The purpose of this blog is to provide a platform for commentary on science matters. The Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee is politically independent and will refrain from political debate.

The Advanced Technology Institute – opportunities and challenges for academia

This week saw the announcement of details about the previously heralded Advanced Technology Institute (ATI). The focus of the ATI is on encouraging firms in New Zealand to make better use of the extensive capabilities that lie within the New Zealand research and technology communities.

Around the world there has been debate on the balance between the extent to which technology transfer is pushed by the public sector or pulled by the private sector. It of course happens both ways, but the drivers are very different in those countries with a history of high investment in discovery research. The cultural elements that encourage knowledge transfer are complex but, as an earlier post pointed out, cultural change is as important as systems change in developing an innovation ecosystem, particularly in a society such as ours that has been relatively risk-averse in this sector.

An even bigger factor is the role of multinational companies – we are a country of relatively small SMEs with only one significant multinational company originating from here and a very small footprint of multinationals undertaking R&D here. The experience in Europe, Israel and Singapore shows the undoubted importance of the multinationals to creating local innovation ecosystems. Directly and indirectly, they generate a lot of the private sector spend on R&D in such countries.

Another issue is to encourage increased private sector R&D by SMEs. As the ‘Jenkins’ report Innovation Canada: A Call to Action recently pointed out, tax credits predominantly support large company activity and therefore other forms of more direct initiative are needed to support SMEs investing in research. There is also evidence that public sector spend on R&D does not displace, but rather encourages, private sector spend. It is against this background that New Zealand is having to develop a strategy for promoting private sector investment in R&D and encouraging its exploitation of what our public sector generates. This is not easy – indeed, every advanced country is grappling with the same stuff and our distinctive profile makes it necessary to try some different and bespoke solutions.

The ATI will have a physical presence in the three major hubs from which high value science-based innovation now emerges, but will be active across the country. Some elements of the model have similarities to the Danish Technology Institute, and one element of that Institute that I am enthused by and have promoted previously is the greater use of funded secondments and rotations of scientists, including students, between the public and private sectors.

However this in turn creates challenges which I have also written about before – namely the problem of the assessment of the academic career. We need to find more sympathetic ways of looking at the CVs of university and CRI scientists who spend part of their time or take breaks in their careers within the private sector.

The trend to do so is inevitable; the disadvantage those individuals often face within the public sector, both as they are perceived by their peers, in part because of their focus on applied science, and in gaining contestable funding, must be addressed – this is a far deeper issue than simply how they are seen in the PBRF. So if we are to use science better for economic development, our science community and its institutions must confront this fundamental challenge that is both real and urgent. The establishment of the ATI represents another reason for moving on this critical issue.



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