Collaboration key to effective RD&E

Agriculture is experiencing a renaissance as an exciting and progressive industry full of opportunity. One of the drivers of this renaissance is the fact that agriculture is now a high-tech industry where very little is left to chance. Drones, autonomous vehicles, biometric ear tags and collars capable of recording livestock behaviour and health; and digital maps and sensors with the intelligence to characterise every few meters of arable land by soil, water, nutrient and air condition or composition are commonplace. Agriculture has entered an era of rapid development and implementation of new technology where digital disruption is helping to combat significant issues such as a changing climate, while at the same time bringing farmers closer to increasingly choosy customers. Traditional research, development and extension (RD&E) models will be challenged in this environment where new technology providers are frequently emerging.

In response to this challenge to traditional RD&E and recognising that as public-sector funding of RD&E remains stagnant, or in some cases is declining, the Australian Farm Institute (AFI) will soon release a research report that investigates the opportunities and potential for enhancing private-sector agricultural RD&E investment in Australia. The research, conducted by the AFI in 2016–17, analyses current incentives provided by Australian governments and other public agencies, through policy implementation, grants and partnership funding mechanisms to researchers and organisations to determine the extent to which these and related factors encourage or discourage RD&E activities and investment.

Effective RD&E is broadly recognised as being critical for productivity growth in agriculture. What makes RD&E effective however is the translation of research outputs to commercial outcomes, a process that is regrettably poor in Australia, particularly when public research needs to interact with the private sector for adoption pathways. The AFI research is finding that there are many reasons for this poor interaction including confusion around policies for what should be public (levy funded) and what should be private research, and impediments related to intellectual property ownership.

Private investors in RD&E were asked as part of this research to indicate the biggest factors influencing investment decisions. The overwhelming response was that effective collaborations are a key part of the decision-making process. Most private investors in RD&E are appreciative of the quality of public research outputs and list impediments to effective collaborations that are more related to administrative culture and commercial awareness than the calibre of the science involved. This raises the question of whether matching cultures between public and private RD&E is possibly more important than direct funding programs or incentives in achieving the ultimate aim of more effective RD&E.

Enhancing private-sector agricultural RD&E will undoubtedly be a challenge. However, if effective, it will catalyse a change in Australia’s research culture required for more effective collaboration and translation of research outputs. Drawing on other global systems where collaboration is an obvious and highly praised mechanism for productivity and profitability among the native economy and agricultural community could provide an insightful starting point.

Image:  CSIRO