CEDA Trustee Roundtable, via video-conference
Tuesday 13 October 2020
Delivered by Professor Deborah Terry AO, Vice-Chancellor and President, The University of Queensland


Thank you, Fleur – and good afternoon, everyone.

Can I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners and their custodianship of the lands on which we meet today – and by honouring their elders and their continuing cultural and spiritual connection to this land, as we walk together on the path to reconciliation. 

Before I begin, I’d like to thank and pay tribute to CEDA for hosting today’s roundtable discussion today on: “Strengthening Australia’s Innovation Ecosystem”.

Given Australia’s current economic challenges and a number of announcements in last week’s Federal budget, it’s a particularly topical issue to be discussing.

So, today, I want to talk through the “window of opportunity” that I think is opening up – right now – to strengthen our domestic innovation capacity.

Once I’ve given my views, I hope we can have a very frank discussion, where we can all share our thoughts on:
How can we remove the impediments to Australian innovation; and,
What kind of incentives we can offer to encourage the commercial translation of more of our ground-breaking research – here in Australia.


To start our conversation, I want to first define what I mean by innovation.

Because if you’re going to discuss this topic in a meaningful way, it’s very important that everyone starts on the same page.

To me, “innovation” is the commercialisation of invention.

It’s about taking a new discovery – an invention – and turning it into something that has either: (1) a societal impact, or, (2) a commercial outcome.

As a nation, we have a very proud history of invention and break-through R&D.

Think of the life-changing impact of: IVF, the cervical cancer vaccine, the bionic ear or spray-on skin. 

Each of these inventions emerged from research conducted at our universities. 

Today, we produce around 4% of the world’s research publications despite being home to just 0.3% of the world’s population.

It’s also staggering to think that a nation with Australia’s relatively small population is home to 7% of the world’s top 100 universities.

Our universities are recognised globally as powerhouses of both education and research.

However, without doubt, we need to become better at translating our research into commercial benefits for the nation.

In the 2019 index that ranks economies according to their innovation performance, Australia ranked only 22nd in the world. 

So, despite the fact that we punch well above our weight for innovation inputs, such as R&D; for a long time, Australia has lagged behind most other developed nations for innovation outputs. 

Clearly not enough of our inventions are being translated – here in Australia – into new products or services that have commercial or societal impact.

This is a missed opportunity for our nation, because the commercial translation of our home-grown R&D has the potential to generate entirely new industries and new jobs for Australians.

Thankfully, though, there’s increased recognition right now – across government, industry and academia – that this is something that we need to address.

To me, there appears to be a groundswell of activity at the moment directed at creating a more effective innovation ecosystem – to drive economic growth as we emerge from the pandemic.


Even last year – prior to the pandemic – there were indications of improving levels of collaboration between university researchers and industry.

According to modelling conducted by Ernst & Young for Universities Australia, almost 17,000 companies collaborated with a university in 2019 – that’s a 5% jump in two years.

Those businesses earned a return of almost $4.50 for every dollar they invested in collaborative research with a university.

And this collaborative activity boosted our national economy by an estimated $26.5 billion.


A good deal of this collaborative activity is now occurring in dedicated university–industry precincts, where innovation has a better opportunity to thrive.

These are places that bring together universities, research institutes, government agencies, industry partners and start-ups.

As Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings Institution put it, innovation districts are: “the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions … all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fuelled by caffeine.”

The point is that this proximity sparks possibility.

Business innovation is easier when you work next door to – and team up with – clever people who are working at the cutting edge of research.

On the west coast of the United States, of course, Silicon Valley developed out of Stanford – and today surrounds that fine University.

Or if you travel to the East Coast of the States to visit MIT and Boston, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

It’s been pleasing to see the emergence of these type of innovation precincts – in and around universities, right across Australia.

For example, here on our St Lucia campus, Boeing has established a dedicated research and technology facility to explore new frontiers in aerospace, alongside our researchers. 

There’s another example just across the river from my office here at UQ – where you’ll find the Translational Research Institute. 

