The Federal Government has today announced a AU$1.1 billion "Innovation and Science Agenda" to promote investment and development in Australia's science, technology and research sectors. The suite of 28 measures includes tax incentives for start-ups and funding for the CSIRO and biomedical research, targeted at encouraging businesses to invest in innovation and adapt in the 21st century.
The funding package is the first major announcement from the Turnbull-led Government, and represents his goal to build a "21st century government." Prime Minister Turnbull has adopted the language of start-ups to describe the challenges facing Australia as it carves out its place in the modern economy, saying "agility" and "innovation" are required to meet the challenges of a "disruptive environment."
While the Innovation and Science Agenda attempts to forge new links between the business and research communities, the Government is also looking to involve the private sector in the funding of the scheme.
This includes the establishment of the new CSIRO Innovation Fund, which includes a AU$70 million investment from the Commonwealth, as well as private sector investment and receipts generated from the CSIRO's Wi-Fi inventions. The total fund will include AU$200 million to support new companies that spin out of products and services created by Australia's research institutions and a AU$20 million boost to the CSIRO Accelerator program.
CSIRO will also score AU$75 million from the government for its new Data61 research unit, which was borne out of a merger of NICTA and CSIRO's digital research unit.
There are measures to encourage start-ups, including tax breaks for investment and reforms to employee share schemes as well as access to crowd-sourced equity funding for "innovative companies". The Government will also introduce a new entrepreneurial visa to bring talent into Australia and invest AU$13 million to encourage women to enter STEM fields.
Reflecting the cross-ministry underpinning of the new Agenda, the education sector has been brought into the fold with a AU$51 million package for school coding and IT programs, and new University research funding arrangements to "encourage joint endeavours that produce outcomes with commercial and community benefit."
In what could come as a major shift for academia-focused research institutions, the Government is keen to ensure scientific research delivers commercial results to Australian businesses down the pipeline.
One example of this is the AU$250 million investment in a new Biomedical Translation Fund. Set up to help commercialise biomedical research and innovations, the Government hopes businesses will match Commonwealth investment in order to support research that could generate benefits to their bottom line.
Today's announcements certainly mark a change of fortunes for the Australian science community, which has faced a number of significant setbacks in recent years at the hands of the Federal Government.
Key funding announcements
- Centre for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology -- AU$26 million
- Biomedical Translation Fund -- AU$250 million
- CSIRO Innovation Fund -- AU$220 million
- Data61 funding -- AU$75 million
- School coding and computing programs -- AU$51 million
- Global Innovation Strategy for international collaboration on innovation -- AU$36 million
- Science education funding for schools and the wider community -- AU$48 million
- The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) funding -- AU$1.5 billion over 10 years
- Square Kilometre Array funding -- AU$294 million
- Funding for the Australian Synchrotron -- AU $520 million
- The Research Support Scheme (AU$885 million) and the Supporting Research Training Scheme (AU$948 million) -- replacing current suite of current research grants
- Supporting women in STEM -- AU$13 million
Innovative approach or buzzword bingo?
While the Abbott Government struck a symbolic blow to the sector by quietly axing the Science Minister from cabinet in 2013, the science community has also faced budget struggles on the front line. This included the notorious 2014 budget which saw the Government cut science funding, including AU$111 million worth of cuts to the CSIRO and a blow to funding of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme.
But while Prime Minister Turnbull was today talking up his Government's investment in the sector, the Opposition has warned that action is required to claw back the losses seen under the Abbott Prime Ministership.
In an op ed in the Guardian today, Federal MP and Labor spokesman for Digital Innovation Ed Husic said Australians will face "buzzword bombardment," driven by a Government attempting to shape itself as "freed from the suffocating policy cocoon it was entombed in by Tony Abbott."
But beyond the buzzwords, Husic said the Government had a tough task ahead that would require cross-Parliament collaboration, even if it is "confronted by the pleas of corporate incumbents that will demand their own form of digital protectionism."
"We're still training up people for jobs that will disappear, replaced by new jobs we can't really imagine yet," he said. "As other nations comprehend and respond to this challenge, we need to gear up to compete in a global brains race."