David Charles. The National Innovation and Science Agenda – Will it be different this time?

The Prime Minister and his government are welcoming us to the ideas boom. Showing a great sense of timing the innovation statement was made almost at the same time that Atlassian was listing on the NASDAQ. The Statement points to Atlassian as being valued at over US$3 billion. Today the company is valued at close to US$6 billion making billionaires out of its founders Mike Cannon-Brooks and Scott Farquhar and millionaires out of many of their co-workers.

Perhaps it is true that there has never been a more exciting time to be an innovator in Australia. But as the Atlassian example demonstrates, becoming an overnight sensation has taken them 14 years of effort.

With the long running resources boom having passed its peak and commodity prices tumbling, Australia needs to make a transition to a different kind of economy that will be driven by services and high value added manufacturing. Success in these areas is based on innovation.

Prior to the recent change in Prime Minister there was no great sense of confidence that the transition could be made without Australia going through a rough period with low or even perhaps negative economic growth. Part of the reset brought about by Malcolm Turnbull’s government has been to build confidence in Australia’s ability to compete and succeed in the emerging global economy whose features are being redrawn by waves of disruptive technological change, new businesses, new business models and new supply chains.

The innovation statement has been well received with the main quibbles being about its size compared to the opportunities and challenges ahead and the feeling that some are being left out – the statement is primarily perceived as being about start-ups and new business formation and heavily based on STEM skills which doesn’t leave much of a role for the humanities.

For the old hands there is a bit of sense of déjà vu. Haven’t we lived through a number of high profile innovation statements over the last 20 years but in some way the challenges remain the same. For example, the one put out by the Keating Government in December 1995 spoke about Australia adding value to the IP we create. Even more notable was the innovation statement of the Howard Government in January 2001 Backing Australia’s Ability which provided $2.9 billion over 5 years.

The question arises: what is different this time? Is there really something new going on or is this just another worthy effort that will be forgotten in 5 years?

The Innovation Statement

There is about $1.1 billion in initiatives over 4 years provided in the innovation statement. The initiatives are spread across 25 individual measures.

The National Innovation and Science Agenda focuses on four points:

  1. Culture and capital
  2. Collaboration
  3. Talent and skills
  4. Government as an exemplar

As pointed out, the Agenda comes on top of the investment of around $9.7 billion in research and development in 2015-16.

The measures that have received the most media attention are those relating to start-ups. These range from new tax breaks for early stage investors who will receive a 20% non-refundable tax offset based on the amount of their investment as well as a capital gains exemption, to reform of the insolvency laws, to the establishment of two funds designed to assist start ups: the new $200 million CSIRO Innovation Fund and the new Biomedical Translation Fund to co-invest $250 million with the private sector.

Less attention has been given to the additional commitments for building world-class research infrastructure. These measures are important and give greater long term funding certainty. Over the next decade $520 million will be provided to the Australian Synchrotron, $294 million to the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project while the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy will receive $1.5 billion.

Other measures involving financial commitments are included but arguably of greater importance are the changes that have been introduced in the governance of innovation. One of the key concerns has been the tendency for instability in support arrangements for innovation and science and the lack of real priority accorded to these areas. An important goal should be to ensure that all arms of government are singing from the same hymn sheet and that the music is not changed mid stream.

A Cabinet Committee for innovation and science will be established chaired by the Prime Minister. A new independent statutory authority, Innovation and Science Australia, is also being established supported by a chief executive officer accountable through the Industry Minister to the Cabinet Committee. One of its first jobs will be to review the R&D Tax Incentive to improve its effectiveness and integrity.

Importantly, the innovation statement makes clear that the Government will be open to adapting and changing course if things don’t work.

The Ghosts of Innovation Statements Past

Australia has had quite a number of innovation statements over the last 20 years or so. Rather more, if we take into account the introduction of the 150% R&D Tax Concession in 1985,the Cooperative Research Centres program in 1991 and various attempts to kick start a venture capital sector.

There has been a longstanding recognition that while Australia performs reasonably well in terms of its support for public sector research in the universities and bodies like CSIRO, the return on such investment when measured in terms of the creation of technology intensive businesses based on Australian developed ideas has been less impressive.

The 1995 Keating Government statement on innovation provided about $400 million over four years for a range of measures designed to strengthen Australia’s innovation and science capability. Like the recent innovation statement, the measures supported both the commercialisation of ideas and the science base itself. About $64 million was earmarked for major investments in science facilities. At the time the Australian government was spending about $3.5 billion on support for R&D.

Perhaps as a case of history repeating itself, the then leader of the Opposition claimed the Keating innovation statement was full of ideas stolen from Coalition policy. Perhaps in innovation policy there is something to be said for being a rapid adopter. It has considerable historical precedent.

The next major innovation statement came in January 2001 in the form of Backing Australia’s Ability delivered by the then Prime Minister John Howard. In the statement the government committed $2.9 billion over 5 years to a range of innovation and science initiatives.

