11 March 2016
by Ben Eltham

Behind The Glossy Posters, Turnbull’s Ideas Boom Looks More Like A Bust

The government is spending millions to promote an ‘Ideas Boom’ after cutting funding that could actually make it work. Without a focus on the public interest and research for its own sake, new ideas won’t amount to much more than corporate profits.

Bright yellow posters appeared all over the country this week. They are part of the government’s $28 million campaign to push its innovation policy.

“Welcome to the most exciting time in Australia’s history,” the television commercial proclaims. “Welcome to the ideas boom.”

But look behind the glossy imagery, and the Ideas Boom looks more like a bust. A close examination of the Turnbull government’s research and innovation policies suggests that the Ideas Boom might be the last thing Australia needs right now.

Take the CSIRO. The government science agency is currently the subject of a Senate Inquiry, after huge cuts to the CSIRO’s climate science, oceans, atmosphere, land and water divisions. The cuts are being championed by CEO Larry Marshall as a way of repositioning the agency to meet future challenges, but the international climate science community is horrified.

The Senate Inquiry heard disturbing evidence from veteran CSIRO scientists. “Our reputation is now trashed internationally,” respected scientist John Church told one hearing.

Church has been in the CSIRO for forty years. Now he thinks Australia risks losing the world-renowned scientists we have recruited to study climate change. “We could not attract those people again at this time,” Church said. “It would require a very significant new investment to convince leading international people to come to Australia.”

Scientist Richard Matear told the Senate Inquiry that the CSIRO was effectively getting out of scientific research for the public good. “This commercialisation of CSIRO, it might be good for CSIRO, but I’d like us to step back and think about what it means for the nation,” Matear urged. “Is it in the long-term interest of Australia to get out of public-good science?”

“I think not, that’s why I’m speaking here.”

The cuts to the CSIRO’s climate science capabilities are so serious, thousands of scientists from all over the world have signed a petition against them. The New York Times wrote an editorial. But the CSIRO’s management has ploughed ahead. The Senate committee also heard that the CSIRO was so worried about the plans to retrench scientists, senior managers used private emails to communicate in the run-up to the announcement. It shows us just how toxic the working environment at CSIRO has become.

But the CSIRO is hardly the only part of Australia’s innovation system in trouble. Universities are also struggling.

One of the little-recognised aspects of Turnbull’s innovation policy was to change the way the federal government distributed research funding to universities. The so-called “block” grants to university research funding will be tweaked to change the way money is distributed.

Critically, universities will no longer receive revenue related to their output of research publications, like books and peer-reviewed journal articles.

This sounds like a minor change, but it could have a devastating impact on university research, especially in the humanities. Universities will now be rewarded only for the amount of research revenue they generate, not for the production of research itself. The implications are serious, especially for fields of research that are non-commercial but in the best interests of the community.

As humanities academics know, it is very difficult to generate research income in some fields. Disciplines like philosophy, sociology, history, literature and the study of religion are not the sort of areas that can easily generate funding from industry, yet they are critical to our understanding of human society.

The same is true for many fields of science, where research is carried out for the public good rather than commercial benefit. A good example is environmental science, which generates few start-ups or tech billionaires, but is vital to the future well-being of the nation.

Similar examples abound. Public health, pure mathematics, entomology, toxicology, oceanography and many other disciplines do not readily produce commercially viable products. But they are vital to Australia’s future.

Entomology – the study of insects – has long been a poor cousin to the sexier and better-funded health sciences. Now that the world’s honey bees are dying, researchers are scrambling to figure out why.

Religious studies is another neglected discipline. It receives a tiny fraction of Australian research funding. Yet religion underlies the belief structures of the vast majority of humans alive today. It is also a key aspect of terrorism.

Removing publication outputs from the block funding metric could see universities get rid of humanities research altogether. As world-famous cultural studies researcher Graeme Turner told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Gina McColl, “the change to the research block funding will massively multiply this disadvantage [to public-good research].”

“It will dramatically affect the amount of money [the humanities disciplines]can generate for the university, and therefore dramatically affect the level of commitment the universities have to maintaining them,” Turner added. He called the change “absolutely disastrous for the future of HASS (humanities and social science) in Australia.”

The concentration on commercial outcomes in public research worries many scientists and researchers, because it contradicts decades of evidence that pure research has big flow-on benefits.

Many of the world’s most important technologies were developed by scientists working on other projects, or simply out of sheer curiosity. The internet, for instance, was succoured by US defence funding, while the double helical structure of DNA was worked out by James Watson and Francis Crick with simple cardboard cut-outs that they moved around on their desk.

When Watson and Crick published their paper on the structure of DNA, there was no immediate commercial benefit to their research. The same was true of the researchers who worked on early studies of nuclear magnetic field gradients. Only decades later would the physics of nuclear magnetic resonance become the basis of a health imaging revolution that sparked off the multi-billion dollar MRI industry. As the University of Sydney’s Cristobal dos Remedios pointed out in a 2011 paper on the value of fundamental research, “none of the early scientists had any idea that their work would lead to medical imaging technology of such practical significance.”

There is no doubt that Australia needs to do better on translating research into commercial enterprise and world-beating technologies. But the commercial focus of the “ideas boom” policy may actually be counter-productive.

A 2015 report by the Council of Learned Academies suggested a suite of policy reforms that could provide better incentives for universities and business to collaborate. But the take-home message is not that universities need to do better.

Rather, the problem is Australian business.

The Learned Academies report points to a World Economic Forum study, which “ranked Australia relatively poorly by the standards of developed countries in terms of business sophistication.” According to the study, Australia ranked 27th in the world, well below the OECD average.

Australian business has low levels of R+D investment compared to other countries. Our managers rank middle-to-bottom when it comes to measures of innovation in business practice. When it comes to the number of service and manufacturing companies in our economy that invest in R+D, Australia ranks second-bottom in the OECD. When it comes to firms collaborating with universities to undertake research, Australia ranks last.

Why is this? One reason may be the make-up of Australian managerial elites.

Take a look at the faces on the board of nearly any ASX200 company. They are almost universally old, white and male. Women make up just 21 per cent of the directorships on Australian ASX200 companies. 24 companies have no female directors at all. The statistics for other measures of diversity, such as race and language, are even worse. Hardly any Australian business leaders have studied science.

If Australia really wants an ideas boom, we need to do better than glossy photos and a paint-by-numbers television campaign. We need to think seriously about innovation across the full range of human creativity, not just in STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine). Most importantly, we need to invest.

The most dishonest part of the government’s Ideas Boom campaign is in the funding. The Abbott government cut more than $3 billion from research and innovation funding after between 2013 and 2015. The Innovation Statement restored just over one third of that – around a billion dollars.

So I’ve got an idea for the ideas boom: what if Malcolm Turnbull restored research funding back to the level it was at when Labor left office? That $28 million on glossy advertising would be a good place to start.