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Australia: The still-not-so-clever country

Progress in science and innovation in Australia can be summed up in the French expression: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same. There are opportunities for things to change, building on the scientific successes in addressing the pandemic, and as businesses restructure in challenging new circumstances. But there is much to be done.

Depressingly, debate about the nature and importance of science and innovation in Australia remain pretty much the same as when I began studying them over 35 years ago. In the absence of seemingly any institutional memory, I have read recent analyses of the “new” challenges of R&D funding, research translation, venture capital shortcomings, and the need for more and better policy analysis. The over 100 reviews into science and innovation in Australia over the past 40 years which address all these issues, often in a much more sophisticated and better informed way, are largely disregarded, inviting mistakes because of the failure to learn from history.

Depressingly, debate about the nature and importance of science and innovation in Australia remain pretty much the same as when I began studying them over 35 years ago.

Our collective amnesia sees demand for initiatives that have failed in the past. The list of policies and organisations that have fallen by the wayside is extensive. Who remembers the Australian Technology Group or the Australian Science and Technology Council? Or the 2000 National Innovation Summit? Their lessons are forgotten. Calls to escape the past and create a modern, high value-adding economy based on science and innovation have scarcely moved on since the seminal Australian Business Foundation report by Jane Marceau and colleagues written nearly 25 years ago. Called “The high road or the low road: alternatives for Australia’s future”, the report outlines the problems of remaining a rocks and crops economy and the potential of greater knowledge-intensive industry. It is a deep indictment that this conversation continues today.  

Of course there are highlights. We have some marvellous companies, and the scale and scope of the CSIRO remains the envy of many nations. But the pace and extent of progress as a nation is simply too sluggish and limited to create a sustainable, internationally competitive economy. The question is why change is so slow. Why in Australia do we have continual arguments about the same issues when it comes to the role of science and innovation in society and the economy?

The pace and extent of progress as a nation is simply too sluggish and limited to create a sustainable, internationally competitive economy.

Mountains of reports on science and innovation repeatedly air reasons for this stasis. They include governments cossetted by income and lulled by influence from extractive industries, unpersuaded by the need to modernise the economy. The head-spinning rotation of ministers, portfolios and policies in the field ensures little continuity, and while some initiatives such as the CRC (Cooperative Research Centres) program bravely limp along, the complex alphabet soup of other initiatives continually get rearranged, restructured and all too frequently defunded. Ministerial portfolios regularly get restructured, advisory structures come and go, priorities get determined and not acted upon, “flavour of the month” policies are announced with fanfare only to wither on the vine. And the big beast of Australian policy, the R&D tax concession, lumbers on as inefficient and misdirected as ever.

Universities have their share of the blame, mostly for their supine responses to government hostility and the numbing effects of the metrics fetish they’ve embraced, but also for their naïve approaches to “research commercialisation”. The view was that all they needed to do was create technology transfer offices and dollars would easily flow in for all their mysteriously previously undervalued intellectual property.

Science and innovation in Australia are constrained by the behaviour of our firms.

But there is another issue that hasn’t had the attention it deserves. Science and innovation in Australia are constrained by the behaviour of our firms. Even allowing for our industrial structure, with its comparative absence of technology firms, Australian business leaders are poor at articulating to their stakeholders and the government the importance of science and innovation. They are reticent to invest and collaborate in science and innovation and mediocre at using them to their advantage. Our firms are hamstrung by the risk-averse and compliance orientation of lawyer- and accountant-heavy boards of directors. Nations succeed with science and research when firms know why and how they need to innovate, and if they don’t they are keen to learn. 

The debate on the importance and challenges of science and innovation will continue, and will improve by being better informed about past thinking and the history of successes and failures which remains relevant even in a changing digital world. As ever, federal and state governments need to do better, and universities need a fundamental rethink about their purpose and misguided managerialism. The existential threats of climate change, growing inequalities, technological disruption, and present and future threats to health, make science and innovation even more critical for Australia’s future. But we have to do better. We need to see closer integration of science with the social sciences and arts, working together to address future threats and advance society. We should pay more attention to issues that encourage such interdisciplinarity, such as design and entrepreneurship, with both business and social aims. We have to ensure science and innovation enriches society, and is clearly seen to do so, as well as creating new opportunities for business.

A major obstacle to progress, however, lies in Australian firms and their skills deficit in R&D and the strategic management of innovation. For things to change and not remain the same, to meet the challenge of building a more equitable, environmentally sustainable, post-pandemic economy, it is the business sector that most needs to raise its game.