Australian drive for innovation

February 25, 2000

Industry and academe demand more spending on science and technology, writes Geoff Maslen.

Australia's most powerful leaders in business, industry and academe last week called on the federal government to double spending on education over the next ten years, boost research and development, increase industry tax concessions for research and development and create a national innovation institute.

The proposals arose at the nation's first summit on innovation. Sponsored by the Commonwealth and the Australian Business Council, the conference attracted more than 550 delegates from universities, business, industry and government bureaucracies at the federal and state levels.

Chair of the Australian Research Council, Vicki Sara, who coordinated discussion on investing in new ideas, said Australia needed to develop a "sports-like pride and passion" in scientific and technological achievements.

Professor Sara said her group proposed that by 2003, Australia should be spending an estimated A$1 billion (Pounds 400 million) a year to boost innovation in all its forms. One step towards this was the creation of a national institute that would produce skilled and marketable innovators.

Other recommendations put forward at the summit included:

Entrepreneurship education to be offered at primary, secondary and tertiary levels

Research students to have a broad educational experience, including access to industry and international networks

A non-government national foundation, similar to the Kauffman Foundation in America, to be set up to foster entrepreneurship

A national commission on innovation assessment to be established within three months to provide a nationwide assessment of the state of innovation within a year

Corporate governance requirements to be expanded to include regular reporting on the innovation performance of business and industry, including management of intellectual property.

Science minister Nick Minchin announced that a high-level committee would be formed immediately to advise on achieving the outcomes of the summit. He said experts from universities, research institutes, business and government would aim to have an "innovation action agenda" in place by the end of the year.

All state, territory and federal industry ministers had just agreed to establish a national council on innovation, he said. The government would provide up to A$5 million to meet the cost of joint proposals from business and the research community to bring to Australia the best researchers and innovators.

Prime minister John Howard told the summit: "The government is totally involved in harnessing the capacity of our scientists, our inventors, our researchers and our innovators to the economic and social future of our nation."

The president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Sue Serjeantson, said: "I see this as a turning point as Mr Howard left no doubt about his commitment to an innovative Australia."

But Ian Chubb, president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, said Australia was "fiddling while the world is learning". Investment in higher education research has dropped 13 per cent over the past four years as a share of gross domestic product, he said.

"This contrasts with massive increases in education and research budgets in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Finland, Canada and South Korea. This is the league Australia would like to compete in, but we're just pretenders. The summit is a learning process as we discover the entry price."

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