The rural R&D policy statement released in July 2012 by the Australian government signalled a subtle but significant shift for levy-funded industry service companies and corporations towards:
• Increased transparency and accountability
• Improved coordination and priority setting
• Increased productivity growth
• Increased operational efficiencies and
• Increased value for money from investments.
These objectives would likely resonate with levy payers too. A key implication is that it will mean moving beyond research outputs to put more ‘Development’ into rural R&D.
The rural R&D model is over two decades old and remains essentially unchanged. However, in this time we have seen momentous shifts in the way information and knowledge is sourced and used by businesses. Australia’s continued integration with the global economy and the rollout of the national broadband network has set the scene for rapid transformation of how rural businesses use R&D to accelerate productivity and improve sustainable practices. There is much at stake.
Yet experience in the private sector is that the transition from a supply to a demand-based approach to R&D is much harder than it seems. Firstly it requires a change in mindset, and then it needs different strategies, tactics and skills. Otherwise the system keeps producing what it always has.
It is increasingly apparent that conventional approaches to supplying agricultural research outputs to farm businesses are of low and declining relevance in modern industries. Demand for information for decision making by farm businesses has moved strongly away from State government extension services, industry associations and industry development officers. This is an irreversible trend and not a temporary event.
Alongside this change, the role of commercial entities in research and its commercialisation has increased, driven by declining government investment, internationalisation of markets and a push to integrate research more closely with commercial value chains to achieve productivity gains.
Disconnections between the demand for research information and the supply through the conventional extension model make the current system unviable in the long term. New models are needed for prioritising research and linking findings to businesses that will use them.
Still, old ways are likely to persist as focusing on research is a comparatively safe path. Funding research will usually produce an output. However, investing to achieve a development outcome is much more elusive and risky. Navigating the transition ahead is a central challenge for levy-funded industry service companies and corporations, but experiences from the private sector can help light the way.