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Scientists comment on the Government's Innovation Statement

ROBYN WILLIAMS: On Wednesday, 6 December, some 14 months after being promised by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Senator Peter Cook, at the ANZAAS Congress, the Government presented its Innovation Statement.

The place chosen was Melbourne, the huge National Trade and Investment Conference, with business people from all over the world. They sat down for lunch, about 2,000 of them, and after the cold asparagus and salad, the Prime Minister set off on a remarkably low-key speech.

PAUL KEATING: So, I'd just like to summarise the measures that we have here. First, we need to keep generating new ideas, so the Government's chosen seven visionary science projects which will boost our science infrastructure and link industry with large-scale collaborative research to keep Australia abreast of the world's most advanced technologies. In other words, knowing what other people are doing and keeping the link to it.

The Government will continue to support for industry, research and development, and we'll do this through the 150 per cent RD tax concession, which we finetuned to improve accessibility, management and cost-effectiveness, and the change, I think, will reduce uncertainties for companies while closing all opportunities for abuse. It's a very large concession; it's one of the few left in our tax system and we're confirming it.

The Government will renew the $40 million a year it spends on the Competitive Grant Scheme for industry, research and development. The grant targets high-quality projects by well-managed companies, recognising that high-technology start-ups are the nurseries for new industries.

We're also funding five new co-operative research centres. These are the bodies where we have specialised institutes, universities, industrial companies working together on pure research and then applying that research within the one business, bringing the total number of these co-operative research centres now to 67.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: The Prime Minister, Paul Keating, and so he went on, the Innovation Statement in five parts; lots of detail; lots of money - about $500 million spent and perhaps more than $350 million earned. Yes, it's a complicated story. Here's more.

PAUL KEATING: The second category of initiatives will involve the flow of finance into business innovation and our capacity to commercialise our scientific research. One of the problems we've had in Australia is not that we don't have a relatively deep research and development base, particularly in the public sector and growing in the private sector, but our problem has always been in finding the commercial applications for it.

In what is, I think, an innovative change, there will be a new package of measures designed to help finance the innovation process which we know we need. An important source of patient or growth capital will be opened up with a change to regulations and to the tax system with a new ability on the part of banks to provide equity capital to their clients needing to fund business expansions.

Initially the investments are likely to be directed to firms with strong growth potential and turnovers between $1 million a year and $50 million a year. The new programs will upgrade the financial management skills of smaller and medium sized enterprises to prepare them better for raising debt or equity finance to make them investment ready.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Well, not exactly the sort of speech to rally the troops at Agincourt, and we did expect a big set piece after all the build-up.

Peter Pockley, science commentator, it's a difficult job to summarise such a long statement, isn't it? First the good news - what parts did you welcome?

PETER POCKLEY: Well, I think that the Prime Minister giving the statement was the most welcome thing of all. It did produce news about science, research and development, and business linkages for the whole of this week. It has dominated the political news for this week, and science and technology has been along with that. That must be a very big plus, indeed. If it had been produced at a lower political level, I don't think we would have heard anything like as much.

But the emphasis that the Prime Minister gave, as we heard in that cut, on the tax concessions and on the business linkages, that is the thing which really dominated the news. The science and technology was the lesser story.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: What about the chosen several of the co-operative research centres and, indeed, the science labs?

PAUL KEATING: Yes, well, there are seven visionary science projects, as he called them. There's another three innovation flagships, and there are five new co-operative research centres, adding up to, if you like, 15 new projects which the Government is funding and announced in this statement.

In the co-operative research centres, which has been a great success, established a few years ago under Prime Minister Hawke and Professor Ralph Slatyer as Chief Scientist, for the first time the Government has actually specified the areas in which those are going to be funded. Previously, scientists and their organisations applied for anything that interested them; now they've got to be very directed by the Government.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, what are they? They include sport and....

PETER POCKLEY: Yes, there's sports, science and medicine, advanced engineering, intelligent transport systems, textile technology, and building and construction technology. And the Government says these are part of sort of national priorities.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Well, one presumes they would have taken advice from their various science councils and not just made them up thinking 'Oh yes, we like sport. Let's do that'.

