch above our weight’ is often used, and certainly when you look at what we contribute in relation to our population we are doing very well.
Nonetheless we remain at the lower end of the top ten research countries. Of course in some specific areas of scientific research we truly are world leaders, yet overall the United States, Canada, and many of the western European countries, outperform us. So the question now is what can we do to help Australian science increase its national research output?
As part of its current strategy CSIRO intends to develop Global Precincts, where talent pools of researchers from universities, state and federal government, and industry, operate across organisational boundaries to resolve complex challenges. Joining me in the studio to discuss this approach is CSIRO’s Doctor David Ireland.
Thanks very much for coming in, David.
Dr. Ireland: Thanks, Glen.
Glen Paul: So from what’s been described it sounds like a science Shangri-La, but how realistic is this, to bring groups together then expect them to openly share their collective knowledge?
Dr. Ireland: Yeah. Look, that’s a great question, Glen. Precincts like this have been done around the world – Cambridge Science Park, Boston’s Biomedical Science Precincts, and even to some extent Silicon Valley and the ICT that they produce. What we’re trying to do with precincts is just develop these at a micro scale.
Glen Paul: Why is CSIRO pushing for this? Aren’t we big enough and smart enough on our own?
Dr. Ireland: The challenges that we’re facing are incredibly complex. Think of food security or climate change, biosecurity, these challenges span all organisational disciplinary boundaries, and no single organisation or individual can solve them on their own. So precincts are about bringing people together, building spaces and the environments that allow them to collaborate and share ideas and resources so that they can start to tackle these really complex challenges.
Glen Paul: And are international groups welcome, or is this strictly Australia only?
Dr. Ireland: Absolutely international groups are welcome. The key to these precincts working well is having multinational corporations in the industry involved to help take Australian science and Australian technologies to the global market.
Glen Paul: You touched on Silicon Valley earlier on, and it is the one that springs to mind when you think of these sorts of precincts, how will this concept compare to the likes of Silicon Valley?
Dr. Ireland: To be honest I don’t think we could ever hope to replicate Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is an anomaly worldwide. But we can take lessons from Silicon Valley. One of the reasons why Silicon Valley works is that you’ve got a high concentration of engineers, and venture capitalists, and skilled managers and technicians and scientists there.
The precincts is taking that approach and bringing those people together at a much more collaborative process than even exists in Silicon Valley, so while we may not be able to have the scale of Silicon Valley, we can certainly learn from them and try to build the environment that allows people to collaborate like they might in Silicon Valley.
Glen Paul: And I think it’s been pretty well established over the years that if you do bring a group of likeminded people together you can expect the ideas to flow.
Dr. Ireland: Yeah. Researcher, David Banks, a statistician from Duke University, a few years ago wrote a paper entitled The Problem of Excess Genius, and the problem is that geniuses don’t happen randomly across space and time, and a couple of examples of that is that, you know look at Athens between 440 and 380 B.C., and you had likes of Socrates, and Plato, and Aristophanes, and Xenophon, and Herodotus. Or between 1450 and 1490 A.C. in Florence, and you had Leonardo da Vinci, and Donatello, and Botticelli, and many others. Or even in the late 1580s and ’90s you had Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, and Bacon, and many others.
And the reason why there were these clusters of geniuses was that they operated in a system and an environment and a culture that not allowed their innate creative abilities to shine, but encouraged and rewarded to be so. And that’s what our precincts are trying to do, they’re trying to build that culture that encourages people and rewards people to collaborate, and has the systems and processes that facilitate it.
Glen Paul: Hmm. And how will intellectual property be managed with so many different groups working together?
Dr. Ireland: Look, that’s always a challenging question. Intellectual property will have to be dealt with on a project by project basis, but this is a challenge that can be overcome. It’s about understanding the project and the intellectual property that’s being developed and dealing with that appropriately. So organisations will continue to do what they’re doing, they will run their own projects, but by standing shoulder to shoulder with researchers from different organisations allows the opportunity for people just to start to collaborate together and to start helping each other solve the challenges.
Glen Paul: So if I were a scientist working on a challenge, say I had a new biofuel I wanted some input on, would I just put out a general call amongst the precinct?
