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Two Tales from the City

By Simon Grose

The Nobel Laureate and the Minister choose different drinks at the Australian Innovation Bar.

Recently Canberra’s inner halls heard two divergent takes on Australia’s ability to translate research into commerce.

At an event hosted by the Governor-General at Government House and moderated by Ken Henry, the lead author of the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, Nobel Laureate Prof Brian Schmidt’s glass was half empty. The sole journalist invited to the “high-level meeting of scientists, academics, industry chiefs, politicians and public servants” reported that “while Australia boasts world-class university research, it is below average on the thing that drives growth – innovation. It is the gap between the lab and the market that Professor Schmidt believed was a critical reform topic in the Asian Century.”

Meanwhile, over at the Mural Hall in Parliament House, the glass held by Science and Research Minister Chris Evans had a head on it. He was launching a study which estimated that since 1991 two-thirds of our Cooperative Research Centres have delivered “direct economic impacts” worth $8.58 billion, with a further $5.87 billion forecast by 2017. “Not only are we a mining nation, we are also a smart nation,” Evans said, and our “world-class CRCs have the critical mass of resources to create new industries”.

Who to believe: Schmidt or Evans?

Both messages have long pedigrees in commentary on what Evans’ predecessor, Senator Kim Carr, called our “innovation system”. Schmidt’s is more likely to come from a scientist, while Evans was not the first Minister to talk up the returns from public investment in R&D.

One frets about being left behind as whatever inventions we can muster are commercialised overseas; the other cites home-grown success stories and proudly beats his chest. Both betoken the national insecurity reflected in titles like Clever Country and Backing Australia’s Ability for the research funding programs of the Hawke and Howard eras.

Both are also a bit “hyperbowl”, as the PM would say. Schmidt reportedly believes that “apart from the health sector, researchers and industry tended not to collaborate in Australia”. This strangely ignores strong cultures of collaboration in areas like mining and agriculture, commercial hits like CSIRO’s wi-fi technology, or the CRC program itself, which has pushed researchers and industry together across a wide range of sectors.

And Evans’ study estimates that the CRC program’s net economic benefit exceeds its costs by a factor of 3.1 (unspectacular, and anything less should be disappointing) while overall contribution to annual GDP growth was a small but perfectly formed 0.03%. Around 45% of the total estimated benefits came in agriculture, and these estimates were mediated by the Computable General Equilibrium model and the Monash Multi Region Forecasting model so should be taken with a pulse of salinity.

Reality lies somewhere in between. So it is when it comes to messages delivered in Canberra.

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