Statement—Innovation: Time for action now

On 24 April 2009, Kurt Lambeck, President of the Australian Academy of Science, made the following statement.

The announcement by Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, that the Australian Government will provide up to $83 million to early stage start-up companies serves to highlight that the research and development (R&D) community is keenly awaiting the Governments response to the Cutler Review of the National Innovation System and the Bradley Review of the Higher Education System.

The Ministers' Press Club address of 18 March articulated ten 'ambitions' for innovation, science and research that if achieved have the potential to transform Australia's R&D scene. But, as the Minister has remarked, 'the global economic crisis …. has cast everything in a different light, including our agenda for innovation, science and research'. I hope this means that the need for implementation is even more urgent. At the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation report, Building Australia's Research Capacity, noted the global economic meltdown should not become a reason for inaction on the Government's commissioned reports that have stressed the importance of developing Australia's education, science and technology base.

The issues facing Australia are numerous, intertwined and complex. To survive as a civil society will require that our nation becomes competitive at the highest international level in education, research and the development of technology from that research. Solutions will have to come from an expanded and increasingly flexible human resource capability that is able to contribute to new discoveries, to make creative use of tomorrow's discoveries, and that is able to make well-founded decisions on their use to benefit our whole society.

From my perspective as President of the Australian Academy of Science, the major underpinning element for these solutions has to be excellence in innovative science and technology, and the present Federal Government demonstrated its recognition of this from the beginning by commissioning the Cutler and Bradley reviews. These reports, as well as the House of Representatives report recognise the importance of innovation with roots in strong Australian education, science and technology. They stress that investment in human and material scientific resources provides the springboard for long-term growth in wealth, health, sustainable employment and environmental benefits. They also express concern that Australia is falling behind in building the requisite education and research foundation.

The Academy particularly welcomes the Government's announcement of three policy ambitions in this area: to develop a research workforce strategy to meet expected shortfalls in the supply of research-qualified university staff to 2020; increase support for Australian Postgraduate Award holders as budget circumstances permit; and significantly increase the number of students completing higher degrees by research over the next decade. However, the translation of ambitions beyond aspirations is a matter of urgency because of the long time it takes to train independent creative researchers and a work force able to effectively transform research outputs into products and services that are of benefit to society as a whole.

The difficulties of this translation and the importance of creating mechanisms for effective transfer are discussed extensively in the reports. In this regard we also welcome the Government's aims to double the level of collaboration between Australian businesses, universities and publicly funded research organisations over the next year, and increase the international collaboration in research by Australian universities. Again, specific funding must be committed to turn these into reality. Observations from elsewhere, where this transfer has been more successful than in Australia, suggest that if a vibrant research community evolves, with flexible interaction and movement between partners from all sectors, then the transfer will occur.

The reviews highlight that Australia has badly fallen behind in research funding in the past decade. Success rates for competitive funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) are now abysmally low and act as disincentives for young researchers to embark upon independent research careers. But even when successful, ARC funding does not cover direct costs, let alone the indirect costs to the universities, with the result that severe research distortions are occurring within the institutions. Thus the recommendations to increase ARC and the National Health and Medical Research Council research funding to more sustainable levels are strongly endorsed, recognising that this may not be achievable in the immediate term.

We recognise that the Government has acted to improve career paths from post-doctoral fellowships to senior research positions with the creation of the Future Fellowships for mid-career researchers and Australian Laureate Fellowships for senior researchers. We applaud these actions and feel churlish about pointing out the inevitable; that 200 Future Fellowships per year for 5 years, some 10-20 research intensive universities, and perhaps some 50 disciplines worthy of nurturing, that the scope for developing a critical mass in any area of scholarship will be a challenge indeed!

Of course, research council funding is only one part of the 'bricks and mortar' that maintain a research capability. The recent announcements by the Higher Education Endowment Fund for infrastructure funding are an important recognition of this by the Federal and State Governments. But the selection process clearly illustrated that justified needs greatly exceed supply. The same is also true for other research organisations. Hence we strongly support, as a minimum, increasing funding incrementally over a ten year period to levels comparable to those of our OECD competitors who, mostly, are not using the financial crisis as an excuse for not expanding their R&D expenditures.

The Academy of Science believes that the recommendations before Government contain both wisdom and guidance that, when acted on, will see Australia emerge from the current period of economic uncertainty stronger and better able to meet the challenges of the future. We recognise that there are many pressing economic and financial problems, but inaction on developing our national research and infrastructure capability is not an option. As noted in the most influential science journal Nature 'protecting R&D is key to coming out of a recession strong.'

Others are also following this path: China has announced a massive economic stimulus package much of which goes to research tax credits and investments in R&D infrastructure; and the new US Administration has initiated measures 'to employ science, technology and innovation to solve our nation's most pressing problems.

The Australian Academy of Science urges our Government, when considering its responses to the reviews and when fine-tuning its 2009/2010 budget, to recognise that now is the time to turn the ambitions into reality; to invest in the human and material infrastructure to ensure that we remain competitive and able to address the problems faced by the nation in the years ahead. Such investment will also stimulate the economy and build it a long-term future. We may draw encouragement from the UK Government who, despite facing an economic downturn perhaps even worse than that of Australia, has seen science as a national priority, announcing that 'the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science and making its biggest ever investment in training of scientists and engineers.

© 2021 Australian Academy of Science