Australian universities have welcomed an announcement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard of a US$1 billion plan to boost jobs through industry and innovation, saying it had the potential to unleash research and innovation as the key drivers of national productivity.
A central component of the three-pronged strategy outlined by Gillard on Monday is introducing industry innovation precincts – hubs of research and innovation to support industry competitiveness – which will be administered by a National Precincts Board.
Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said the precincts were “an exciting new approach to innovation policy” and were needed to increase economic prosperity and productivity through stronger industry-research collaboration.
She also said it was important that the precincts were part of an overall research strategy that acknowledged the fundamental importance of basic research in securing a strong and balanced research capability.
Robinson said the prime minister’s announcement complemented a national research infrastructure plan released last week by Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb.
That plan proposed five "breakthrough actions" governments could take to make Australia a more innovative nation, including the establishment of an Australian Innovation Council and helping business access publicly funded research.
“Universities have long promoted the need for a closer relationship between the research community and industry, to take full advantage of innovative Australian research,” Robinson said.
“But what has been missing is industry and research integration along with collaboration on the scale needed to extract the maximum value and impact of Australia’s research effort.
“Bringing together our most innovative businesses, best researchers, universities, companies and technology experts is necessary for the generation of the new ideas, products and innovations needed to underpin industrial renewal and improved competitiveness.”
Gillard made the industry and innovation announcement at a Melbourne plant run by the global giant Boeing, which has well-established and extensive relationships with Australian universities.
During the past decade, Boeing has transferred an estimated $100 million in technological know-how to Australia and invested more than $500 million in plant, equipment, training and research laboratories.
“This is a company that has had the foresight to embed university research into its core business. It has proved to be a successful business strategy for building and maintaining Boeing’s competitive edge for the long term,” Robinson said.
As well as improving industry access to research capacity, the government’s precincts scheme should expose industry to the value of employing researchers, she said. The proportion of researchers working in Australian business was as low as a quarter of what it was in some other successful innovative trading nations.
“While these initiatives are strongly supported, the sting in the tail is removing eligibility for the non-refundable 40% R&D tax offset by very large companies. Some of the most successful industry-research collaborations in Australia have involved the largest companies operating in Australia,” Robinson said.
“It would of course be counterproductive if the end result of these initiatives was to sacrifice the successful collaborations that already exist.”
Commentators pointed out that Gillard – who is now trailing Australia’s conservative coalition in the polls – was pitching the announcement at companies and workers who were “in the slower lanes of the multi-speed economy”.
It was an appeal to the Labor Party’s traditional working heartland, in an attempt to win back and shore up the vote of those who were shifting their allegiance to the conservatives. The statement is titled A Plan for Australian Jobs: The Australian government's industry and innovation statement.
“There’s a Robin Hood element about the policy, which essentially shifts government funding from the big end of town by cutting R&D tax concessions for up to 20 of the largest corporations (with annual Australian turnover of $20 billion plus), to help small and medium-sized businesses,” wrote Michelle Grattan in an article in The Conversation.
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