Bilateral agreements to expand grains RD&E

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John Harvey, managing director, Grains Research and Development Corporation

One of the big challenges for agricultural research in Australia, including grains research, development and extension, is to provide research programs with sufficient financial security to encourage new investment in research infrastructure, and for the training and retention of skilled scientists.

The GRDC is addressing this through an exciting and innovative new level of research support that broadens our spread of research partners, facilitates new grains research investment and addresses that critical issue of nurturing the next generation of agricultural scientists.

We have initiated a program of bilateral agreements – one-on-one partnerships with specialist research providers. The objective is to maximise different research organisations’ areas of specialisation and encourage new research partners and new investment in the technologies our industry needs.

We have just signed our first such bilateral agreement with Curtin University in Western Australia. This will be a five-year agreement, at the core of which will be the creation of the Centre for Crop and Disease Management. This will have a national role in reducing the impact of disease on crop production. A wheat disease such as tan spot alone costs growers an estimated $212 million a year and disease impact overall on Australian grain production exceeds $1 billion a year.

These losses must be reduced and this means finding ways to increase the research effort at a time when many of our traditional government partners are reducing their R&D activity.

Under the bilateral agreement with Curtin University, the GRDC is providing $30 million and the university is contributing $68 million – and 80 per cent of the academic staff involved will have both research and teaching roles.

It is perhaps one of the clearest examples of how our research partners and our interaction with research partners are evolving. In particular, we are now seeking to build longer-term, more stable relationships rather than project-by-project arrangements.

The bilateral agreement with Curtin University shows it is possible to bring new money, new resources, and new skills and expertise into the grains industry. This has important implications for sustaining the research effort and for training and retaining researchers by providing greater career security.

In addition to this ‘capacity leveraging’ for crop disease research, the university’s agribusiness faculty will also be involved; monitoring and driving the research’s ultimate impact on farm returns. This fits with the key objectives of the current Grains Industry National RD&E Strategy – to drive research that has measurable effects on grower profitability. The success of any research program is measured by what is actually delivered on-farm and the extent to which it strengthens grower profitability. That is the end game.

This is illustrated by our experience with the GRDC’s Farm Business Updates. The two most recent events at Merredin in WA and Clare in South Australia were over-subscribed.

While most of the publicity around our new agreement with Curtin University has focused on crop and disease management, we know there is also very strong grower demand for business management information and we are keen to build research support for this side of the grain-growing ledger as well.

The challenge for us all, however, is that there is a limited amount of R&D capability in Australia so we need to find new ways to lock in the skills and expertise we have for the future. Bilateral agreements are one way to secure this essential resource and we are looking forward to building further on this new program of funding and support for the Australian grains industry.


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