Despite both major parties agreeing about the need for Australia to be an innovative country, neither seems seriously committed to a deep-seated and long-term plan for change.
Amidst great fanfare in December 2015, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the National Innovation and Science Agenda, a $1.1 billion program designed to encourage innovation across all aspects of the economy.
With $28 million devoted to a government advertising campaign extolling the virtues of an “ideas boom”, you might have thought we were entering a new age of innovation around the country.
Sadly, you’d be wrong. The $1.1 billion program is only for four years.
The bulk of government funds – $459 million – is earmarked for major research infrastructure and related programs being the Australian Synchrotron (a radiation research facility), Square Kilometre Array (a radio telescope project) and National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (research infrastructure, and increased engagement between researchers and industry).
The second largest allocation of funds – $127 million – is to encourage university researchers to commercialise their technology with businesses. This just restores cuts made to university funding in previous federal budgets.
The next two largest sums are tax incentives for angel investors at $106 million, and inspiring Australians through digital literacy and STEM at $84 million.
The opposition, which has largely supported the government’s innovation agenda, has made additional announcements.
It proposes to establish a $500 million Smart Investment Fund to provide matching funding to venture capitalists over five years, similar to the Innovation Investment Fund scheme established by the Howard government.
It also proposes to spend $133 million over four years for 25,000 teaching scholarships for recent STEM degree graduates to pursue teaching careers.
The government plans to increase the amount of time students get exposed to STEM teaching by adjusting the curriculum and supporting coding in schools. The opposition plans to entice more STEM graduates into teaching and establish a National Coding in Schools Centre.
Lack of long term vision
While these are positive policies, where are the long-term game-changing policies that are required to cement nation’s future success?
In December 2015, the Senate Economics References Committee handed down its report on Australia’s Innovation System.
It recommended that: (1) governments commit to stable and coherent arrangements for innovation policies based on a long-term strategic framework and lift investment in R&D to 3 per cent of GDP;
(2) an independent government agency be established to administer and coordinate innovation system policies and programs across the whole of government;
(3) governments, as part of their long-term innovation strategy address structure and strategic barriers that inhibit innovation, including the free flow of knowledge between universities and business, increasing the R&D workforce and providing long-term predictable public funding;
(4) federal, state and territory governments work collaboratively to support local and regional innovation ecosystems;
(5) the education system be a central focus of the long-term innovation strategy, acknowledging the importance between STEM subjects and the humanities, social sciences and creative industries.
For the first recommendation, the government hasn’t committed to a 3 per cent of GDP R&D target but the opposition has, setting a 2020 target. Why isn’t a government that is committed to guiding the nation through a challenging period of economic change spending more on R&D?
Top rating innovative countries have historical rates of R&D in excess of our current 2 per cent spend.
What’s more, neither party has committed to a long-term strategic framework. I’m not talking about four-year programs but seven to 10-year programs that exceed the length of a single parliament.
For the second, third and fourth recommendations, there is bipartisan support. For the fifth recommendation, the opposition’s support, particularly the interplay between STEM and the humanities and social sciences, is stronger than the government’s.
If we’re serious about anticipating the changes to the long-term structure of the Australian economy, a long-term innovation policy is a must.
Policy should involve connecting and integrating all sectors of our economy, not just some.
What’s more, the implementation of good innovation policy will take time and will also cost money.
That’s why the Senate report has recommended a commitment to stable and coherent arrangements for innovation policies based on a long-term framework, one that can last many terms of parliament. The same goes for greater levels of R&D expenditure.
As a nation, we’re great at commissioning reports but not so good at heeding their advice. Given this may be the most exciting time to be an Australian, will our leaders seize the opportunity to set us up for a successful and innovative future?