Unleashing the innovation workforce hidden in plain sight

By Jane O’Dwyer (CEO Cooperative Research Australia)

How often have you heard the adage that the best way to become unemployable is to do a PhD? Or perhaps you associate a PhD with very deep knowledge on an esoteric topic, essential preparation for a career in academia.

A PhD can be a pathway to a stellar career in business, industry, government as well as academia. PhD graduates are people who know how to discover the unknown, solve the most complex and baffling problems, see things in a different light and imagine what is unimaginable to many of us. They are the people who have the potential to power up the Australian economy and transform our world. And many of them can be found working with industry and business to fire up innovation and bring clever ideas to market.

The Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program has been a significant and successful element of the Australian innovation ecosystem for 30 years. No other scheme has seen industry and universities collaborate for as long or on the scale that it has, and the long-run impact of those collaborative relationships are profound — for example, the technology underpinning the Cochlear ear implant, and the advanced composite materials used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

CRCs bring together the knowledge of private companies, universities, and other research institutes to bring Australian expertise to solve problems ranging from living with autism, emergency management of bushfires and natural hazards, to food agility and creating a sustainable food future through to improving Australia’s cybersecurity.  

We know that for every dollar invested by government in collaborative research through the program, some three times the value is returned, generating between 1991 and 2017 more than $14 billion in direct economic benefits to the nation from CRC-produced technologies, products and processes.

This translates into new Australian industries, new Australian businesses and new Australian jobs. It makes sense to build on that success to support Australia’s post-COVID economic development and prosperity.

CRCs and our university members host a significant portion of PhD candidates undertaking industry-led research in Australia, with around 400 current students and more than 4000 alumni. These are the people who advance Australian capacity for research commercialisation. They are the people who industry calls upon to create new solutions to old problems, see and fix new problems, and translate deep knowledge into new products, services and ideas that advance all Australians.

We are lucky enough to celebrate those brilliant people at our annual Collaborate Innovate Conference next week, and it gives us some very good examples of how a PhD really does make a difference to how we as a nation can move beyond being a country filled with clever people with great ideas to a country renowned for our problem-solvers and tool-makers.

The ideas this diverse group of problem-solvers come up with are mind-blowing. They turn science fiction into reality.

For example, can you imagine fixing a busted knee with a kangaroo tendon? Dylan Ashton, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and Innovative Manufacturing CRC could. He has a project that is developing kangaroo tendon xenografts as an alternative graft source that are safe for human implantation for use in surgical reconstructions. In doing so, he has unleashed an unimagined potential for Australia.

Meanwhile, space explorers Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos will one day soon have Indrani Mukherjee from the University of Tasmania on speed dial. Indrani’s research uses high-resolution microanalytical imaging techniques to clearly differentiate biological vs non-biological signatures in rocks that are billions of years old. The techniques she is pioneering could even be used for rocks beyond Earth. Indrani is a special talent whose work has already been published in Nature, arguably the world’s most prestigious academic journal.

We all understand that soil is our source of life. Dr Chloe Lai, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland’s Centre for Sustainable Agricultural Systems, is working on a project with the Soil CRC to figure out how to better measure and model phosphorous in soil. Her work means agricultural producers can make better choices about managing food production, which translates to environmental good and consumer good.

Those working in industry-led research through CRCs and similar collaborative projects operate across all disciplines and sectors, including the humanities. Mathew Alexanderson’s research as part of the Soil CRC explores regenerative agriculture, contributing to our understanding of this alternative agricultural system, and improving knowledge on farmer behaviours, aspirations and motivations, and their perceptions of existing and proposed R&D initiatives. Mathew, who is a PhD Candidate at Southern Cross University, is doing work that figures out how people can work together better.

There is a critical need in Australia for more senior brokerage roles and skills when it comes to commercialisation and harnessing of our research capacity both in the private and public sectors.

We often talk about the skills and people we need to drive Australian innovation. And, thanks to 30 years of the CRC Program, there is a vast resource right under our nose, hiding in plain sight. Now is the time to tap into the thousands of people who are experts in talking the language of research and the language of industry. They are already quietly building our future, and better harnessing them as sources of knowledge and inspiration will enable us to grow that innovation workforce and create a future unimagined.