The appointment of Senator Arthur Sinodinos as the new Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science means there have now been four ministers responsible for science in Australia in the little more than three years since the Coalition won government in 2013.
Five, if you were to count nobody as a minister for the period from September 2013 to December 2014 when there was no minister for science. In fact, nobody would be the longest serving of them.
This kind of churn reflects poorly on government. It is ripe for a few episodes of the ABC satirical comedy Utopia, and given the National Science and Innovation Agenda (NISA), we are talking about nation building.
More order, less chaos
Despite the constant change the government seems now to be generating order in the science and industry portfolio rather than chaos.
Whether it is individual ministers or their departments is not easy to tell. But the government seems much clearer on its approach to and support for science, industry and innovation.
The previous Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, was the most vocal and energetic advocate for a strategic approach to science and innovation, for better government co-ordination and for holistic policies that would engage science and industry in the national interest.
It would appear that ministers and departments have got behind this agenda, and by working with it have avoided the potential incoherence that multiple changes of minister might bring.
As Science Minister, Greg Hunt engaged the sector energetically, and sought to evolve the science and innovation system with better structures and better support.
Challenges for the new minister
Sinodinos has a good opportunity to maintain this sense of direction.
The announcement of the latest round of Cooperative Research Centres before February would be a good start. The review of R&D tax concessions is on the minister’s desk awaiting a response.
It was understood that Hunt intended to make a statement on science and industry in the next few months. It would be a great thing if Sinodinos could see that through.
Sinodinos is on record in parliament advocating the path to increased productivity through more investment in technology and innovation, and better commercialisation mechanisms. He appears to embrace the general ideas of NISA.
But it is clear that at the last election voters were not persuaded that science and innovation would deliver them the much promised “jobs and growth”.
Therefore the biggest political challenge for Industry, Innovation and Science is to negotiate a climate in which research, education and industry demonstrate collectively to the voting public that they do.
It is worth repeating over and over that an economy capable of generating and implementing commercialisable ideas doesn’t arise by having research done somewhere, the ideas picked up by someone else, and the magical appearance of a workforce with the skills to develop them.
An innovation based economy works through an evolving interplay between research, innovation and education.
More than two thirds of Australia’s scientific research occurs in its universities. The funding arrangements for research in universities are one of the biggest impediments to a productive Australian innovation system.
The underfunding of research creates significant distortions to the whole system of research, education and industry engagement.
The government missed a huge opportunity just before Christmas with its plan to take the A$3.7bn Education Investment Fund away from the university sector to pay down debt and fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Properly designed, a research infrastructure fund built on this money could have a massive influence on the university research system. The Clark Infrastructure Review and the Go8 both proposed such use of the Fund.
Perhaps Sinodinos could consider it both a challenge and an opportunity to turn this decision around, if only in part, and bring in a new force to support the growth of Australian science and the development of its innovation system.
Authors: John Rice, Adjunct Professor, University of Adelaide