PETER POCKLEY: We trust so. The way in which those particular topics came up is unclear at this moment, but as for the visionary science projects and the innovation flagships, those were definitely as a result of applications directly to the Government. The visionary science projects in fact were originally called the 'Major National Research Facilities'. And it's not a new initiative; in fact, the applications have been under way for nearly two years now, since the project was first dreamt up. In fact, it's rather small beer. There's $62 million -sounds a lot - but it's spread over 10 years. That's only $6 million a year. And in fact, it isn't new money; it's old money which has been redirected into these particular projects.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: So, you're suggesting the whole thing is a bit mean?

PETER POCKLEY: The Government has not in fact injected more than a few million dollars altogether, additional into any science, research and technology facilities. The innovation flagships, the three of those in advanced mineral technologies, the maritime hydrodynamics testing facility and the nuclear magnetic resonance facility for testing for cancer, those are additional and probably are new money - $23 million over four years. Altogether it's very small indeed, and I think we have to look to see whether the Government is going to put more money into science leading up to the election with the savings you've mentioned.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Whilst talking about the good news, I suppose it's important to mention that we at the ABC also scored perhaps nearly $2 million to put our science programs and archives on line.

PETER POCKLEY: Yes, and that's a very good initiative. I know you and others have been pushing for this for some time. There's a terrific resource in ABC science programs, radio and television over the years, and bringing these to schools on line through the Internet and all of the information and technology, which was another very big push by the Government in this statement, I think is very good. It's not just symbolic. I think it's going to be very good for the education system and good for the ABC to have its programs better recognised in the school system.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Now as for the losers, one which featured on the front page of one of our national papers, yesterday, the ESO, not the English Symphony Orchestra, but the European Southern Observatory, $28 million it would have cost. And at first it's rather surprising - why should an innovation statement include astronomy, especially something connected to Europe?

PETER POCKLEY: Well, it goes back that the major National Research Facilities project was dreamt up a couple of years ago was cobbled together from various other departments, from the Australian Research Council and from the National Health Council .. Research Council, and from the Department of Industry, Science and Technology, including the CSIRO.

When the applications were called for, it was expected that they would have up to $120 million of funds to bid for, of which half was going to come from the Department of Finance. The rest was going to be shaved off from existing projects. As it turned out, the Department of Finance didn't come good with that money. They ended up with $62 million. And so a large application like the Australian application to go into the world's largest telescope in Chile, which was going to cost $28 million....

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Sounds confusing. In fact, the ESO, the European Space Observatory, is based in the southern hemisphere.

PETER POCKLEY: Is based in the southern hemisphere. It's the largest telescope construction in the whole world, taking advantage of the brilliant skies of the southern hemisphere, especially from Chile. And sharing in a major facility like this was a terrific boost for Australian astronomy and we were asked, actually, to be part of that by the European Southern Observatory organisation.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: And is it true we could have done this by not actually leaving home? You can connect to the observatory and do your watching of the sky by remote control from Canberra, from Sydney or Melbourne.

PETER POCKLEY: Exactly like Professor Jeremy Mould, who was the head of the application for this project, it does from the Hubble space telescope from his office in Canberra. That's exactly right - remote control now and modern telecommunications mean that you can do Australian astronomy using an observatory somewhere else. And they missed out. Only in the last few days, probably a week ago, did they realise that they'd missed out, and their money which was going to go to them has been re-allocated to other.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Well, Senator Peter Cook's office said that they couldn't spend what seemed to be half the amount of money on astronomy on one enterprise, which seemed to be foreign and seemed to be European. Any other major disappointments?

PETER POCKLEY: Well, I think that there were 16 altogether of the finalists of whom seven got funded in this major national research facility, the so-called 'visionary group'. So that was nine disappointments. Every one of those applications was excellent - top rate. There's no question this really generated some of the best minds in Australia, some of the best organisations. These are not start-up projects, though. These are ones which are based upon existing experience, expertise and talent. And in fact, that government is only funding the capital costs. It's the existing organisations have got to pick up the tab for what's called the 'infrastructure' - the salaries, the office space and all the rest of that. And that is the other big missing out in this statement - basic research, the infrastructure for scientists and technologists to study things for their own sake and come up with surprising results. The ideas, the creativity which is generated from basic research has received no boost in this statement at all.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Well, is that a surprise? An innovation statement by definition is applied, why should basic science be involved in this?

