In Summary

  • Opinion piece by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Bronwyn Fox

The Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) report identified that 7,000 research-related university sector jobs are at risk in the next six months, with an anticipated loss of research revenue in 2020 of around one third. 

This is set to have a dramatic impact on the sector’s ability to support a bounce-back of the economy, which will be more reliant than ever on innovation, company agility, rebuilding a strong manufacturing industry and accelerating our digital economy to remain competitive in global supply chains.  

In recent years industry reports have pointed to the need for government to provide a roadmap to assist industry to embrace advanced technologies and digitalisation, to increase investment in research and development (R&D), and to reassess business models to remain competitive.

Transforming Australian manufacturing

In 2019 a report developed by PwC with support from Swinburne, Siemens and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union provided recommendations to reinvigorate the manufacturing sector and boost the research and education sector. These include:

  • Australian Government to facilitate the development and release of a manufacturing Industry 4.0 Strategy
  • establishing hubs for Industry 4.0 commercial manufacturing activity (focused on priority industry sectors)
  • removing barriers between Vocational Education and Training and Higher Education in the tertiary education system to facilitate collaboration opportunities and seamless learner pathways
  • establishing a workforce transformation leadership program

Pursuing these recommendations now would enable significant advances in industry and uplift to the economy. We are seeing steps in this direction through government initiatives and the establishment of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, but a plan needs to be set in place now to signal a way forward for industry and the research sector. 

The establishment and growth of collaborative hubs in priority sectors would enable the research sector and industry to work and grow together, cost-effectively sharing resources and combining expertise.

Swinburne works closely with industry in a series of hub-type models, embedding global digital companies on campus to grow research capability and impact in key digital sectors. This includes Wipro (AI), Amazon Web Services (Cloud Computing), Siemens (IIoT), DXC (Digital Transformation) and Capgemini (Block Chain).

Industry 4.0 Testlab Network

The Australian Government has established the national Industry 4.0 Testlab Network across six Australian universities. These testlab hubs work closely with industry on research, education and skill development, and are also required to form close links with TAFE providers.

Two testlabs are being developed by Swinburne: an Advanced Manufacturing Industry 4.0 Open Demonstrator Testlab (complete); and a Testlab for the 3D Printing of Carbon Fibre Composites (in collaboration with CSIRO, and due for completion in 2020).

Industry-relevant innovation has thrived as VET and higher education students, researchers and industry work side by side. Swinburne’s pioneering Industry 4.0 Higher Apprenticeship, the Associate Degree of Applied Technologies, co-developed with Siemens and AiGroup, is an example of one of these programs.

Societal issues

But it’s not just our industry that needs research, innovation and a multidisciplinary and collaborative response. The societal impacts of COVID-19 are just beginning to be played out, with reported increases in family violence, mental health needs and soaring unemployment.

To protect those most vulnerable in our society, Australia has been quick to harness new forms of income support, housing and online delivery of services. Through this crisis, our society has been required to move quickly and to be agile – responding in new ways to need as it has arisen.

This has provided many examples of researchers working as part of results-driven multidisciplinary teams, including members of government departments, not-for-profit organisations, industry and community.

Research is key to problem-solving

Problems require solutions and the backbone of each solution is research. This could not be more obvious than in this current crisis. At the forefront, researchers are working day and night developing and testing new vaccines and treatments. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what researchers are redirecting their efforts toward at a time when the nation, and the world needs them most.

Behind the scenes they are aiding industry in developing personal protective equipment, helping government to collect and understand data, helping society to understand and better manage mental health, to name a few.

Prior to this crisis Australia was lagging behind many western nations in its investment in research and development, with the country’s gross expenditure on R&D decreasing year on year to a low of 1.79 per cent of GDP (2017-18).

Recent findings from Deloitte Access Economics suggest that every dollar invested in research yields a five dollar return for the country’s GDP. Now is the time to invest in research more than ever before.

Many global companies already choose Australia for their R&D endeavours, with the knowledge that this country’s researchers are some of the best in the world, are collaborative and can work at industry pace to create impact.  Let’s capitalise on this, further build our reputation, and ensure the world knows we are open for research business.

Australia’s handling of this crisis has shown that it is possible to lead the way by listening to the experts and the research, delivering world-leading results because of it.

Now we call on the Australian Government to lead the way in setting a roadmap for industry and society to follow. A new strategy with the right policy support mechanisms put in place now will allow industry to flourish, reduce the cost of innovation and increase R&D investment, and create a culture of true teamwork to bring research, industry, government and community together to solve society’s most wicked problems.

This will ensure Australia can be more productive and better than ever.

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