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Can the states help the nation’s critical research infrastructure?

Queensland’s Parliament building. The state had a strong history of supporting research and innovation under the Smart State banner. Flickr/Neal Jennings, CC BY-NC-SA

Can the states help the nation’s critical research infrastructure?

Queensland’s Parliament building. The state had a strong history of supporting research and innovation under the Smart State banner. Flickr/Neal Jennings, CC BY-NC-SA

Australia’s science community breathed a sigh of relief when the Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, said funding for scientific research infrastructure would no longer be tied to the government’s higher education reforms.

But the A$150 million of funding for the National Collaborative Research and Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) is only promised for another 12 months.

So what happens next if the federal government argues that increasing financial pressures impacting on the May budget entitle it to withdraw further from the area of science and infrastructure investment?

This potentially leaves a policy space into which the states can move and take more of a lead in supporting innovative research and technological advances.

The states on science

This move might not be so radical, since the states have taken on such a prominent role before. From 1998, in an effort to diversify Queensland’s economy into more shock-resistant, knowledge-based industries, then Premier Peter Beattie unfolded the “Smart State” strategy.

Peter Beattie was always keen to push the Smart State agenda when he was Premier of Queensland. Flickr/TobiLoftusPhotography, CC BY

Under his and later Anna Bligh’s governments, game-changing investments went into supporting “sunrise” industry sectors (notably biotechnology and life sciences), building new research infrastructure and attracting leading scientific and biomedical researchers to Queensland.

Government funds of almost A$5 billion were expended on research and innovation programs. This was often in conjunction with federal research funding schemes and investments from philanthropic and private sector interests.

These included Clive Berghofer’s A$50 million donation to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.

The presence in Queensland of US billionaire and reclusive philanthropist, Chuck Feeney, coincided with the Beattie government’s drive to boost scientific research capacity. Their alignment of objectives allowed for many millions of dollars in research funds to leverage off each other, in tandem with university and industry investments.

The strategy was criticised by some as a costly diversion from the proper business of state government, such as building roads, schools and hospitals.

But the state government’s efforts helped bring into being clusters of world-class research infrastructure, including Brisbane’s Translational Research Institute and the Gold Coast’s Institute for Glycomics.

Interstate rivalry

This approach prompted some interstate rivalry within both political and scientific ranks, most notably between Queensland and Victoria.

Staff from the then Premiers’ offices tell of a level of competitiveness between Beattie and Victoria’s Steve Bracks for the title of “Australia’s biotech capital” that was intense at times.

Steve Bracks was prepared to push the research investment benefits for Victoria when he was premier of the state. Flickr/David Tomic, CC BY-NC-SA

But Queensland’s former Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Andrews, said this was a healthy competition between states, and interstate collaboration between teams of scientific researchers actually increased.

Victoria, probably more than elsewhere, undertook efforts similar to Queensland in promoting innovation and boosting local research endeavours, principally through its Science, Technology and Innovation Initiative (1999).

Victoria was already home to leading research facilities, such as those at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

But the Bracks and later Brumby governments bolstered that state’s research capacity through significant investments in Melbourne’s biotechnology precincts. This included the Synchrotron, the largest facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere, maintained since with the assistance of NCRIS funding.

State effort, national benefit

These were undoubtedly costly undertakings for state governments – close to A$3.5 billion was invested in science and research in Victoria over a decade. But the overall effect of this “innovation race” was a rapid burgeoning of regionalised but nationally cumulative research capacity and output.

Since 2000, other states and territories have contributed to the growth in research and innovation investments, and instigated similar strategic programs:

The various state-led initiatives encouraged additional and increasingly larger private and philanthropic investments in the R&D sector. The most notable came from Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies, responsible for almost A$400 million in research infrastructure investments in Australia.

Significantly, these state initiatives were encouraged by federal governments.

In 2001 the Howard government introduced the Backing Australia’s Ability program of research and innovation funds. A decade earlier the Hawke government had instigated the successful Cooperative Research Centre scheme (now under review after having its funding reduced by the current government).

All of this combined over two decades to improve the nation’s – and most states’ – research profile and performance. A federal government report in 2011 identified the benefits to the national “innovation system” flowing from the states’ increased commitment to research funding and, especially, infrastructure investment.

The cuts begin

Subsequent changes in state government leadership and priorities have seen that competitiveness and commitment to science investment and promotion wane in recent years.

In Queensland, the Newman LNP government that swept to power in 2012 promptly set about erasing the previous government’s Smart State rhetoric and symbolism. It wound back or shelved programs that supported research and innovation, including funding schemes for research facilities and infrastructure.

The government had other priorities when Campbell Newman took over as premier in Queensland. Flickr/Dale Napier, CC BY-NC-SA

The LNP government’s attention remained on a more restrained economic management agenda. This resulted in a loss of momentum in the fields of research and innovation with private investment not readily taking up the slack.

Similar de-funding intentions were announced in Victoria from 2010 following the election of the Baillieu coalition government, with later Premier Dennis Napthine focusing infrastructure investment on the now-rejected East-West Link toll road and other huge transport projects.

Can the states reinvest?

Given current political and economic settings, it is debatable whether a state such as Queensland can make a case for sudden resumption of significant science investment.

But this discounts the economic importance of the research and innovation sectors, and the potential dividends to states that investments therein can reap.

In Queensland during the Smart State period, the government’s targeted investment in infrastructure and research was reported to increase future economic returns to the state by between four to six times the outlay.

In Queensland, as elsewhere, it will take careful financial management, improved cross-sectoral connections and a well-crafted political narrative to make the case for a renewed economic approach towards investment in science and research.

None of this will be easy in the current political environment, considering that Queensland now has a minority Labor government. This puts it in similar territory to South Australia’s and Victoria’s Labor administrations, both of which hold only a slender majority.

But Queensland’s ALP declared last year that, should it win government, it intended to revisit and reinvest in the same kind of programs that supported science, research and innovation during the Smart State period.

Now that Annastacia Palaszczuk is in the Premier’s seat (and assuming she stays there despite her government’s early turmoil), how will such an initiative be met in today’s supposedly reform-shy polity?

As for other states, new Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews came to office promising renewed commitment to research and innovation funding, declaring that Victoria would earn the epithet of “the education state”.

South Australia is again making clear its dedication to retain and support its advanced manufacturing sector and high-skill industries.

Established coalition governments in New South Wales and also Western Australia, where governments of both stripes have long invested in mining and agricultural technology (much like in Queensland), have recently introduced innovative programs that will boost those states’ science and research capabilities.

A bold move needed

So in most of Australia’s sub-national jurisdictions there are stirrings of real and intended support for such initiatives.

In light of earlier experiences, a measure of boldness and assuredness from current state leaders would not go astray. Nor would a more public and sincere show of material support for the fields of science, innovation and technology.

Today’s state governments should not think that the important funding of scientific research must be left solely to their wavering and seemingly unsympathetic counterpart in Canberra.

In the absence of conciliatory gestures from the feds, our leading science researchers – and perhaps even university vice-chancellors – may find it more rewarding in the immediate future to seek out a funding olive branch from the states.