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PM signals culture shift on innovation and science

The Australian government has announced a National Innovation and Science Agenda backed initially by A$1.1 billion (US$790 million) over four years, aimed at encouraging “smart ideas that create business growth, local jobs and global success”, signalling the start of an era of systematic ongoing – rather than stop-start – funding for science, with a permanent watchdog established at the heart of government.

It will include a flexible funding stream for university research and a programme to support the training of the next generation of researchers and innovators.

Through the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the government will invest in four priority areas:

  • Culture and capital, to help businesses embrace risk and incentivise early stage investment in startups;
  • Collaboration, to increase the level of engagement between businesses, universities and the research sector to commercialise ideas and solve problems;
  • Talent and skills, to train Australian students for the jobs of the future and attract the world’s most innovative talent to Australia; and
  • Government as an exemplar, to lead by example in the way government invests in and uses technology and data to deliver better quality services.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne, said: “The government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda will help to create a modern, dynamic, 21st century economy for Australia.”

He said the opportunities for Australia have never been greater. “Australian businesses have unprecedented access to the global economy through our new trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea. More than half the world’s middle class already live in our region. Our businesses, universities and research organisations like the CSIRO are also among the best in the world.”

But Australia could improve in key areas.

“Australia is falling behind on measures of commercialisation and collaboration, consistently ranking last or second last among OECD countries for business-research collaboration.

“Our appetite for risk is lower than in comparable countries, which means Australian startups and early stage businesses often fail to attract capital to grow.

“And participation in science, maths and computing at high school is declining.”

A government statement said while innovation is at the heart of a strong economy it is “not just about new ideas, products and business models; innovation is also about creating a culture where we embrace risk, move quickly to back good ideas and learn from mistakes”.

A package of initiatives

The National Innovation and Science Agenda had therefore put forward a package of initiatives in the four key areas.

“We're backing our entrepreneurs by opening up new sources of finance, embracing risk, taking on innovative ideas, and making more of our public research. We're increasing collaboration between industry and researchers to find solutions to real world problems and to create jobs and growth. We're developing and attracting world-class talent for the jobs of the future.”

And government will lead by example by “embracing innovation and agility in the way we do business”.

According to the Department of Education and Training, the agenda will ensure that high-quality research drives innovation “that saves lives, answers social and environmental imperatives, improves economic productivity and growth, and creates the jobs of the future”.

The Agenda includes a number of measures that will be delivered by the Education and Training portfolio:

  • Ongoing funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, or NCRIS, as part of a broader package of A$2.3 billion over 10 years in new, sustainable funding for national scale research infrastructure, including the A$1.5 billion for NCRIS;
  • A$885 million in 2017 for a new Research Support Programme to Australian universities as a flexible funding stream to support the costs of research;
  • A$948 million in 2017 for a new Research Training Programme to support the training of the next generation of researchers and innovators;
  • More than A$64 million to encourage young Australian students to study science, technology and maths subjects at school so as to embrace the digital age and prepare for the jobs of the future;
  • From July 2016, the existing Linkage Projects scheme, administered by the Australian Research Council, will see a new application process, continuously open to applications instead of the current annual process;
  • Introducing the first national impact and engagement assessment which will assess the benefits flowing from university research and incentivise university-industry collaboration.


Universities Australia said the new agenda would begin the cultural change needed to transform the Australian economy and provides a roadmap for the country to become an innovation nation.

"In this signature policy, the Turnbull Government has enshrined investing in innovation as an economic imperative – not a luxury," said Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson. “This is essential to make the transition to a new era in which skills, knowledge and ideas will be our most precious commodities."

She said the plan was a substantial step forward to shift the cultural mindset.

"We are pleased to see stronger incentives for start-ups and their investors, a focus on digital and scientific literacy at all levels of education and 'brain gain' policies to retain the best and brightest people, firms and ideas in Australia."

She said the agenda recognised the critical role of Australia's nationally significant research infrastructure.

"These are the facilities that underpin Australia's research capability. Without strong funding to keep them current and world-leading, our place in the world becomes more vulnerable," Robinson said.

Tony Peacock, chief executive of the Cooperative Research Centres Association, said the National Innovation and Science Agenda strengthens governance on innovation and science in Australia by ensuring there will now be a cabinet subcommittee for innovation and science.

Innovation Australia, the independent statutory board providing oversight of the government’s industry innovation and venture capital programmes, would become Innovation and Science Australia with statutory powers, he said. The measures would ensure that the country finally gets an Australian Innovation System worth of the name ‘system’.

“More important than the new money is the fact that it is virtually all ongoing funds,” he said, adding that Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, could retire a satisfied man, having railed against the endless “non-ongoing” science programmes that wind up just as they start performing.

“No longer will we have the farce of our national infrastructure facing closure every year or so,” Peacock said, adding that Australia had never before had a time when the major parties were competing to improve the whole innovation system with such vigour.
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