Water Journal : Water Journal September 2015
september 2015 water 7 My Point of View the word ‘water’ does not feature at all in this document. As fundamental as water is to lubricate the economy in every facet of business, it does not even rate a mention in the closest document Australia has to a national science strategy. Digging deeper into this document, it focuses on four broad themes, including international competitiveness, education and training, research and international engagement. I am sure that we would all agree that the Australian water industry has made, and continues to make, a significant contribution to each of these areas. Given this, why hasn’t the water sector had greater influence on the national science strategy process? The winding down of the National Water Commission has not helped. Beyond an entity such as the NWC, there is no single, united voice from the broader water sector to prod, influence and inform the national policy debate. National priority setting in the water sector is sporadic at best and there is a clear argument here for a more nationally concerted effort, which spans across industries (i.e. urban water, agriculture, mining etc.) to agree on national water priorities. Perhaps organisations like the Australian Water Association and the Water Services Association of Australia, and similar entities from other industries, can join forces to influence this policy environment more significantly? so WhAt CAn WE do to hElp oursElvEs? Consistent with the Chief Scientist’s view that well-focused scientific effort is fundamental to driving productivity growth, we (the water industry) need to get better at articulating this position in a quantitative way. Our failure to demonstrate value is resulting in a research funding environment that looks more like a global commodity cycle with ‘boom and bust’ periods. This leads to the extremes of either ‘spending at any cost’ in dry times, to one of austerity when there is plenty of water in the dams. A significant advantage in smoothing the water-funding cycle relates to ensuring a relatively constant supply of research capability and capacity across time. For example, in Australia right now we are witnessing a reduction in water research capacity, with some scientists either leaving the industry altogether, or simply leaving the country to take up international funding opportunities. Another benefit in smoothing the funding supply is to ensure a greater research effort during financially constrained times, which is often when productivity is lowest. Research and innovation are key drivers for productivity growth, which would likely result in a shorter austerity cycle if research investment was maintained during these times. To this end, there is as much (if not more) onus on the providers of research services to demonstrate value, than from those who are making the investment decisions, even though they are usually beneficiaries (be they utilities or governments). So what does this mean specifically? Although many utilities measure the return from their research investments differently, most can relate benefits to three broad areas. These include improvements to productivity, improvements to service delivery (including customer value) and improvements in managing risk. Thus, these areas can help frame the research value argument. A large part of the ‘business case’ should be developed during the ‘problem definition’ phase (i.e . well before any project work begins). Far too often, we find ourselves trying to retrofit the ‘value’ question to a project after it has been completed. By ‘problem definition’ we mean more than stating the lack of or limitation to specific knowledge. In this, we include the description of the approaches to provide resolution or clarification of problems, as well as the pathways to their effective implementation. There are many approaches to problem definition, but in essence, we need to step through a process that ensures we identify the root cause of the problem, make some estimate as to the likely benefits if successful (keeping in mind the three high-level areas noted above), identify how these benefits can be measured and, finally, identify how the benefits can be realised when delivered (i.e . knowledge transfer). For the most part, there is much more that can be done at the ‘problem definition’ phase of a project to ensure its success, than is typically done. If the above can be well thought through, including a solid outline of the benefits and the business case, then obtaining the required research funding is a much easier proposition. Thus, to successfully attract research funding into the future, we need to adopt a stronger focus on the business benefits, from the eyes of the customer, including identification before the project begins on how they will be measured and how the knowledge will be transferred back into the businesses. In summary, we need to concentrate on supporting policy that encourages research and innovation with the caveat that we must ensure our experience and findings are able to be implemented in a cost-effective and purposeful manner. To misquote an old adage: “A nation that does not put great store in research has no soul. Research scientists who do not strive to ensure the effective implementation of their work are not worthy of their salt”.
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