19th September 2012: On CRC PhDs

The Australian‘s Jill Rowbotham on Australia’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) and PhD programs:


The $165 million annual program is also the 12th largest provider nationally of research students, including those undertaking research masters degrees, according to Nigel Palmer from the University of Melbourne who authored the study, The CRC Contribution to Research Training.


Rowbotham’s reportage omits a crucial detail: Who controls the PhD’s resulting intellectual property?


In 2006, a former colleague and I were offered PhD scholarships at the Smart Internet Technology CRC (SITCRC) to research internet futures and would be based at Swinburne University. The offer was an Australian Postgraduate Award equivalent amount plus CRC top-up funding of $10-15,000. The contract’s catch-all clause was that the CRC would gain the PhD’s intellectual property and would control the ‘decision rights’ for its public dissemination and commercial use. The former colleague and I both rejected the deal and retained our existing roles. We privately felt this was a way for the SITCRC to pad its research outputs with minimal investment in research programs. I later saw a PhD candidate criticise the SITCRC for this policy in an internet media interview. The SITCRC projected over its existence that it would have 100 PhD students; in reality it had about 30. I worked on the successful bid for the Smart Services CRC and its initial organisational plans had similar goals to recruit and fund PhD students. (In 2011, I began a part-time PhD in political science at Monash University and you can read my initial proposal here.)


Palmer and Rowbotham appear to take the CRC’s industry collaboration viewpoint at face value. Yes, this has benefits: PhD researchers often learn project management skills and gain knowledge of specific industries. There are many different types of CRCs, and variances in organisational cultures and research management practices (which an aggregate level analysis can miss). However, there are also often strict, commercial non-disclosure agreements on research and publication that affect the collegiality of CRC PhD programs. These non-disclosure agreements can isolate PhD researchers: if you don’t sign then you don’t get the PhD stipend or CRC research position. I have talked with several current PhD students at other CRCs who are frustrated by these agreement clauses. The CRC focus on industry reports is also at odds with the Excellence for Research in Australia’s emphasis on publication in high-impact, peer reviewed academic journals (an issue raised in ERA 2010 reviews by former researchers at another CRC). If the CRC embargoes research or modifies it then the delays and changes can detrimentally affect a researcher’s publication track record and thus their competitiveness and future career path. Finally, the former senior quality officer in me wonders: “leads world in collaboration” compared with whom? Stanford’s innovation programs and Silicon Valley? Stanford and Sandhill Road‘s venture capital firms?


CRCs are complex, collaborative vehicles for industry research. There are lots of potential improvement opportunities.


For some background on this, read my 2008 submissions to the Review of the National Innovation System (PDF) and the Review of the CRCs Program (PDF).