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Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry
Agricultural innovation

HALLIWELL, Dr David John, Director, Centre for Regional and Rural Futures, Deakin University

REEVES, Professor Andrew, Senior Research Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor, Deakin University


CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I would advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings in the house. I now invite you to make a short statement, which we will follow up with some questions. Thank you.

Prof. Reeves : Thank you. I will make a few opening comments. I will not speak directly to the submission, but draw out for the benefit of the committee, I hope, one of the underpinning strategic issues that we see as relevant, which is what I defined as the retreat of research capability and professional science from regional Australia.

There are researchers across the country, but their practice is increasingly under pressure. We make this point and believe it is important because innovation, whether it is adaptive and incremental or alternatively something newly invented or developed, relies heavily on research, and research that is both sustained and strategic. Anecdotally, the situation is not improving, and in a sense we see passive acceptance in many communities setting in that local research capabilities are being lost.

I would emphasise it is not a shortage of money. The work of the RDCs and their funding is a good example of the sort of work that can be done. It is a cultural problem relating to the reducing number of regional researchers and opportunities for regional employment in that field. The shortage of regional doctors would call forth and has called forth a national response. Support for regional research requires a strategic response as well. It is a national issue, as I have said. Models of regionally based research undertaken by federal and state governments have been changing for nearly 30 years. In many states—I would argue in most of them—regionally based research stations, particularly agriculturally focused ones, are a shadow of their former selves, if indeed they still survive. In the case of the Commonwealth, I have watched CSIRO effectively withdraw from regional Australia in many instances to metropolitan strongholds. I would instance the disappearance of the Merbein South Sunraysia research station five or six years ago, the dramatic reduction in CSIRO capability at Atherton in North Queensland and the closure of the Griffith research station last year. I will return to that very briefly in a minute.

You have received many submissions from universities, and many universities do great work in agricultural innovation, both applied and theoretical. One of the points we would be keen to leave you with is that there is—and we have seen this in practice in the last 12 months—a difference between agricultural innovation practised in metropolitan Australia and agricultural innovation practised on the ground in the community across the country.

I would like to talk briefly about the closure of the CSIRO Griffith Irrigation Research Station now because it is germane to our argument. In about 1970 the Griffith research station focused on irrigation. It had about 100 staff—researchers, technicians and ancillary staff. When its closure was announced, in the wake of the 2014 budget, there were 10 staff. CSIRO told them they could move to Canberra and continue their work. Of the 10, the eight key people did not want to go to Canberra. It was not simply a matter of relocation. It was the fact that they believed they could not pursue their research nearly as effectively remotely. We faced a loss to Australia of one of the three successful irrigation agricultural research teams in the country. There were people packing their bags to go to Sri Lanka and into private practice. Through our links with Riverina TAFE, Deakin University initiated a conversation with the researchers and, as a consequence, late last year five of the core team joined Deakin staff. They remain in Griffith, at the Murrumbidgee Irrigation headquarters, in the laboratories there as a Deakin University research field station. Their numbers have doubled in the last few months, testimony to the fact that the retreat of research can be reversed.

I think the closure of CSIRO's Griffith station is typical of a snapshot across the MIA. The points that I now make are again anecdotal, I accept, but will give you a sense of things. Yanco Producers, the big co-op, employ up to 20 agronomists. The turnover is, as they say, dramatic and unsustainable because agronomists who work out there feel isolated and cut off from professional practice, and move on. It is the decay of a professional network of researchers that they can embed themselves in. At the New South Wales Yanco research station, at Leeton, some 45 minutes away, there is yet another review of what the future of that station will be and the researchers there have effectively circled the wagons. They just want to survive. That has meant potential for collaboration and extension is much harder than otherwise would be the case. The one bright light, you might say, would be the rice research station down at Jerilderie, funded by Sunwhite rice. Effectively it is a private corporate research station. When you talk to them, they are doing great work, but they feel isolated and they feel alone, and they are desperately looking for partners.

The Griffith experience for us has taught Deakin (1) that there are great opportunities in collaborative research in regional Australia, and (2) that, rather than individual initiatives, some sort of systematic and extended network needs to be developed. We are now embedded within a community of local government, local producers, local manufactures and other researchers that is providing, I think, a potential blueprint for research sustainability in the MIA. I certainly hope so. I do not want to give you the impression that Deakin is the only university doing good things, it is not. But so much depends upon existing research capacity and the ability to fund research. I think there is a reality that the bulk of universities that are either regional by definition or operate extensively in regional in Australia are not the most research intensive and the most research well-funded. We are lucky at Deakin that we have moved onto that plateau and I would instance places like James Cook University, University of Tasmania, perhaps Charles Stuart University as well. But other regional universities do not, by and large, have the capacity to do this on a large scale. As I have said, there are good initiatives to be found, but if we are to stem the decline and reverse the decline of regional research a coherent, consistent, collaborative strategy is required to ensure that is the case. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Andrew. David, do you have anything to add?