The initiative for the statement came from the Innovation Summit held in 2000 in response to urging by the Business Council of Australia who at the time were seeking the restoration of the 150% R&D Tax Concession. While they did not get the answer they were looking for, the government did introduce a wide ranging set of spending commitments in innovation and science. One of the more important, accounting for $736 million, was the doubling in ARC grants to match the earlier decision to double NH&MRC grants.

Reflecting the increasing awareness of the importance of new developments in communications and IT for future economic growth, the National ICT Authority was established.

Two further innovation statements much closer to us in time should be mentioned. Both in their own ways reflected the thought that eco-systems are increasingly important to success.

First, the Gillard Government ‘s “A Plan for Australian Industry and Jobs – Industry and Innovation Statement” of February 2013 which set aside $1 billion for the establishment, amongst other things, of a number of industry precincts.

Second, the Abbott Government’s Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda of October 2014 which allocated about $200 million to a number of measures including the establishment of 5 growth centres which was its centre piece. The language around the statement was in terms of improving collaboration between industry and researchers and lifting commercialisation.

The Business Council of Australia played an important role in preparing the ground for the growth centres initiative.

What is different this time?

While a case can be made that over an extended period the basic objectives of lifting Australia’s innovation performance and building the science base have remained, and hence a lot of the surrounding political rhetoric sounds similar, the reality is that the circumstances facing Australia and the global economy in which it is placed have changed a lot requiring policy settings themselves to change.

What are some of these realities to which policy makers have had to respond?

By and large, Australia has not been a leader in the formulation of policies for innovation and science. Individual initiatives have achieved international recognition (eg the CRC program) but on the whole these have been notable exceptions. As the globalization process has progressed so has Australians awareness of what other countries are doing in these fields. Notable examples in recent times have been the set of innovation policies introduced by the UK Government which have strong echoes in Australia’s recent decisions. The Growth Centres owe a lot to the Catapult Program and the tax breaks for early stage investors to the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme.

Governments in Israel and Singapore have placed a huge emphasis on creating an environment supportive of start-ups. Again, Australian policy has drawn on their experiences as knowledge of them increased.

The potential impact that a more successful approach to encouraging start-ups can bring has been brought home by some spectacular examples such as that with Atlassian which have received very wide media exposure. Start-ups are no longer seen as an interesting but relatively small phenomenon. Much of the growth in the market value of listed enterprises in China is associated with companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – all IT based companies of recent origin.

Successful policy generally requires that it is running with the grain of economic developments rather than against it. Australia is now starting to see enough examples of successful tech-based start-ups to break through the recognition gap both of entrepreneurial inclined young people and parts of the capital market. A serious effort will be made to support the needed cultural change in terms of the toleration of the risk of failure. While the direction of earlier innovation statements was broadly right, important parts of the underpinnings for success were lacking. The innovation statement has the powerful advantage of building on underlying momentum and giving things a strong additional push.

It is not perhaps something the media has picked up on, but the fact that the Turnbull innovation statement includes important supporting governance arrangements is different from previous experience and gives greater confidence in steadier and more predictable policy making. Turning support on and off is highly disruptive.

People are always important and on this occasion it is notable that key people such as the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, the CEO of CSIRO, Larry Marshall, and the Chair of Innovation and Science Australia, Bill Ferris, all have a strong background in new business creation and financing.

All things considered, a case can be made that this time it may well indeed be different.

What lies Ahead?

Innovation and science are now seen on both sides of the political divide as crucial to the successful transition of the Australian economy and to lifting productivity. Hopefully that will result in a workable, if not a high, degree of bipartisanship.

The innovation statement makes it clear that close attention will need to paid to the initiatives that have been taken to ensure that any shortcomings are addressed and that initiatives that are failing to meet their objectives are closed down. As in most areas of policy, a more evidence-based approach is needed.

While the focus of this statement is on start-ups (although it is recognized that some important things have been done to give greater certainly to longer term investments in the research infrastructure), at the end of the day start-ups are by no means the whole innovation story. Attention will need to be continued to be directed to improving the innovation performance of existing businesses. Non science elements such as design should perhaps be given greater attention as they are in successful innovation based economies.

The innovation statement is a valuable start and a strong expression of direction. This is not to be underestimated as we know that industry policy is about 90% psychology. But it should not be seen as the last word on innovation and science, especially at a time of very raid change. More will almost certainly have to be done if Australia is to be globally competitive.

In a difficult fiscal environment there will no doubt be times when parts of government are tempted to ensure innovation and science programs bear there share of the savings burden. This will be a real test of the new governance arrangements and will be a real indicator of whether things this time really are different.

David Charles is a Director of Insight Economics. He was formerly Secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce from 1985 to 1990. He co-founded the Allen Consulting Group in Melbourne. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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