Listen: How can veterinary and agricultural researchers benefit from Australia’s innovation system?

A panel of experts in science, industry and public policy delivered advice for academic researchers on collaboration across disciplines on projects, working with industry and managing intellectual property in a panel discussion.

The panel, “Achieving impact through Australia’s Innovation System - Shaping the future from within a Veterinary and Agricultural Science Faculty,” commenced the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences’ Research Week 2018.

Research Week celebrates and progresses research in the Faculty through events based on the theme of impact through collaboration.

On Monday 12 November, the panel event brought leaders in the sector together to discuss the role university research plays in innovation and the development of new products and technologies, how scientists should measure impact, what leads to a successful collaboration and how training of early career researchers could be improved to better prepare them for successful careers and industry collaboration.

Facilitated by Associate Professor Gregory Harper, Business Development Director at University of Melbourne Commercial, the panel consisted of:

Several themes emerged in the discussion.

Successful collaboration makes research faster and better

Associate Professor Joanne Devlin, a veterinary virology and public health leader with a particular interest in vaccine development and disease control, said clarity in the aims of a collaboration are vital.

“I think collaborations work well when everyone is going towards the same goal,” she said.

cute kitten
Associate Professor Joanne Devlin and Dr Rohan Rainbow.
“One of the easiest collaborations, in a way, is working with private companies because they very much know what they want at the end. I think that can help because everybody is clear. And we’ve been doing a lot of work with an Australian vaccine company, Bioproperties, and they definitely know where they want to go… that can sometimes be a challenge but can also be really good because you know where you’re going.”

Professor Herbert Kronzucker, a leading plant scientist whose research has led to improved rice production and the alleviation of world hunger, said patience and perspective is necessary in science, giving the example of a mentor who lived to see his work on plant chlorophyll applied in drones and satellites decades after its publication.

“As a scientist, you have to be patient early on,” he said.

“I remember my first university mentor saying that success in science is always measured as an entirety. Your own contribution might be seemingly miniscule, but it all builds up over time and one can be very proud of being part of machinery that produces for mankind.”

Dr Rohan Rainbow, whose 30-year career has spanned research organisations, industry and policy advice, said collaboration is challenging but necessary in the Australian environment.

“The reality is, in Australia, we’re actually a small county and we need to work together on some of the issue that we’re dealing with; some of these issues are so intractable that we just need the best minds around them,” he said.

“[In Dr Rainbow’s area of weed control, there needs to be] engineers, biochemists, plant physiologists, people from different disciplines working together on the same issue… the reality is, it will actually be the combination of those solutions that will deliver the outcome that industry needs. It won’t actually be any single one of those, and so we actually absolutely have to take a collaborative approach to our R&D, and that requires a national approach in many cases. So if you have an opportunity to be involved in a national program, step up to the plate.”

Communication and building relationships is essential

cute kitten
Greg Harper, Herbert Kronzucker and Cassandra Meagher during the panel presentation

Professor Kronzucker said all collaborations require researchers to build up trust over time.

“These things don’t happen suddenly,” he said, describing how a very successful relationship he developed with researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences started with a conversation at a conference and had led to 25 research publications.

“The other kind of collaboration is with industry… there a very different approach is necessary. You’re learning about value proposition, what a business case is and learning about the timelines that industry is looking for, what accountability to a product means. I always advise my staff members to develop a balanced portfolio over a career that has both [academic and industry collaborations].”

Cassandra Meagher, whose policy and regulatory work in the Victorian Government has underpinned the implementation of electronic sheep identification and actions plans for the control of wild dogs and invasive fruit flies, emphasised the important of being succinct and providing decisionmakers with a memorable example.

“In communicating with government, the important thing is to keep it to three bullet points: what is the issue, why is it important and an example that goes with it – politicians love nothing more than examples because they stick in their minds.”

Dr Rainbow said the greatest challenge he found in his early research career view was translating scientific research into farmers adopting changes in practice.

“I learned from some of the best in the industry in terms of communications, and unfortunately as a scientist, you’re going to have to learn to become a good communicator,” he said.

“You’re going to have to learn how to translate the issues and your solutions and the value proposition of your solutions to industry, because it’s that transition into practice that really drives the impact of your research.”

Don’t fear working with commercial partners, but seek support where you need it

Ms Meagher completed masters research into competition and privatisation of public utilities and emphasised that in collaboration with industry over intellectual property – and concerns about ownership of the IP generated by research – researchers should bear in mind both competition and coordination.

“When you look at [profit incentives] in the context of IP, it’s all about that ability to make a profit out of it and where the incentives sit. [In a government organisation] it’s not just about the dollar, it’s about what outcome we’re trying to achieve and how accessible this will be… You have natural conflicts; the setting of those incentives and the protection of rights is really important, and being really clear about your objectives in navigating that space, is important.”

Dr Rainbow agreed considering mutual benefit is vital.

The conclusion of the panel. One person standing and speaking, with five panel members sitting in a line
Professor Frank Dunshea, Associate Dean (Research) at the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences and the sponsor of Research Week, thanks the panel.

“It all comes down to a willingness by all the parties to do a reasonable business deal. No one makes anything out of it if it doesn’t get commercialised… It’s when everybody mutually benefits from that IP management that you get the best outcome, and that includes the commercial [partner] as well.”

Professor Kronzucker said he thought concern over IP was a major reason why scientists were reluctant to engage with commercial partners, but said he felt strong commercialisation support structures were of great value to academics working with industry.

“In my experience, this University has actually gotten very good in this space. There is the support in place through the offices at RIC [the University’s Research, Innovation and Commercialisation office] and at the various levels of our faculties… [for the most part] we actually have very good support mechanisms in place to help researchers who might not be that experienced in striking a proper deal, strike such a deal.”]

Story and images by Stuart Winthrope.