The fallacy of R&D protectionism

January 12, 2022

As a young parent, I often struggled with balancing my desire to help raise fiercely independent adults with the reality of what it is like to be responsible for fiercely independent children. You know the adage:

Defy everyone’s authority except mine

I am often struck by the observation that Australia’s research and development ecosystem suffers a similar conundrum.

It is a fallacy to think that you can have independence and control — enjoying the benefits of both.

Australia’s research and development corporations (RDCs), universities, and governments conduct an amazing amount of agricultural research. I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that Australia is the world’s leading authority on climate adaptive agriculture.

This research is partly funded by Australian farmers (via levies) and significantly augmented by state and federal governments. The $500m annual investment in RDCs is generally considered to be an alternative to market protection mechanisms and support our globally competitive agricultural exports.

The challenge comes in deciding on the best models for how that research is commercialized and who should have access to and benefit from the commercialized research.

Strength leads to strength

If we try and artificially control or limit the growth of an independent Australian agritech ecosystem we will not have an ecosystem at all. Strength and independence are attributes that we should all want for this emerging industry.

Australian farmers benefit far more from having local suppliers of agricultural innovation. And whilst it is true that the startups may also benefit from the outputs of RDC-funded research, the idea that we should try and limit their success is illogical. The more successful they are, the more likely they are to keep supporting Australian farmers.

There is plenty already happening and more we can do:

Tip #1: Share in success. Double-down on ways to see shared success, GrainInnov8 is a perfect example

Tip #2: Fund industry. AusAgritech is the industry body that will support the sector — it needs better funding

Tip #3: Be loud & proud. Promote our agritech with the same gusto that we promote our agriculture

If we insist that agritech startups who benefit from RDC-funded output should be restricted in some way, we will constrain ourselves to a future where Australian farmers are entirely dependent on non-Australian technology for their efficiency — how can that be the preferred outcome.

A strong, independent agritech sector will support a growing and competitive agricultural sector. We need both