Big wraps for innovation agenda

“There has never been a more exciting time to be an innovator in Australia”

All innovation is local

The December “oh please!” award for public comment goes to Greens education spokesman Senator Robert Simms (SA) who was quick to complain about the innovation statement ∫ yesterday, (via Twitter), announcing he is “disappointed to see no funding for electric vehicles in SA.” At least he did not demand money to build a wind-powered submarine in Adelaide.

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Big bucks for grand ideas

Malcolm Turnbull either has a magic pudding to fund yesterday’s National Innovation and Science Agenda or Treasurer Scott Morrison is blowing smoke and burnishing mirrors about paying for it – either way we will know when MYEFO is released before Christmas. CMM suspects it is a bit of both, with some new funding, some redeployed money and some projects funded from previous education and innovation portfolio savings. Nor is this as illegitimate as interest groups will argue when they notice cuts. The Medical Research Future Fund, for example, will lose $250m on contributions this year and next, but the money will go to a biomedical translation fund, to fund the clinical trials and regulatory requirements to bring innovations to market. And the $2bn target is still intact. But the big question is what will happen to the existing research and development tax concession, which business groups like but science policy experts generally think is a waste of money. Close observers of pork producers and barrel makers say the government did not want to spoil yesterday’s party and has sent the tax break off to be reviewed.

On the basis of yesterday’s statement however the science community has plenty to be pleased with. There is a decade of money for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure scheme (critics note Christopher Pyne really has fixed it). There is cash for the Square Kilometre Array and half a billion dollars for the Synchrotron, UNSW gets $26m for quantum computing research. CSIRO is gifted a large bucket of money for an innovation fund and a smaller one for big data analysis – the list rolls on. As UNSW’s Les Field (wearing his Academy of Science hat) said yesterday; “this new agenda represents a turning point. It means we can grow an economy based on our outstanding science, and which makes the best use of our significant scientific capital.”

Epochal innovation

So we are all innovators now with the prime minister committing his political future to creating not just an expanded research effort but a culture that values science, welcomes change and realises that ideas, not minerals and energy exports, are the raw materials of 21st century prosperity. If the country embraces his vision it will profoundly change Australia in a way rarely seen anywhere in the world since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey argues (as grossly over-simplified by CMM) that the Industrial Revolution was less the result of economic factors as cultural ones, that at the beginning of the 18th century people in England and Holland developed a new respect for entrepreneurs, which created a culture of growth that made both countries rich and kickstarted capitalism. Malcolm Turnbull is betting the same can happen here, that Australians will put entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers at the centre our culture. And if you think this is implausible you are ignoring the way in one generation the country has accepted the central importance of higher education. Even so, Malcolm Turnbull has done something we have not seen since the age of Whitlam – he has bet his political future on the transformative power of ideas.

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Smart self-starters

And people are indeed listening – word is Group of Eight chief Vicki Thomson is in London working with tech investors on the Go8’s proposed $200m fund to invest in research with commercial potential (CMM November 26).

Spring in many steps

Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne have turned higher education policy into a positive for the government, no mean feat given the deregulation debacle, which only went off the agenda when Simon Birmingham took over the portfolio. But it is a feat they have accomplished brilliantly, at least on the basis of early higher education and research reaction to the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The strategy “will begin the cultural change needed to transform the Australian economy and secure prosperity into the future,” Universities Australia announced.

“The government is to be warmly congratulated on a forward-looking agenda that delivers on our calls for a long-term, sustainable plan for science, technology, engineering and maths, placing it at the heart of a modern prosperous nation,” Science and Technology Australia president Jim Piper said.

“Australia finally has a pathway forward that recognises the intrinsic value of university research and how it can be better embedded and utilised to deliver the nation economic growth and a productivity stimulus,” agreed the Group of Eight’s Vicki Thomson.

The Innovative Research Universities group was especially pleased that the government “has endorsed the key recommendations from the Watt review,” which “will let innovation flourish.” The understated IRU was too modest to mention that its master policy-engineer Conor King was a member of Dr Watt review’s advisory group.

But what of Glyn Davis, the University of Melbourne VC ticked off by the prime minister for being insufficiently “bouncy” about industry engagement? Professor Davis is not always forthcoming with comments on government policy but was certainly springy yesterday. “This plan is a welcome step toward addressing gaps in Australia’s innovation ecosystem. It will help universities such as Melbourne plan a constructive path forward. Universities are at the forefront of skills development, and there’s never been a more important time for our institutions to continue our work in building greater capability across our modern economy.”

Research policy veteran Tony Peacock from the Cooperative Research Centres Association best caught the optimism surging through the research community yesterday; “There has never been a more exciting time to be an innovator in Australia. … The government has blown past my expectations and delivered a great package.”

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VET FEE HELP horrors

The unintended consequences from the government’s panicked legislation to stop rorting of the VET FEE HELP scheme started to appear immediately it passed parliament. For a start capping loan places across the board hurts legitimate private providers, as John De Margheriti, CEO of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment pointed out in fullpage press advertisements last week (CMM December 3). Higher education providers with a presence in the training market are also upset that they cannot grow market share. And now TAFE Directors Australia warn, “with numerous private college closures, and students seeking transfers to TAFEs, loans may be restricted.” So why couldn’t Training Minister Luke Hartsuyker ask ASQA to identify which providers should be capped and which should be allowed to pick up extra demand, and let anybody unhappy appeal the process. Well one reason is that this would involve ASQA doing something faster than its usual glacial speed.

Big win for ARC

For months advocates of a research impact measure argued that one is needed to variously supplement or replace the Australian Research Council’s research assessment report, Excellence for Research in Australia, which was released on Friday. The popular candidate to knock the ARC off was a model based on existing data and developed by the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, then chaired by incoming chief scientist Alan Finkel.

Well, impact is now definitely on the agenda. “The exact measures will be determined through extensive consultation with university, industry and community stakeholders. This will build on the work that has already been done by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering,” the National Innovation and Science Agenda specifies.

So that’s that. Not quite. “The impact and engagement assessment will be conducted by the Australian Research Council, as a companion exercise to Excellence in Research for Australia,” it adds.

Now CMM understands why the ARC announced a second ERA 15 volume next year, which will include data on industry connection, and why chair Aidan Byrne told CMM, “we need to see if we can tell stories of connection with business” and that “a high quality research environment is all about innovation.” (CMM December 4).

Taken on trust

The UniSuper Consultative Committee has approved changes to the Trust Deed, which sounds significant. And if the Fund’s media advisor ever responds to CMM’s request for comment I’ll let you know.

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More supply same demand

While we are all innovators now international education is still expected to contribute a bigger bucket of money to university budgets. However this may not be as easy as assumed as the US starts to seriously chase export income. The problem is American universities will focus on the same markets ours do. According to statistics from ICEF Monitor, India and China provide 44.8 per cent of international students in the US, up 10 per cent for the Chinese and 30 per cent for the Indians.

Ombudsman acquired

The peak training provider body ACPET plus Labor’s Kim Carr and Sharon Bird have long made the case for a VET student ombudsman, which the government has inexplicably ignored. So Acquire Learning has appointed its own – announcing former Victorian deputy premier Peter Ryan has taken the job. Smart move. Acquire markets courses for registered training organisations, which were cleared by the Australian Skills Quality Authority of breaching sales guidelines at the beginning of the year. Even so, an independent ombudsman of cabinet rank sends a message about accountability.

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au