This is a vibrant partnership between Queensland Health, UQ, QUT and Mater Research that’s focussed on medical translation and med tech innovation.

Our Herston campus is yet another example. 

That’s where we teach medicine, public health and oral health – and it includes our Centre of Clinical Research and is surrounded by the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, Metro North Health Service and the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute. 


The Government is also putting a big emphasis on getting the policy settings right to encourage a more effective innovation ecosystem, because they recognise that it’s critical for our economic recovery from the pandemic.
This has been a consistent theme in recent speeches delivered by our leaders.

It was evident in the Budget Speech last week – which I’ll come back to shortly.

But it was also articulated by the Prime Minister in his speech to the National Press Club two weeks ago, when he outlined the government’s “Modern Manufacturing Strategy”.

At its heart, the Strategy aims to boost Australia’s position in advanced manufacturing over the coming decade by focussing on six priority areas:

  • Resources technology,
  • Food & beverage manufacturing,
  • Medical products,
  • Clean energy and recycling,
  • The defence industry, 
  • And the space industry.

By the way, these six priority areas for our nation all map very neatly to our research strengths here at UQ – but, I digress.

The central point of the PM’s speech was that for this advanced manufacturing strategy to be successful we have to “align resources to build scale in areas of competitive strength”.

In the speech, the PM talked about the lessons from similar, mid-sized, developed nations – such as Singapore, Canada or Germany – that have had success by playing to their strengths in advanced manufacturing.

As the PM put it:
“A lesson is don’t try to do everything. It’s all about alignment, across different levels of government, with industry and with the research and education sectors.”

The Prime Minister also spoke of the need to “get all parties pulling together in the one direction”. 

So, there is now a very real and evident focus by government on creating a more joined-up innovation ecosystem here in Australia.


Last week’s Budget reinforced that the government is serious about this, too.

The Treasurer announced an additional $1 billion of funding for university research to help the Sector as we deal with the short-term funding crisis caused by the pandemic.

As the Treasurer said in his Budget address, the extra funding for research is about: “backing our best and brightest minds whose ideas will help drive our recovery”. 

Importantly, those words are supported by a range of Budget initiatives that are designed to create closer collaboration between industry and research – and drive new commercial activity. 

Most notably, there was the change to the R&D Tax Incentive rules – and the allocation of an additional $2 billion in the Budget to fund R&D tax incentives for business.

There were also a series of smaller funding initiatives in the Budget that are tightly focussed on cultivating the innovation ecosystem, including:

  • $41.6 million for a Strategic University Reform Fund that’s will bring together universities and local industries to partner on innovative reform projects; 
  • $5.8 million for the Department of Education to undertake a scoping study of options to accelerate the translation and commercialisation of research; and,
  • $46 million to enhance research capacity in regional universities.

So, as the Government looks to reboot the economy and strengthen our sovereign capability, they have also sent a clear signal that they expect the Australian economy will be very different in the post-COVID era.


This recognition is going to be vital to boosting our national innovation ecosystem in the coming years.

To quote Ian Chubb, when it comes to innovation: “It takes three to tango”.

We need to create a joined-up ecosystem, where (1) scientific researchers, (2) the private sector and (3) the government are all equally engaged – and committed to making it work.

I believe the Government is starting to get the policies, incentives and messaging right.

I can see that the private sector is being incentivised to pursue R&D collaboration – and that should create a greater appetite for risk and new ideas.

And I’m also hopeful that our Universities will emerge from the pandemic as more open and accessible institutions. 
I certainly hope that industry finds us easier to engage with.

As an indication of UQ’s commitment to this, just last week we renamed our Research Portfolio. It is now known as the “Research and Innovation” portfolio.

That might seem like a symbolic change, but it’s important in sending a signal that innovation is part of our core business – and that we are genuinely committed to ensuring that our research is delivering benefits for the nation and impact for the world.

Thank you. 

Note: Some parts of this speech were previously included in a speech delivered by Professor Deborah Terry at King’s College, Queensland, on 26 August 2020.