Dr Halliwell : Maybe just two quick points and then I am happy to leave it there. One is around how we think about the problem and adopting that systems level thought around the problem. Many researchers will jump to a technology solution or application without thinking about the outcomes they are seeking and maybe there is a better way to address those outcomes. I would reference the previous speakers who were talking about irrigation technology and how there is a lot you can do around an individual farm to get more production per unit of water used.

But also there is a lot that you can do at a catchment level to get more efficient delivery of water to the farms that need it, when they need it at the right times. So adopting a bigger scale view of that system can deliver further efficiencies than what you can do just on farm.

The second point is around thinking through the value chain. Universities are driven by academic publications despite other drivers. At the end of the day they work in a global ranking system, and we need to get beyond that to where publications are seen as a means to an end and not an end in themselves and we are thinking about who the next users are and engaging with those next users right at the problem definition phase so that we can be sure that they want the technology that is being developed so that it is not going to have np home at the end of the day but also your likelihood of adoption is much greater, if you have mapped that pathway through. And often there are other collaborators required between the universities who might be developing technologies and, for the end users who are on farm or elsewhere, there might be consultants or other groups in between who should be engaged at the front end to drive the likelihood of adoption. So there are a couple of broader points.

CHAIR: Andrew, just to keep the ball rolling and to come back to your points about the loss of country research capacity. I have been involved in the past with Minnipa Agriculture Centre, which is a South Australian known by SARDI and there was a lot of GRDC money in that time. One of the great problems that we have had is actually getting people to come and work there. You talk about professional isolation—and this is really a bugbear, getting people of calibre, with the capability and training behind them, to come and actually live within those communities and contribute—Wakool was probably in exactly the same situation; I am a bit more familiar with dryland farming. So do you have a comment on that?

One of the great problems we have is that we send good country people off to the city. They go there for their high school. They spend five years getting some training and then they may form a partnership with a city partner and it is not on their agenda to live in these regional communities again. This is across a wide range of other issues besides research as well of course. Do you have any—

Prof. Reeves : I do not think there is a silver bullet answer to the tyranny of isolation and remoteness. But I would make a couple of points. The first is the way we got involved with Griffith, as I said, was with through Riverina TAFE. The work of Riverina TAFE has not revolved around research in the first instance but was about undergraduate teaching and learning pathways, particularly pathways for students who can spend the first two years of a degree living at home or in their home community, finishing the degree at Deakin and therefore saving considerable amounts of money. One of the collateral benefits of that, quite apart from the cost to families, is that both empirically and in the statistical analysis we can discern that students who undergo that sort of pathway are much more likely to return and stay in their home communities than otherwise. That would be my first point.

I think one can extend that to research, and that is essentially what we are trying to do at the moment. The second thing, as I said, is a cultural problem. If employment in regional Victoria or regional Australia is seen to have no future and you are working in a declining research station, why would you go there? Let me talk about Griffith in the last few months. I said it is grown in numbers again. We have recruited two permanent researchers at Griffith: one of whom has come from Queensland; and one who has come from Spain to work. Three new PhDs have been established. One is the New South Wales Young Farmer of the Year, a young woman from out Broken Hill ways has come into study. One of the others is a PhD in telemetry, which is not your orthodox agricultural practice.

Ms McGOWAN: What is telemetry?

Dr Halliwell : Remote monitoring operations, so sensors via the data network.

Prof. Reeves : So, if one can promise, as far as one can, that employment has a future, I think that can help as well. The third point I would make is that we are dealing with a mobile workforce. As to my point about some consistency and coherence in the strategy, I would argue that one of the dimensions of that would be measures by which researchers could be embedded or placed in communities for four or five years and then have the option to move on, but they work there as part of a broader agenda rather than as a roll of the dice—if you go there and it works that is fine, but if it does not work you are in deep strife. We are talking about a problem that afflicts medicine and teaching; it is a national problem built upon distance. I think in this area there are a number of strategies we could try and could work at, but I do not believe any of them will work unless some sort of clear statement of intent and commitment is given to maintaining these sorts of capabilities in regional Australia; otherwise, people would be mad to do it.

