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Malcolm Turnbull has now announced his strategy to promote innovation and science in Australia. AAP/Lukas Coch

Expert panel: what the national innovation statement means for science

After talking up innovation since his appointment as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull today announced his much anticipated National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), along with Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Christopher Pyne.

The funding is spread across multiple initiatives and programs, including:

  • A$200 million to the CSIRO for an innovation fund to help commercialise research

  • A$75m to Data 61, CSIRO’s data research branch

  • A$250 million for an independent Biomedical Translation Fund to assist the commercialisation of biomedical research

  • A$2.3 billion over 10 years for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), the Australian Synchrotron and the Square Kilometre Array

  • A$127 million for research block grants with greater emphasis on research-industry collaboration

  • A$30 million for a Cyber Security Growth Centre to bring together researchers, industry and government to develop a national cyber security strategy

  • A$13 million to promote women in science, including the Science in Australia Gender Equity pilot (SAGE)

  • A$26 million investment in quantum computing research

  • A$48 million to promote science and STEM to all Australians

  • A new way of measuring industry and public impact of university research

  • The creation of a new body, Innovation and Science Australia, to advise the government on science and technology

We invited several experts to offer their thoughts on the significance and the impact the NISA will have.

TJ Higgins, Vice-President of the Australian Academy of Science

The Australian Academy of Science welcomes today’s announcement as an excellent move towards long-term cooperative engagement between science, government and industry.

We especially welcome the expansion of the Innovation Council’s role to become Innovation and Science Australia to more effectively coordinate expenditure across government.

This, as well as the establishment of the Innovation and Science Committee of Cabinet chaired by the Prime Minister, is the clearest signal yet that the Turnbull Government is holding science and research in high esteem and recognises the importance of a strategic approach to science to underpin a strong and innovative economy.

There is a lot to like in this announcement. Tax incentives for industry research and development, support for CSIRO, funds to translate fundamental research, support for international collaboration and connections, support for improving gender equity in science, science education and a public data strategy; the national innovation and science agenda is a breath of fresh air.

Caroline McMillen, Vice-Chancellor and President University of Newcastle

Today’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) has to pass a number of “tests” if it is to provide the stimulus and resilience for Australia to withstand the current global economic headwinds and allow Australians across urban and regional Australia to participate in a knowledge-based economy.

As stated by Lord Sainsbury in his 2007 review of the UK Government’s Science and Innovation Policies, The Race to the Top:

[…] the paradox is that while innovation is a global phenomenon, the role of regions as the critical nexus for innovation-based economic growth has increased.

So how does NISA look at first pass from the perspective of the regions in NSW, which are bearing the brunt of those economic headwinds? From the vantage point of the University of Newcastle (UON), we welcome the initiatives in NISA, which we have been calling for to ensure that this excellence drives world class innovation across our regions.

While the details have to be fleshed out, we strongly support those initiatives that will build better connections between researchers and businesses, including the changes to the Linkage Projects scheme and the development of Innovation Connect and innovation in regional areas.

We also support the intent of the global innovation strategy. As UON has highlighted, there is a clear need to develop the measurement of engagement between universities and their business partners, and the approach to measuring the economic, social and environmental impact of the work of universities across Australia.

We have championed aligning university research funding arrangements with the imperative to provide incentives for collaboration with industry and business, and we look forward to contributing to the discussion on the optimal arrangements to achieve this.

Nalini Joshi, Professor of Mathematics, University of Sydney

Diversity underlies innovation. It is wonderful to see the Australian government recognise this by committing A$13 million over five years to expand opportunities for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Studies show that full participation by women in the workforce will increase Australia’s GDP by 11%. Companies with more diverse boards generate a better financial performance than those with less diverse boards. Increasing diversity improves the workplace culture for all employees, including men.

There are parallel conclusions to be drawn for Australia’s future as a progressive, agile, innovative society. The sky is the limit, if we could attract and retain talented women in the pipeline.

But there has been very little change in diversity at the senior levels of the STEM workforce over the past two decades. While the proportion of women studying the sciences at postgraduate level has increased since 2001, the proportion at the senior level has barely moved. It is clear that women leave the scientific workforce in droves.

The SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity) initiative aims to retain talented women by encouraging local reflection, nuanced analysis of the factors and effective action. The support by the government will ensure that SAGE can extend to all organisations employing workers in STEM.

Jeffrey Rosenfeld, Neurosurgeon and Director Monash Institute of Medical Engineering

This is not just a simple cash injection to the universities, scientific institutes and CSIRO with attractive tax breaks for business. Nor is it a long-term solution to driving innovation and entrepreneurialism in our economy.

It is a “kick start” and pulls the right levers to drive links between universities and industry, and encourages more risk to be taken in the process of driving applied research to commercial end-points.

Many great Australian ideas are developed to a proof-of-concept stage but either flounder through lack of funding or are rapidly acquired by businesses overseas.

Although Australian industry develops many of its own products, the university sector has much to offer in terms of assisting industry. But also in generating new technologies and drugs, and then partnering with industry to commercialise these.

The Monash Bionic Vision Project to develop a direct-to-brain wireless electrical implant to restore partial vision to blind people is a great example of what can be achieved with university-industry collaboration and government support.

This model will follow in many locations as a result of the Turnbull-Pyne announcement. This will no doubt help many people with sickness and disability and at the same time build Australia’s economic future.

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