Former Innovation and Science Australia board member and tech industry veteran Daniel Petre has offered a withering assessment of the federal government’s strategic innovation planning and its commitment to building new tech-based industries for the future.
The AirTree Ventures co-founder was a foundation board member at Innovation and Science Australia from its formation as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda in late 2015 until November last year, when he stepped down.
Through this period, under then-chairman Bill Ferris, Mr Petre was deeply involved the production of the ISA 2030 strategy, which was literally a plan for Australia to thrive during the current period of dramatic technology change.
The government’s response to the ISA’s 30 recommendation was – at best – tepid. But it’s a moot point, because the report – which was two years in the making at a cost of more than a million dollars, has sunk without a trace.
Mr Petre clearly has mixed views about his time on the ISA board. It was an honour to be asked, and there was some good work performed. The 2030 report “nails it,” he says, in articulating Australia’s areas of specific need. And the recommendations deserved better treatment.
But the experience was ultimately saddened by the ambivalence of government, and frustration at the revolving door of industry ministers – six in three years – and the unwillingness of government leadership to apply any urgency to innovation policy. Or even to prepare the rest of Australia for the dramatic changes to the way we live and work that are surely coming.
In this Commercial Disco podcast election special, Mr Petre says the treatment of R&D spending, and in particular the decision to strip $2.4 billion from the R&D tax incentive and return it to general revenues was “appalling”.
“It is quite clear that technology is disrupting every job, in every industry, in every country,” Mr Petre said. “That’s the increasingly impressive curve of innovation and of adoption.”
“The core of technology is innovation, and the core of innovation is R&D,” he said.
“And what we see is every other OECD country – whether it’s the US or China, or Britain or France, or the EU as a group – pouring money into R&D, into artificial intelligence and machine learning, realising that these technologies are disrupting their industries and their countries.
“At the same time, Australian politicians say ‘we’re not going to talk about innovation because it doesn’t resonate with the man in the street.”
“So rather than say ‘hey, we need to help people to understand that this is going to fundamentally change Australia’s society’, they prefer to pull back and have the easy conversation about things that are not important or are not long term,” Mr Petre said.
So what’s on the election wish-list for Daniel Petre? He names three areas: First, better treatment for startups under the R&D Tax Incentive; Secondly, please fix skilled migration; Thirdly, a general education of the population that R&D is the Holy Grail, and is a wealth contributor.
“A bright spot is that there is a bunch of startups that [AirTree] and Square Peg and Blackbird and others have invested in three or four years ago that are now multi-hundred million dollar companies,” he said.
“So this is working. We are creating lots of jobs, national wealth and people who can do the right thing by their fellow Australians. So don’t fuck that up.” Fixing the R&D Tax Incentive in relation to startups is a big part of this.
The second thing is in relation to fixing skilled migration in a targeted way.
“Yes it would be lovely to have kindergarteners doing some programming. But if we’ve got companies that need to hire a data scientist and there aren’t any, we can’t afford to wait five years or ten years or longer [for supply to meet demand],”Mr Petre said.
“Allowing companies to bring in individuals who can create massive leverage by training others in their skills attributes [is important],” he said. “Right now, the system for skilled migration is broken.”
There is another area that remains a potentially bright spot, if government – whoever it is after the election – can find a way to lead the conversation credibly, and that’s in health.
The ISA 2030 report put forward a “moon shot” goal to make Australia the healthiest nation on earth. It is a lofty goal that has not been well communicated.
The back story is all about the Australia’s centralised health system and the longitudinal data that this has enabled.
Australia has world class researchers in heath. The better use of health data should enable a new wave of innovation in health, with the direct benefit to Australians in better outcomes, but also delivering the potential for valuable and exportable health products and services.
“We can take that wealth of expertise and data, and create health services that creates not only the healthiest nation on earth but also services that we can export.
“And there are not a lot of countries that could pull that off. The US would find it difficult because it doesn’t have a national data set,” Mr Petre said. While the UK might, because of its National Health Service, there are few others.
“This was one of those instances where Australia had an unnatural advantage, both to help produce better outcomes for Australia but also new export income,” Mr Petre said.
Whatever happens in the next five weeks, Mr Petre is not hopeful of an innovation-led debate or a realistic discussion about how the country will prepare for the looming impact technology will have on jobs across the economy.
“I would only hope that after the election is over, that we can have a properly constructed and informed debate about the future of our country and what will actually move the dial of our standard of living forward – and what won’t.”