CHAIR: Does your Griffith facility have an extension capacity and teaching capacity as well as research, or is it research capacity only?

Prof. Reeves : Perhaps if David speaks to that—

Dr Halliwell : Yes, there is another group in Griffith called IREC, the Irrigation Research and Extension Committee. We are just about to enter into a partnership agreement with them and we are going to fund somebody for two days a week to work with us and extend the work we do in that region. We are going to extend work more through collaboration through IREC and others, and we are also working very closely with the councils in that region.

On that broader point I might just also add that I agree with Andrew; if you can grow the capability locally, the likelihood of keeping people who have grown up in the region is much higher. Also, in days gone by, I used to work for what was the Victorian DPI at the time in regional institutes, and scientists were the most precious commodities in those institutes so they would protect them above all else. That meant that often technical staff were treated a bit more as expendable staff. What happens in research, including in government, is that there is a lot of soft money in research, so, whereas in all other parts of government it might be just government funding, in research it might be that 20, 30 or 40 per cent of that money is from industry, and so during drought years, for example, that industry funding is declining and that translates into people on the ground. That is where I have also seen a lot of cycling of rural staff numbers in those regional areas, so I think that is where you really have to make a strategic decision that there are certain areas you want to protect or maintain through those more difficult times, particularly in low productivity environments where it is research and innovation that is going to drive productivity growth. So there is more benefit, in my view, in investing more, or at least maintaining a steady investment flow during those times than there is during the more affluent times.

Ms McGOWAN: Thank you for your presentation. Can I just explore that idea that you have just given us. Are you making the parallel analysis that we need to do, with scientists, what we have done with that program to get doctors to country areas? We had a national approach; we had—bounties? That is not the word.

Prof. Reeves : Bonuses.

Ms McGOWAN: We had bonuses in place, and then we had this huge program of actually securing. It has made a very big difference. So are you making a suggestion that we have a recommendation that we need a national approach somewhat similar for our researchers in rural and regional Australia?

Dr Halliwell : Yes, I think we are someway down that national approach in terms of primary industries, where there has been, already, an agreement around the country about where the focus will be in particular industries and particular states. I think we are part way down that pathway, but I do think research in any sector is always reliant on the funding—you are always looking for that next grant, that next opportunity for funding, and that includes researchers who work in government, whether it be CSIRO or the state research agencies. I know from the Victorian DPI experience—at one point I think there was over a thousand staff in the research division, if you wind the clock back 15 years; now that division has been split into two, so you have biosciences out at Bundoora, and—I am not sure of the new name now, it might be Future Farming Systems—whatever the other half is, you have probably got 600 staff or thereabouts across the two divisions now. I saw most of that decline during the drought years when mostly it was industry funding that was declining. So I think you have to be clear about what the strategic intent is and really focus the resources behind that to keep the critical mass around those areas. I think that is not always done as well as it could be done.

Ms O'NEIL: Dr Halliwell, can I just follow up on your point about the end users and their engagement in the innovation system. One of the recurring themes in the overall discussion about innovation is this separation between researchers and the work they are doing and the people who will ultimately use it. Just pretending you can create your own policy environment, I am wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you would engage end users in the innovation process that your researchers are doing.

Dr Halliwell : If I could change the policy environment the first thing I would change is the recognition for universities between category 1 funding and categories 2, 3 and 4, which is industry and other government funding, and make that a level playing field. I think straightaway that would incentivise overnight more engagement between universities and industry broadly, so that is broader than agriculture. The federal government is wanting to connect, as I see it, industry and universities more strongly. For me, overnight that would be—

CHAIR: Can you just explain that?

Dr Halliwell : Essentially category 1 funding, which is the funding for ARC, which is the Australian Research Council, and NHMRC and some of the agricultural industries.

Prof. Reeves : They are restricted to those two.

Dr Halliwell : I thought there were a couple others, but it is just ARC and NHMRC. The university gets more funding for every dollar of ARC funding or NHMRC funding back from the government than it does from money from other government sources, the private sector or the like. So that incentivises academics to want to chase ARC and NHMRC funding. It is worth more to them. It is considered a higher value dollar within the university. For me, that is the single biggest policy change that you could make to—

CHAIR: You would flatten it out?

Dr Halliwell : I would flatten it out; I would make it exactly the same so that a dollar from anywhere is worth a dollar.

