Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Generation Breakthrough

By Simon Grose

The latest take on innovation policy actually offers something new.

There’s an old saying along the lines: “If you don’t innovate you die”. So it is appropriate that innovation policy gets a regular shake-up to keep it alive.

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb has given it his big shot with a list of five “top breakthrough actions”. Sounds exciting.

The main proposal would be to establish a “business-led” Australian Innovation Council. to replace the Innovation Australia Board, which already has a preponderance of private sector members. It was set up in 2007 by merging the former Industry Research and Development Board and the Venture Capital Registration Board.

“Breakthrough”? Maybe an evolutionary step, or just a letterhead-changing exercise. Its remit is couched in the usual aspirational innovation jargon, with a bit of a tweak towards picking winners (e.g. “identify areas of market demand for innovation”).

The sole major change would be structural: “consolidate existing programs – Enterprise Connect, Commercialisation Australia, Cooperative Research Centres, AusIndustry programs, and others… and administer them using the existing infrastructure and expertise”.

That would make it a big unit, an applied research funder to rival the basic research funders in the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Another idea is a pilot program of Innovation Vouchers. This seems to be a morphing of the Enterprise Connect program. Instead of a grant you would get a voucher, and one of 20 “flying squads” would come knocking. These would comprise two people, one with a recent PhD in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) and one with a recent MBA. They would turn up in suits armed with iPads and smartphones, and spend up to a month assessing how you should spend your voucher.

This could justify the “breakthrough” hype. Current business mentoring support generally relies on old guys and girls who have a track record in business and want to put something back. Tossing fresh graduates into that role changes the game. What they lack in worldly knowledge they would make up for with enthusiasm – and they would learn heaps after spending their first year embedded in around ten different small businesses.

Along the way they would make connections and eventually leave the flying squad to join one of their clients, get a steadier job with an existing enterprise, or set up their own show.

This chimes with another proposal to raise to 50% the proportion of STEM undergraduates who spend a semester working in a business as an accredited part of their courses. It estimates this would involve up to 30,000 students each year.

What emerges is a plan for a generational cultural change that would promise dividends in the longer term. A slow, fundamental breakthrough.

That’s innovative.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (sciencemedia.com.au).