Credit: CSIRO

Australian scientists welcome new government's $1 billion ‘ideas boom’

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Scientists at Australia’s premier science agency are breathing a sigh of relief. After losing U.S. $84 million in funding and 1400 jobs since 2013, the new government will hand the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) a welcome U.S. $166 million.

It’s part of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s AU$1 billion (U.S. $730 million) signature National Innovation and Science Agenda, announced today in Canberra, and billed as an “ideas boom.” The science community welcomed the strategy for reversing the deep cuts made by previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Turnbull replaced fellow Liberal Party member Abbott in the top job last September in an unceremonious palace coup.

It’s a “turning point,” says Les Field, the Australian Academy of Science’s Secretary for Science Policy. The renewed government focus on science and innovation means “we can grow an economy based on our outstanding science,” he adds. Australia's economic performance has plummeted since the 2008-2009 global financial crises and the drop in the value of natural resources such as coal.

The new strategy contains 24 initiatives spanning a range of government departments. The measures are aimed at securing the future of research infrastructure, building support for science, technology, and engineering in schools, and increasing Australia’s low level of collaboration between government research agencies and industry. It’s a “game-changer,” says Jim Piper, president of Science and Technology Australia, an umbrella group representing 68,000 scientists and engineers.

It’s also a challenge. A recent report by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science’s chief economist noted that Australia performs well on measures of research quality, ranking 10th out of 37 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In contrast, it ranks last out of 26 OECD nations on collaboration between businesses and public research bodies.

Incoming chief scientist Alan Finkel  has described Australia as possessing an entrenched “fear of failure” that hinders private sector investment in innovation. To help combat this national risk aversion, Turnbull’s strategy emphasizes measures aimed at encouraging small high-tech ventures, including tax advantages for early-stage investments, changes to bankruptcy laws, and crowd-funding activities.

With a newly created special cabinet committee overseeing the new government agenda, will Australia become Silicon Valley South? Turnbull says “Yes!” Turnbull kick-started his own $150 million fortune with a $360,000 investment in an Internet startup venture.