Prof. Reeves : By and large an industry dollar is worth 50 per cent—

Dr Halliwell : At the moment—that is right.

Prof. Reeves : of an ARC dollar to a university.

Dr Halliwell : That is the first thing. That is probably the biggest policy thing. But I think, honestly, the rest of it is about having a customer focus. I am new to the university. I have spent my career in industry funded research and I bring a very strong customer focus to research. I come at it from the customer point of view: what are the needs? My experience is that industry, whether it be agriculture or another industry, know their business very well. Some people have this naive view that they do not, but they know their business well and they know what the barriers, the constraints and the risks are to their business. But they do not necessarily know what the technology solutions are that they can bring to bear to overcome those. That is where the marriage, for me, between researchers and industry can be a nice fit. You can have that strong relationship where you are talking with industry and really trying to understand what their issues are. Then you can go away and have a think about that and think about what some of the solutions are that you can bring to bear on some of those issues to make that business more profitable and more efficient. It comes down to putting the effort into those personal relationships and thinking about it from a customer perspective.

Ms O'NEIL: That is a really good point. I guess I probably feel that those cultural changes have to be forced sometimes because the universities and the private sector have been allowed to operate in satellites. So it is not just about telling people that they need to be more customer focused; we need to change the system.

Dr Halliwell : What I would say to that point is that Deakin University recruited me to help break down those barriers. So the universities, at least some of them, are looking for a different skill set and not just going straight to the career academic that has had a publication.

Ms O'NEIL: Yes, and I am not criticising the universities. It is just that government has created a system that incentivises people to work separately and that is what they are doing. What do you think about a more radical approach where government only invests in projects where there is a partnership between industry and researchers?

Dr Halliwell : There is still a need for what I would call 'more fundamental research'. The last bastion of that is in the university sector, because when you get into government research organisations, like CSIRO or state organisations, they tend to have a more applied focus. You still need to have a mix of the more fundamental and more applied work, but I do agree that there is a need to have a much stronger connection with industry and that we should do everything we can to strengthen that connection.

Ms O'NEIL: Can I just move on to a really practical aspect of this question. You talked in your submission a bit about providing interfaces for new technologies. You have presented this problem of farmers knowing that they need to do things differently but they are not really aware, necessarily, of what is available. Could you just tell us a bit more about how that would work and how a farm business would access something like this.

Dr Halliwell : So I heard you talking before we came in about wi-fi and telecommunications. I think there is a huge productivity gain to just have good access because, when you look at farmers now, everyone has got an iPhone or is running something through an iPhone or an iPad. So if you can create a user interface through your app, that is fantastic. If you go up to Griffith, many of the farmers up there have iPhone apps that link to their soil moisture probes in their paddock, and they have got the whole farm there on their iPhone. The bigger point is about thinking about not just the technology we are developing but how we are going to implement that technology. It may be through an iPhone app, for example, but it may be through other means. But I think it is just about thinking right through the problem and having a clear path to market—what others might call program logic, from inputs right through to outcomes—and making sure there are causal links right through that chain, whatever the adoption pathway. I think that that is not done often enough. Often research has got an end product—a widget that they are going to make—in mind, and you say, 'What are you going to do with it beyond that?' And they go, 'We'll think about that once we've developed the widget.' I am saying we should think about that when we are developing the project in the first instance. I think it is really about a mindset shift in that regard.

Prof. Reeves : Can I add a comment that perhaps picks up on a number of your questions? And that is, from my point of view, it is important that innovation is not simply seen as experts like universities or CSIROs or others telling farmers what is available. I think one of the major lessons we have learnt up in Griffith recently is the work of this group that David has referred to—IREC, the Irrigation Research and Extension Committee—which is a grower based, or producer based, organisation of some 500 or 600. It is a two-way street. They provide proving grounds, testbeds and audiences for innovation and research, and, at the same time, they provide feedback on what works, what does not work, how things can be improved themselves. They are actively, through IREC, part of that innovation process rather than being passive recipients. There are equivalents to IREC at Coleambally. I understand there is an equivalent down in the Murray irrigation areas. I plead ignorance on how extensive these organisations are across the country. The trajectory of IREC over the last decade has been really interesting. Prior to the drought of early this century, they received funding from the Commonwealth government through CSIRO and from the New South Wales government through DPI. Both of those sources of funding have dried up; IREC virtually collapsed. The funding they will enjoy, apart from their own resources in the future, will largely be Deakin University, and I would describe that as market failure on the part of government in relation to strategic elements of any innovation chain in a rich, highly productive agricultural area.

