Scientists and startups welcome innovation agenda

Australian startups and scientists have congratulated the federal government on announcing the Innovation and Science agenda, saying it marks the first step of helping the nation prepare for the digital future.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Australia lags behind other countries when it comes to commercialising ideas but scientists have given their tick of approval to the federal government's innovation package, praising it as a "turning point" for Australia's economy.

"It means we can grow an economy based on our outstanding science, and which makes the best use of our significant scientific capital," Professor Les Field from the Australian Academy of Science said on Monday.

Australia had long lagged behind many other countries when it came to commercialising ideas from universities and research organisations, he said.

Chief scientist Ian Chubb described the package as "pretty good really".

"There's nothing in there that I can disagree with," he told ABC TV.

The "jewel in the crown" was the special cabinet committee because previously support for science, innovation, and research development was spread over 10 portfolios and more than 100 programs.

StartupAUS CEO Peter Bradd congratulated the government on its innovation agenda, saying it champions a lot of the recommendations that were made by the advocacy group when it launched its annual Crossroads report in April.

"It's a credit to the government that it has listened to the needs of its stakeholders on this topic. Startups have had a strong and consistent voice in this process -- and the result is that we are now seeing innovative, effective measures to boost jobs and growth," he said.

Similarly, Airtasker co-founder and CEO Tim Fung, and Think Procurement founder and CEO Adam Ryan have both expressed how they are pleasantly surprised by the direction the government has taken to help Australian startups. However, they also highlighted how it should only mark the beginning of what other steps the government still needs to take.

"It's great the government has used this policy to announce that it's open to tenders from startups and small businesses. But it is worth remembering a lot of existing government systems are ingrained," Ryan said.

"How will the government enable local technology to gain a foothold against the giant ERP system endemic in government departments. What will they give the ERP systems to cede ground to startups?"

"Another point of interest is the capital gains tax breaks for investors. It's again a step in the right direction, but does it go too far? It's worth asking whether Australia's investment community are savvy enough to understand technology and pick winners here? Are we rewarding bad investments and what happens after a few ill-fated investments hit the press?"

Internet Australia has commended the prime minister on the Innovation and Science Agenda, saying it will help Australia become a more innovative nation. However, the body representing internet users also warned against allowing innovation to become a "political toy" in the lead up to the federal elections.

"No one has a mortgage on ideas in this area. It's not just about deciding what we need to do, it's about deciding to do it together, collaboratively, and with an agreed national agenda," said Internet Australia CEO Laurie Patton.

"Australia has the potential to lead the world into the digitally enabled global economy of the future but we need a bipartisan strategic approach if we are to become a serious player.

"The reason why countries like Israel and Singapore have become technology hubs is because they long ago set out to do this with bipartisan political support and genuine partnership with the private sector, the education sector, and civil society groups."

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said while there were a "couple of good things" to come out of the government's innovation agenda, he disputed whether the announcement was real or just for show.

Shorten said whether it was "unconscious irony" or not for the government to hold the innovation announcement event at the CSIRO, a research agency that has had its annual budget tightened in the past by the government.

"How on earth can you say you're pro-innovation when you cut AU$3 billion from research, science, and innovation, and you put AU$1 billion back. It doesn't really go towards filling the gap, does it?" he said.

Shorten also pointed out that while the National Broadband Network is "arguably the greatest highway of infrastructure to allow innovation", the government has already blown the budget. Earlier this month, a leaked NBN document revealed the cost to replace or repair the copper network would blowout to around AU$640 million.

"Under Malcolm Turnbull -- he doesn't like to talk about it now that he's prime minister -- but when he was communications minister before the last election he said he could do a better, faster NBN at AU$29 billion; now it's AU$55 billion climbing and it's not going to deliver what he promised in the past.

"So if the crucial infrastructure for innovation is double the cost and slower, and if there are higher education and TAFE policies in place, which undermine the ability of the workforce of the future and for advanced manufacturing, I think more could be done, and more should be done."

Labor's innovation spokesman Ed Husic expressed similar views, saying there were many areas where the opposition could work with the government. But he warned Australia was playing a "massive game of catch-up" following government funding cuts to research bodies like the CSIRO.

"We're in a global brains race. The competition has already left the starting pad and we've just emerged out of the locker room," he told Sky News.

But Husic stopped short of promising Labor would reinstate funding cuts to the CSIRO, saying it would need to see the state of the budget before making any commitment.

On Monday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the government plans to inject AU$1.1 billion into various initiatives as part of the Innovation and Science Agenda to drive innovation and entrepreneurship in the country. Some of the key focus areas for the government will include helping students embrace the digital age and better prepare them for a digital future, encouraging women to head down a digital career path, and the establishment of a new research support program.

Turnbull promised the initiative will be used to incentivise innovation and entrepreneurship, reward risk taking, and promote science, maths, and computing in schools.

"Australia is falling behind on measures of commercialisation and collaboration, consistently ranking last or second-last among OECD countries for business-research collaboration," the prime minister said.

"Our appetite for risk is lower than in comparable countries, which means Australian startups and early stage businesses often fail to attract capital to grow."

Turnbull said that despite his confidence, he cannot guarantee the success of these policies. He said if these initiatives do not succeed, they will be changed with lessons learnt.

"That is what a 21st century government must do," he said. "It has got to be as agile as the startup businesses it seeks to inspire."

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