The Defence Science Institute - Taking a Collaborative Sectorial Approach to University-Industry-Government Engagement
The United Kingdom’s Dowling Review (2015) concluded that effective brokerage and seed-funding is vital for successful collaborations between industry and academia, especially for SMEs. It is this role of intermediaries as matchmakers and facilitators in the defence research sector that the Defence Science Institute fulfills.
The Defence Science Institute (DSI)
In 2011 the University of Melbourne and the Defence Science Technology group (DST) formed the Defence Science Institute (DSI) with financial support from the State Government of Victoria. DSI was initiated to support the development of Victoria’s defence technology and national security industry through the facilitation of defence focused collaboration, research and engagement between universities, research organisations and industry. It has since expanded to include all Victorian universities as members.
Staffed by a mix of DST group and university staff, DSI focuses on facilitation and match-making. DSI takes a regional and multi-disciplinary approach, acting on behalf of all universities within Victoria. This allows it to identify the most suitable talent, regardless of home institution or discipline, and pull together consortia including relevant industry and government participants. DSI can provide an overview of the strengths and capabilities of the Victorian research community, facilitate access to these capabilities and provide insights to developments in defence policy and direction.
The core activities of DSI focus on the facilitation and enhancement of defence-relevant research and development by
• Identifying defence-relevant research and technology development opportunities;
• Providing advice on the defence research and development environment, both within Australia and internationally;
• Connecting defence and industry to research and development expertise; and
• Promoting and showcasing research and development and innovation capabilities in both the public and private sectors.
Taking a sectorial approach to encouraging university-industry interactions can have economic and collaborative benefits for those universities who implement it. This requires investing resources in understanding the sector – who the key players are, their relationships, what are seen to be key challenges and the political landscape in which they operate.
Has the DSI Model Worked?
Combining the sectorial approach with a regional approach has provided significant benefits for DSI’s stakeholders. The Victorian Government’s investment has delivered an economic return to the state in the order of $ 12 - $16 for every $1 invested. New collaborations and income streams have been established for Victoria’s universities. Spinout companies and new products have been launched. Postgraduate students have been trained across a diverse range of disciplines of interest to defence. Operating with a multi-discipline focus, DSI also plays a key role in broadening perceptions within the academic community about what research is relevant to defence.
The sectorial approach requires having strong links into each group of stakeholders, a broad overview of what is happening in each of these stakeholder groups and the ability to make connections between pieces of information from a wide variety of sources. The DSI does not undertake any research of its own and works closely with other organisations, such that it is viewed as a neutral and non-competitive actor in the space.
In DSI’s experience, there is a need for small, targeted grants to kick-start collaborations, but without facilitation, these collaborations can be opportunistic, failing to lead to long-term relationships. Facilitation identifies the most relevant collaborative partners, both from a technical and cultural perspective.
Scaling the DSI Model?
DSI has succeeded in facilitating collaboration and attracting investment to Victoria by applying limited resources within a defined geographic area. Scaling by increasing resources is unlikely to result in a linear increase in results due to the limits imposed by the size of the sector, both geographically and in terms of participants, and thus should be approached with care. Scaling can also be considered in regards to the geographical area covered. DSI is currently looking at how the model might be applied at the national level, through a connected network of state-based organisations sharing a number of services.
Limiting factors to scaling up this model while retaining optimal efficiency are likely to be geographic spread and sector size. Australia’s defence and research communities are dispersed over a wide geographic area, with regional clusters. However, in terms of the number of participants and the economic activity involved, the community is small enough for a relatively small team to be able to service the sector.
Can the Model be Applied to Other Sectors?
A country’s defence sector can be defined as having a single market customer – the government. Solutions to ‘market’ problems are undertaken or mediated by defence research organisations which formulate the needs of the defence forces as a research question and test and validate possible solutions. In this sense, they act as a single entry point to the defence branches for other research providers.
The single entry point in other sectors can be difficult to determine. For most sectors, government are neither the main client nor the main service provider, but there may be industry associations that can undertake the equivalent DST group role in a collaborative facilitation activity. Associations are able to provide the insights to the industry landscape that are crucial for successful engagement and they are neutral players in regards to the individual interests of their members, focused as they are on collective needs.