Ms McGOWAN: Thanks very much for your presentation. David, I am really interested in the model that you have got with your Centre for Regional and Rural Futures. I have been checking it on the web. It is not your normal centre. One of the things that we are looking at is delivery of innovation. We get the research, we get the innovation, but then getting the take-up is a really important part of what we are doing. Could you just give us a description of what your centre is and the opportunities for it to be part of the take-up of innovation around Australia—the step up that we need?

Dr Halliwell : Sure. We are what the university calls a strategic research centre, which means we are outside of the schools but can engage staff from right across the schools and faculties at Deakin. We have a core group of staff. It is almost 30 at the moment, with our staff, and PhD students and post-docs and the like across the three sites, which includes Griffith—we have got nine people now up in Griffith and we envisage further growth there—and we have got staff at the Burwood campus and at the Waurn Ponds campus at Deakin. Broadly, our intent is around regional productivity—so it is not just agriculture; it is regional and rural in all its gamut—and so that is quite a big scope of work. When you drill down within that, I guess we have a bias towards where we have stronger capability and also where there are funding opportunities. So one part of our brief is to reach out and connect much more strongly with industry, not just within our group but to help the university engage more strongly with industry. So we are certainly trying to capture those opportunities for the benefit of the university more broadly. Of the groups we have got running at the moment, the group at Griffith is looking at water use efficiency in irrigated agriculture, and John Hornbuckle, who is one of the CSIRO staff that came across to Deakin, is running that group. We have got a group for what we are calling 'enabling technologies', which is lab-on-a-chip devices. To give you an example of what they are doing, they are looking at avian influenza on a chip at the moment. So you could go into a poultry shed, take some saliva samples from the birds and see whether there is avian flu there or not, rather than have to wait a couple of weeks for the lab results to come back and by then you have had to euthanase the birds. That platform technology is quite ubiquitous. So anything that is DNA, RNA, colour-chemistry based you could put on that chip.

I have another group around better products and services. They are doing work like inoculation of grain seeds. We have a project with GRDC at the moment, adding beneficial microbes to grain seeds so that you can spread grain seeds out in the paddock and have beneficial microbes that might fix nitrogen, for example. We are certainly looking to expand that work to have a product that may wrap fertiliser requirements, micronutrient requirements—the whole lot—within that one product.

Another group we are calling 'sustainable environment', which is looking at climate modelling. They have done quite a lot of work regionally around Victoria looking at suitability of ag industries in particular landscapes, now and into the future. Also you can go on and you can map your own farm and look at what crops you could grow on that farm and so on.

The last group is what we are calling regional competitiveness, and we are probably weakest in this group at the moment. This is more the policy and economics-driven side. We sit under science, engineering and the built environment, so we have a lot of scientists and engineers at the moment, and we have just one economist on the ground and one policy person at the moment, but we are trying to build those skill sets around social science, policy and economics, in part to inform the research we are doing and also in part to inform government about what we think is good policy going forward as well. So, broadly, that is what the group looks like at the moment. At outcome level, though, we really are trying to drive regional productivity and jobs growth, and to drive efficiency and profitability in regional and rural Australia.

Ms PRICE: This is not a question but a comment: given that, north of Perth, we effectively have no universities whatsoever, I would really love to see you guys over there.

Dr Halliwell : There are a lot of great people—I know quite a few people from Perth universities. I used to sit on an advisory board at Curtin. I do not know how well connected you are with those guys, but I am sure they would also like to—

Ms PRICE: They have tried, but they are not in that space anymore.

Prof. Reeves : It is interesting, isn't it? Really the only permanent or semipermanent research capability between Perth and Darwin is the Australian Institute of Marine Science's research vessel operating off the North West Shelf; that is it.

Dr Halliwell : There is another group that I used to work with—in my previous role, we did some work in remote communities—called the Centre for Appropriate Technology. They have offices in Alice Springs, Darwin and, I think, North Queensland as well. They do a lot of work in Indigenous communities.

CHAIR: They are the CRC up there—

Dr Halliwell : They are on the same side as the CRC for, I think, desert communities or something like that, just near Alice.

CHAIR: Anyway, we are going to have to wind it up, so thanks very much for your attendance here today.

Dr Halliwell : Our pleasure.

CHAIR: I do not think you have been asked to forward anything extra, but if you have anything that you wish to add at any time, feel free to. You will be sent a copy of your transcript of evidence and you will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.