OPINION: Last Friday, Malcolm Turnbull and Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Christopher Pyne hosted a meeting with university and research agency chiefs to discuss the challenge of improving Australia’s game on innovation.
Ahead of the meeting, the Prime Minister told Pyne to bolster innovation by releasing his “inner revolutionary” and Pyne claimed that Australian research needs a “cultural shift” to improve commercialisation of our world-class research.
If it really wants a revolutionary shift, the government needs to look inwards as well as outwards to streamline its approach to funding and administering science.
I agree change is needed: there’s no doubt that Australia performs dismally on commercialisation in comparison with other countries; there’s plenty of room for improvement.
But if it really wants a revolutionary shift, the government needs to look inwards as well as outwards to streamline its approach to funding and administering science.
This year, direct and indirect federal government funding for science, research and innovation amounts to about $9.7 billion, including support for research and development in the government, higher education and the business sectors.
This is a sizeable amount of public money by any measure — about double what’s spent on infrastructure or immigration and border protection. About one-third of this support is directed to business as a R&D tax concession, another one-third goes to university and medical research, and the last third is split between CSIRO, government R&D and other assorted research and commercialisation support schemes.
As taxpayers counting on science and innovation for our future prosperity, we all have an interest in seeing these funds used as effectively and efficiently as possible.
A downside to the $9.7bn spent on science and innovation is that it has evolved over time to be spread across 12 government portfolios; the responsibility for science, research and innovation is diffused across 11 ministers and assistant ministers, each of whom has their own targets, agendas and priorities.
This means red tape, duplication and inefficiencies — clear barriers that hinder the science and industry sectors from taking advantage of the renewed political focus on innovation.
Perhaps the most obvious disconnect is between the start and end of the innovation chain, which rest in two different departments. Research in universities is under one portfolio while the translation of scientific knowledge into new products and services sits under another.
It would make sense to move the Australian Research Council, one of the main funders of scientific research, and the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy away from education and into science, industry, research and innovation.
Given its sometimes rocky relationship with science, hearing the government articulate a focus on innovation and its importance to the nation’s future under Turnbull’s new leadership is clearly welcome.
With fresh enthusiasm from a new leader, it is an opportune time to join all the links in the innovation-research-development-translation chain — maybe consolidated under a dedicated science minister or, say, a minister for science, industry, research and innovation.
It would make sense, for instance, to move the Australian Research Council, one of the main funders of scientific research, and the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, which funds much of science infrastructure, away from education and into science, industry, research and innovation.
This would put under a single roof all the levers that support innovation and research and that establish the environment for creative, talented individuals to do their best work.
It would position Australia for the future; it would help us develop new industries and the skills base we need to resource them.
Consolidating responsibility for the big research infrastructure — telescopes, powerful microscopes, our facilities for making new materials, or monitoring the state of our oceans — would lead to much better planning and management of the investment we make in this world-class equipment.
Whenever the responsibilities for major facilities have been split, it has been really difficult to create longer-term strategy for properly managing this important research infrastructure.
We also need to get much better at connecting the research sector with industry — the end-users of our research efforts. We need to get better at translating the great ideas that we generate so they can benefit the community and environment. Integrating the responsibility for the whole research supply chain, from beginning to end, would help this and advance the government’s industry innovation and competitiveness agenda. That could help kick-start the cultural shift that Pyne is after.
We have an opportunity right now to lay solid foundations for a strategic approach to science, research and innovation.
The Prime Minister believes Australia can achieve great things, that we need to be driven by technology, and that we have to drive change. Science agrees. Now, let’s get smart enough to take advantage of that.
Les Field is the secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.