This is the first in a series of Policy Snapshots
which will appear in forthcoming issues of Urbecon,
profiling key national policy programs in Australia.
The Commonwealth Co-operative Research Centres (CRC) Program was established in 1990 under the
Hawke Labor Government to encourage collaborative research between the private and public sector.
The program also sought to promote research concentration and prepare PhD graduates for
non-academic careers. Total investment by government since the inception of the program is in the order
of $3 billion whilst the program has attracted $9 billion from research participants.
The objective of the program is:
"To enhance Australia's industrial, commercial, and economic growth through the development of
sustained, user-driven, cooperative public-private research centres that achieve high levels of
outcomes in adoption and commercialisation."
The original ideals of the program centred around collaborative research, enhancing Australia's
scientific and technological research capabilities, and shorter term commercialisation of research.
Subsequently, there was a substantial shift towards rigorous commercialisation and the pursuit of
financial returns from intellectual property development. However, commentary from the Rudd
Government and recent reviews suggest that an updated CRC model will pull back from an emphasis
on commercialisation in favour of end user driven, collaborative research.
There have been four reviews of the CRC Program from its inception to 2008. The Myers Report (1995)
and the Mercer and Stoker review (1997) were very positive toward the CRC Program and noted that the
Program had succeeded in improving linkages between researchers, industry, and other users. It was
recommended, however, that CRC's become more self-funded.
In 2003, the Howard Partners Review noted that the objectives of the program had drifted substantially and
had become more generic. In particular, there had been a discernable trend towards nationally significant
research and development. A key recommendation was that the CRC Program be repositioned as
an ‘investment program.'
A Productivity Commission review in 2007 noted that, by this time, most CRC's were not self-funding despite
commercialisation efforts, were affected by cumbersome governance structures, and were set in an
environment of poor public support for social and environmental research. The Commission recommended
smaller scale and more flexible approaches to firm collaboration.
The O'Kane review (2008) again supported retaining the Program and suggested it be geared towards
"big, enduser inspired and driven, risk addressing research projects directed at significant national issues
(and outcomes) across Australia's innovation system." However, O'Kane also highlighted that Program
objectives needed recasting and that extra funding was required to support a larger number of centres.
Cutler's 2008 review of the National Innovation System, titled Venturous Australia, also considered CRC's.
He noted that CRC's were valuable in facilitating collaboration for productivity. Cutler recommended that the
Program be retained with the addition of a voucher system to facilitate linkages between small and medium
sized enterprises and the research community.
The CRC Program has been recognised as one of the most important programs in the National Innovation
System and continues to align with national Government's long term policy priorities and election platform.
Whilst improvements can be made, it has provided a critical avenue for collaboration, which is increasingly
being seen as the essence of building longer term innovation and productive capacity given resource constraints
and efficiency imperatives.
The O'Kane Review noted that the Program should retain its emphasis on nationally
significant research with an end-user orientation, rather than commercialisation by the CRC itself.
"The focus of the research should be at the pre-competitive or in the case of public good CRC's,
pre-applicative stage." The emphasis is therefore on the collaborative research process which addresses an
identifiable risk as opposed to a commercialisation mandate per se.
Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) and those in the service industries stand to gain most significantly
from the Program given resource constraints and the greater scope to use innovation and research for business
development purposes. As noted, a recommendation of the Cutler review was an innovation voucher system
which would enable SMEs to collaborate with the research community by submitting research questions.
Vouchers would aim to promote the transfer of knowledge between the research community and SMEs.
A revised funding model may be required for the CRC Program. This relates to optimising the funding contribution
of the Commonwealth given anticipated levels of social benefit and the need for greater flexibility through:
• The removal of the mandate for research provider/ university contributions to ensure that the CRC
Program remains appealing; and
• Changing the expectation that CRC end-users will provide more than half the cash contribution to the CRC; and
• Recognising in kind funding contributions, particularly from SMEs.