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An open-pit uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. Australia's mining sector will benefit under the new Industry Growth Centres Initiative.

An open-pit uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. Australia's mining sector will benefit under the new Industry Growth Centres Initiative.

Alberto Otero García/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Australia's new innovation agenda leaves little room for science

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia’s scientific leaders are cautiously hopeful that the government’s new innovation policy marks a more positive stance on research.

 “Science is the center of industry policy under the Abbott government,” Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane—who has responsibility for science—told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio after the release Tuesday of its Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda.

The 132-page report sets out four goals to foster innovation, including a better business environment, a more skilled labor force, and improved infrastructure. But science is mentioned in only two of the six initiatives to be implemented over the next 18 months. Macfarlane says the Industry Growth Centres Initiative will see the government invest AU$188.5 million over 4 years to establish “corporate entities” in five areas where Australia has what he calls a “natural advantage.” Three reflect the country’s traditional strengths in mining, energy resources, and agribusiness, while advanced manufacturing and medical technology represent areas in which the government hopes to stimulate growth.

The government also plans to spend an additional AU$12 million in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. As part of this initiative, the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, which is 17 years old, will be replaced with a Commonwealth Science Council (CSC) chaired by the prime minister.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb “welcomed” the additional STEM funding, an area that he highlighted in his 2 September strategy document Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Chubb also backs the move to identify areas of comparative advantage and sees the new council as an opportunity for Australia to develop a “strategic, whole-of-government” approach to science policy.

Chubb’s comments reflect the careful response from community leaders. They quietly express hope that the agenda is a move away from the government’s previous hard stance on science, including the failure to appoint a dedicated science minister, closure of the independent Climate Commission, and an AU$420 million cut to the nation’s lead research agencies, among them the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Les Field, the Australian Academy of Science’s secretary of science policy, says he “welcomes” the focus on STEM skills and establishment of the CSC. “Anything which aligns science more closely with industry has got to be a big plus, especially when this is an area where Australia traditionally struggles,” he said.

Similarly, Catriona Jackson, CEO of industry body Science & Technology Australia, says “we hope” the agenda is the first of further announcements supporting a “prosperous, knowledge-based economy.” Still, Jackson notes the tight science budget in recent years. “We know thousands of practicing scientists are out of work.” 

Some science and innovation experts say the initiative reflects the government’s failure to address the country’s long-term needs. While he notes that as a result of a report by the Business Council of Australia the government recognized the lack of a science and innovation strategy, Roy Green of the University of Technology, Sydney, says the agenda is a “dismal” series of “ad hoc” announcements, none of which is adequately funded.