Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Two Billion More Reasons to Collaborate

By Ian Dagley

With global population expected to grow by two billion, even greater collaboration between researchers and business will be needed to satisfy the world’s food, energy and other needs.

The forecast growth in the global population and demographic changes present directly, and indirectly, many major challenges that need to be addressed by advances in science and technology.

For example, there are predictions that by 2050 the population will increase by 2.3 billion, the demand for energy will be more than 50% higher, new approaches to health care will be required because the number of pensioners will exceed the number of children, and agricultural production will need to be 60% higher than for 2005–07.

The multi-dimensional nature of these emerging challenges will necessitate even greater collaboration between researchers and business in order to find better technological solutions that translate into new products and services. There is also a strong case for greater financial support from governments for those activities that seek to deliver substantially better economic, social and environmental outcomes.

Despite the significant benefits of collaboration, the Australian Innovation Systems Report 2012 found that Australian businesses of all sizes remain poor collaborators, and that they are ranked in the lower third of OECD countries for collaborations between businesses and higher education or government research institutions.

Of the Australian government programs promoting collaboration between businesses and industry, the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program is clearly differentiated. It is a proven model that provides long-term funding for end-user-driven collaborations between businesses and multiple research providers that address major challenges, have a clear path to market and deliver substantial (quantified) national benefits. It is therefore pleasing that the recent decline in funding for the CRC program is being redressed.

The program works to benefit Australia on many levels. Australian and international businesses are encouraged to undertake demanding research targeted at providing major benefits to Australia, because the risk is shared and world-competitive teams can be assembled from across the Australian research provider community. The chance of successful translation of the research into outcomes and impacts is maximised by the close involvement of end users. And a legacy of CRCs’ education programs is early career researchers skilled in identifying, conducting and delivering implementable technical solutions to practical problems.

The CRC for Polymers, which has recently received a fourth round of CRC program funding, provides an example of how the CRC program promotes research collaborations that benefit Australia. It is addressing the major challenge of assisting Australian manufacturing to become a supplier of products that meet emerging global needs in three areas – health therapies and delivery, water and food security, and low-cost solar energy – using enabling and sustainable advanced polymer technology.

This CRC provides companies with access to eminent researchers – like Prime Minister’s Prize for Science winners Ezio Rizzardo and David Solomon – who know how to control the structure and composition of polymers so their properties are tailored to provide new and improved processes and products.

The products the CRC is targeting are designed to specifically meet Australian needs and provide benefits that particularly include enhanced productivity. Some examples are:

  • A new single injection vaccine for cattle tick that relies on a biopolymer-based delivery system. A single injection treatment is required to meet the industry standard of an annual muster of approximately nine million beef cattle in northern Australia.
  • Polymers that will help farmers increase crop yields, including polymer-based sprays for improving water penetration in water-repellent soils. Up to 30% of Australia’s cropping land is water-repellent, and this land produces only 10% of the nation’s broad acre crops.
  • Better polymer encapsulants for thin film solar cells. These are required to protect solar cells from the ingress of water and oxygen so that they can continue to operate efficiently for at least 20 years in the harsh Australian climate.

The CRC program continues to evolve, with priority areas being nominated for recent selection rounds. Objective analyses, that identify the highest priority challenges for each of the major sectors of the Australian economy, greatly assist applicants to focus on those research collaborations that maximise the benefits that the program can deliver to Australia.

Dr Ian Dagley FTSE has been the CEO of the CRC for Polymers since 1995. In this role he instigates collaborative projects from discussions with companies and researchers, and is closely involved in all aspects of the CRC including its research and commercialisation activities. Participants in the CRC include BASF, BlueScope Steel, Integrated Packaging, Mesoblast, Virbac, 11 universities, CSIRO and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.