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The trust deficit on innovation

By Lionel Bopage - posted Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The OECD cogently argues that, many of the key technologies driving growth today, would not have been possible without public funding on long-term research. The OECD's Innovation Imperative also calls upon the policy makers to provide more grants and fewer tax incentives, and to learn from experience by policy monitoring, evaluation and readjustment. In addition, the OECD focuses on Innovation for Inclusive Growth, the objective of which is to reduce high levels of inequalities that negatively affect growth and well-being. Many countries in the OECD have a strategic plan for taking forward innovation through assisting the growth of science, technology and economy.

Providing small business with tax breaks is good, but Australia's scientific enterprise and long term prosperity cannot and will not be solely dependent on this. The OECD analysis suggests that innovation thrives in an environment where:

  • a skilled workforce that is able to generate, market and implement new ideas and technologies;
  • a sound business environment encouraging investment in technology and in knowledge-based capital;
  • a strong and efficient system for knowledge creation and diffusion;
  • policies that encourage innovation and entrepreneurial activity; and
  • a strong focus on governance and implementation.

In Dec 2015, the LNP presented an 'ideas boom' package of $1.1b for four years, promoting business-based research, development and innovation with the aim of tying up the business community, universities and scientific institutions. This mantra is nothing new, and has existed for decades. The LNP government's innovation agenda has been propagated as a way of creating a "modern, dynamic 21st century economy".

Let us look at the historical record by taking Australia's pre-eminent scientific organisation, the CSIRO as an example.

The CSIRO had warned that it would struggle to fill the gap in Australian business contribution to research and development, as these entities were generally more focused on natural resources, agriculture and tourism rather than scientific innovation. Previously, the CSIRO had stated that it has been forced 'to scale back, or abandon', some areas of research into, such as Alzheimer's disease and colorectal cancer, marine sciences, radio astronomy, astrophysics, bioscience, and urban water usage including storm water irrigation and metropolitan water management.

Both the ALP and the LNP governments have slashed funding to the CSIRO and other industry programs over the years. The extra efficiency dividend in the Labour's final year in government resulted in the culling of 200 positions of scientists at the CSIRO. The LNP government's 2014 budget announced a $115 million cut in funding to the CSIRO. More recently, the Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) program funding was culled by A$80 million in 2014 and then another A$27 million in 2015. Among other scientific and research institutions that have been hit include the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Research Council, the Sustainable Research Excellence and Geoscience Australia.

CSIRO has been a source of ground breaking research not only to Australia but also to the whole world. Basic science research is a necessity which over time translates into innovation and economic growth of a country. Now 275 positions in the CSIRO are being targeted to be axed. The private sector has not shown much interest in investment in research and development. Today it has been reported that some had already resigned in disgust and their morale is at rock bottom.


The ideological stance of the LNP against science, particularly, against climate science is pretty evident. As one of the countries affected by climate change Australia needs the knowledge to effectively respond to the challenges that will affect its economy, particularly in the fields of agriculture, food security, aquaculture, national security, energy, water and health. Australia recently signed the historic Paris Agreement and its commitment to the Agreement is tested by its budgetary aim to axe many positions in climate research and environmental science in the CSIRO.

Would Australia, traversing along the current path of slashing funding to the CISRO, be able to pay attention to the role of skills, an open and competitive business environment, access and participation in the digital economy, and the need to adapt policies to our own specific national and sector challenges?

There is a major trust deficit regarding the genuineness of the commitment of Australian governments to the future of science and technology in Australia. The continuing defunding exercise will cause not only significant job losses, but also an exodus of the bright and talented science and technology expertise away from Australia. This will act as a huge impediment in engendering and driving innovation forward, and the resulting growth of science, technology and the economy!

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About the Author

Lionel Bopage is a former Chair of the Torture Rehabilitation And Network Services ACT (TRANSACT) in Canberra, now known as The Companion House.

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All articles by Lionel Bopage

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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