PETER POCKLEY: We had expected that this was going to be a science and technology policy statement within the innovation package. I think what we have is a series of projects in science and technology, but we don't yet have a national science policy which embraces, as the Japanese did last month, a basic science and technology attitude for the whole government. What the Japanese did last month was they passed what's called the 'basic law' - the first ever basic law on science and technology. And it commits the government of whatever political persuasion to supporting in increasing amounts basic science and fundamental research, curiosity-driven research. And Japan needs to boost that end of it for their very successful applied research.

And basic research, interestingly enough, was the topic of a major conference last week in Canberra sponsored by Nature magazine and the Australian National University, called 'Creativity'. Creativity, ideas, innovation, they're all part of the package. I have a feeling that this statement has missed out on that aspect of it. And if we might play for you, Robyn, a couple of grabs from a conference we did, the retiring - retiring this weekend actually - editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox, well-known to listeners of the Science Show, told us why he thought basic research was important.

JOHN MADDOX: I suggest that basic research is a bread and butter necessity for countries like Britain and Australia. First of all, it's the most economical way of training people in technical fields. If somebody has done a PhD degree, then he's done something that is quite remarkable. He has on his own confronted some problem about the natural world and has - if he succeeds - solved it. This is an unusual situation. It's a situation in which people are required to find an answer to a problem that has not previously been solved, and that experience in my opinion is the reason why people with research degrees are invaluable when eventually they find their way into other occupations than research, like working for a bank or working for an industrial company, or even perhaps being an accountant. But of course, the ideal is that these people, as many as possible, should stay in basic research to train their successors.

PETER POCKLEY: Now, the other speaker we had, Robyn, was Professor Bob May, well-known again to Australian scientists and to listeners of the Science Show. He's now the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, and he delivered a very strong plea for governments to fund basic research, and this is how he put it on our video conference.

BOB MAY: The world in which we live is so different from the world of the turn of the century that it really is literally beyond the wild imaginings of Jules Verne. Round the turn of the century, more than half the labour force was employed in agriculture or in fisheries. Even in the United Kingdom which rather led in the agriculture revolution, in the 1930s still more than a quarter of the labour forces was on the land. Today, in developed countries, in the United Kingdom, United States, only one, at most 2 per cent of the labour force is on the land and, yet, producing more food.

The advances in medicine derived from blue skies research, if you just take, for example, HIV. We would not have been able to understand a retro-virus like HIV had it not been curiosity-driven research, partly directed at cancer, but partly for its own sake, that provided an understanding that we would not have been able to have 20 years ago. And I think against that background that it's very strange that to many people science is seen as arcane, an aspect of high culture, the frontiers of the universe, the inner workings of the atom, the evolution of consciousness.

These are all parts of science that equally fundamental basic research is around us every day, in the home, in the workplace, in the supermarket. Our daily lives have been changed in ways which were unforeseen and were unforeseeable, in ways which were unplanned and which were unplannable as a consequence of blue skies, curiosity-driven research to change the daily lives of individuals and in so doing re-shapes the economic lives of nations. That's the reason wise governments must continue to invest in basic research.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Bob May the adviser to the Prime Minister of Britain, actually; the Australian who's telling the British nation why science is so important, not simply for the economy but for everyday life. And before him you heard Sir John Maddox, the retiring editor of Nature, retiring this week.

Peter Pockley, how would you sum it all up?

PETER POCKLEY: I think that the direction towards business, the attempt to define innovation, which is a rather nebulous concept, the Government's had a good crack at that, and I think by bringing it to national attention and even in an election atmosphere is a plus which science must now capitalise on. I think science needs now, that is, the scientific community needs now to persuade the Government to go one step further and use some of the savings that they're making with the tax concession changes for more basic research, more creative research, more long-term thinking about science policy for the country.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: A creative nation on basic science, but surely that couldn't get up before the election?

PETER POCKLEY: Well, I think that science can convey a tremendous number of positive messages to the electorate if it is presented well, and the idea of creativity in science is a very real one. Creativity leads to good ideas which lead ultimately to innovations, not in a straight line, but in the long run the nation benefits from it, and we're in a very good position to capitalise on our potential in Australia.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Peter Pockley, thank you very much.