Dr. Ireland: You could. You could do that. Often in precincts, as in Cambridge Science Park, just by being there you know other people in the building have got particular expertise, and you would seek them out.
Glen Paul: So it would almost be like a tearoom kind of collaboration.
Dr. Ireland: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. The idea is to start to breakdown some of the social barriers that usually hinder us from working together, and that just to allow collaboration to happen much more organically and naturally.
Glen Paul: And what about commercialisation, who would decide how big a piece of the pie each contributor would get?
Dr. Ireland: Again, that would have to be done on a project by project basis. CSIRO has the mentality that the decision as to who commercialises the IP is really who’s best placed to do that, and that doesn’t always have to be us. And I would imagine that that would be the same thing within the precinct, it would be based on, you know, typical things like who’s doing the funding, and who’s got the best opportunity to take that product or service and deliver it into the market.
Glen Paul: Righteo. So where will these Global Precincts be located, and who will be invited to cohabit?
Dr. Ireland: Look, everyone’s invited to cohabit. Anyone who’s got an interest from the innovation system who wants to contribute to these are very welcome to come and talk to us and our partners about being part of these precincts. So where they are – in Melbourne we’ve identified the opportunity for two precincts, in Clayton it’s in manufacturing and material sciences, in Parkville it’s in human life sciences; in Canberra it will be in natural and environmental sciences; Perth is building on the incredible resources boom in Western Australia, and so it will be in resources; and Brisbane in ecosciences.
Glen Paul: And I understand that CSIRO has had some success with this sort of thing, albeit it on a smaller scale, in the past.
Dr. Ireland: Yeah. So in 2003 we collocated with the University of Queensland, and since then our co-publication rate with the University of Queensland has tripled. In 2009 we collocated with James Cook University, and since then our co-publication rate has more than doubled. Although these aren’t precincts, these don’t necessarily have the cultural changes that we’ll be hoping to get out of the Global Precincts. Simply collocating researchers delivers significant benefits to publication output.
Glen Paul: So if I’m a CEO of a pharmaceutical company and think the idea has merit, how do I get involved?
Dr. Ireland: On the csiro.au webpage if you search for precincts it will take you to the precinct homepage, and on there you will find who are the precinct leads for each precinct, and they would be the best people for you to contact.
Glen Paul: What about cost in getting involved? Would they have to then establish a building rent space, or have a building built specifically?
Dr. Ireland: Look, we’re open to all models, whether you come and rent space, whether you build a building on the site, or whether you just collaborate with people who are in the precinct, it’s a very flexible design. The idea is just to provide the facilities and the infrastructure, and the systems and processes that allow people to collaborate, whether that’s on a physical basis, or whether that’s a virtual collaboration.
Glen Paul: OK. So where to from here and when are we likely to see these precincts start to spring up?
Dr. Ireland: We’re already starting to see it. There’s a new building in Clayton, New Horizons, that’s really a centrepiece of the manufacturing and material sciences precinct, and we’re already seeing other activities around the precincts. In Perth they’ve recently received some funding to help drive that precinct over there. University of Western Australia staff are collocating onto the site to start that collaboration at a much higher level.
But the precinct program is something that will play out over, you know, the next five, ten, 20 years. It’s attempting to fundamentally change the nature of the innovation system, move it from where it is now, which is focused on competition domestically, to focused on collaboration domestically, so that we can be much more internationally competitive.
Glen Paul: So what’s your message then to any groups, scientific or otherwise, who might be listening to this podcast?
Dr. Ireland: If you’re interested in collaborating, if you’re interested in working on some of the big complex challenges, and you want to work in cross-disciplinary teams, then you know precincts are one way for you to do that. If you are interested and you want to be involved contact CSIRO, contact the precinct leads, or even contact me at David.Ireland@csiro.au, and get involved.
Glen Paul: Well two heads are better than one, so if we can get a whole precinct together the sky is the limit. Thank you very much for discussing the concept with us today, David.
Dr. Ireland: Thanks, Glen.
Glen Paul: Doctor David Ireland. And to find out more about the Global Precincts, or to follow us on other social media, just visit www.csiro.au.