CSIRO scientist urges researchers to be agile
Top scientist: Progress must be monitored
SOME of the most exciting innovations in Australia are coming out of the agriculture and food sector says the director of CSIRO Agriculture and Food, John Manners, in a lengthy report on the evolving agri-technology sector in Australia.
Researchers are “delivering products and tools that will help us adapt to the trials of a warming climate, meet the changing dietary preferences of a growing population, and help make food production more sustainable and productive,” Dr Manners said.
But he noted there were changes in where such research is generated.
“Traditionally, science advances in agriculture have come from government-funded laboratories and academic institutions,” he said.
“But as governments around the world look to make scientific research deliver industry outcomes and be financially more self-sustaining, a shift is happening.
“Agribusiness innovation is now increasingly found in partnerships and alliances between research organisations and industry.”
Yet while Australia has consistently scored highly in international rankings for the quality of its research, when it comes to translating those scientific discoveries into real-world outcomes, it is lagging far behind comparable countries, so far, in fact, that this year Australia lurked at 76th on a global ranking for innovation efficiency, according to Dr Manners.
“Australia is also at the bottom of the OECD when it comes to collaboration of universities and science institutes with industry,” he said.
The Australian Government is taking steps to improve the translation of Australian science into economic benefit, at the same time as agribusiness research and development is going through a period of significant change.
Globally, around 5% of all research and development investment goes into food and agriculture, but the source of that investment has changed considerably over the past half a century.
In richer countries, such as Australia, public spending on research and development has declined partly because of fiscal deficits but perhaps also because, it has been suggested, governments (and voters) have grown complacent, taking the supply of quality food for granted, Dr Manners said.
“But we know the need for new ideas and innovation in agribusiness hasn’t gone away,” he said.
“If anything, it’s more necessary than ever, as climate change threatens food security and a growing global population places even greater demands on agricultural production and the natural resources it heavily depends on.”
In recent years, the agribusiness industry has experienced some massive mergers and acquisitions that are changing the landscape, creating ever larger, globally-consolidated players that will challenge smaller regional companies.
While these mergers and acquisitions may result in increased efficiency in research and development, they also impact how research and development in agribusiness unfolds.
Consolidation generally reduces diversity in products and in thinking, and as the natural world has shown us time and time again, diversity is a key to resilience. Despite all their extraordinary resources, these mega-companies can lose some of their agility, their willingness to take risks and their ability to operate outside accepted parameters.
With all the recent focus on innovation, there are suggestions the term has come to represent nothing more than the pursuit of money at the expense of the fundamental and basic science that underpins all research and development.
“But it’s important to remind ourselves that without innovation, there is no progress,” Dr Manners said.
Funding R&D throughout the research pipeline – from “blue sky” projects to translational science – also makes solid economic sense, with the numbers to back it up, Dr Manners said.
You can read Dr Manners’ c full report at www.blog.csiro. au.
The need for new ideas in agribusiness hasn’t gone away. — John Manners
With a record number of farmers investing in technology, the source of innovation is changing.