It’s the first anniversary of the Government’s ambitious $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) and the verdict is mixed.
The Government believes it has “come a long way in a year” and that “elements of the agenda have taken shape”, including one of the bigger ticket items – the CSIRO innovation fund – which managed to scrape its launch just inside NISA’s first year.
But ask opposition spokesman for innovation, industry, science and research Kim Carr’s for his assessment, and the picture is slightly different: the “2015 version of NISA blew hard” – he says – “with little detail and not nearly enough funding.”
The reality is that NISA’s first year of operation probably falls somewhere between those two points.
The Government’s assessment is certainly a more subdued take than the bullish innovation and “ideas boom” pitch that it took to this year’s federal election.
The election result left NISA’s future uncertain.
“The policy suite, including incentives for start-ups, research and collaboration, might have been worthy and necessary, but as a key plank in the Coalition’s re-election pitch, there is growing consensus it was a failure,” Fairfax opined post-election.
“The view inside and outside party ranks is that the PM’s excitement was not shared by voters, particularly in marginal suburban and regional seats.”
“Innovation politics had paid out some harsh lessons for the Coalition,” Australian Centre for Innovation executive director Ron Johnston said in The Conversation.
“It seems the message of an exciting future through innovation and high-tech start-ups has palpably failed to engage the Australian community.”
The election hangover forced Malcolm Turnbull to shake up ministerial representation for innovation.
The Government would ultimately recommit to NISA, albeit in a somewhat rebooted form. Innovation Minister Greg Hunt in August laid out plans for a second and third stage of NISA, as well as well as a broader definition of innovation in a bid to shore up support from the business sector.
However, a further revamped NISA has been rumoured for months, and Carr speculates that it could come later this month when Treasury lays out the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO) on December 19.
The Government did manage a late flurry of activity around the present NISA over the past week.
On Sunday December 4, it managed to see the CSIRO Innovation Fund launched.
The fund is designed to “support co-investment in new spin-out and start-up companies, and SMEs engaged in the translation of research generated in the publicly-funded research sector.”
The Government chipped in $70 million from its $1.1 billion NISA warchest; another $30 million will be drawn from royalties received by the CSIRO for its wireless LAN patents, and the remaining $100 million from “additional private sector investment”, though it was not clear if this had been secured.
CSIRO said that veteran venture capitalist Bill Bartee would lead the fund’s operations, while “additional management team members” would be added in the first quarter of 2017.
The Government found a further $3.9 million this week to pump into 24 projects designed to encourage more women to develop skills in STEM.
It has sporadically funded programs since the election, including a $23 million Incubator Support Program, and $25 million towards the development of quantum computing.
In addition, the Government has set up Innovation and Science Australia (ISA), a statutory body “tasked with providing independent advice on innovation, science and research to support government policy making.”
ISA is known to be formulating a long-term strategic plan for the innovation system, though observers of that process are concerned the activity is occurring outside of government.
Whether or not the $1.1 billion NISA program has hit the kind of heights that it promised, most in the industry believe the focus on innovation needs to be retained, if not rebooted to take into account the learnings of the first year.
“If innovation was running for office, how would she campaign now?” Innovation Clearinghouse CEO and founder Sandy Plunkett opined in the Australian Financial Review post-election.
“How would she showcase herself to all Australians, not just to a merry band of tech true believers?
“How would she remake her image from an over-exposed, little-understood, irritating noun to a high-powered verb, a candidate of action and empathy?”
With MYEFO approaching, we may not have to wait too long to find out what this kind of innovation remake might look like.
“A second run can put this right if it swings the pendulum back to the centre, provides much-needed funding — with detailed certainty — and addresses the significant cultural challenges in the science and research sector,” Labor’s Kim Carr opined in The Australian to coincide with NISA’s one-year anniversary.
“It is not easy, and it will cost money, but the nation absolutely needs it. There is no time to lose.”