After more than a decade of large-scale investments in hard infrastructure, the Berejiklian Government in NSW is retooling for new levels of public investment into ‘soft’ infrastructure, with a heavy emphasis on building the state’s research translation capability.
The state’s Accelerating Research and Development Action Plan is a signpost for a new emphasis on future industries, and future job creation opportunities. It includes as core recommendations structural changes inside government that would oversee the research translation outcomes.
This would include the creation of an agency Research and Development NSW inside the Premier’s cluster in the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
The agency would operate in similar fashion to Infrastructure NSW, with a whole-of-government line of sight over major R&D investments across different clusters and agencies. In this structure, the Premier would take the lead role in research translation investments, with all the advantages that having a leader on board brings.
In this episode of the Commercial Disco, NSW MP Gabrielle Upton – who is the parliamentary secretary to the Premier – talks about the new urgency in government about R&D, brought about in part as a bi-product of the COVID pandemic.
Ms Upton, who led the taskforce investigating pathways to boosting R&D translation in NSW as a collaboration with the state’s chief scientist and engineer Hugh Durrant-White, says a COVID ‘silver lining’ was in the changes the pandemic had wrought on the way that government works.
The Accelerating R&D in NSW taskforce was appointed pre-pandemic in late 2019. It overlapped slightly with the release of the state’s 2040 Economic Blueprint, which was produced by the NSW chief economist from Treasury and released in 2019.
Ms Upton said the pandemic had highlighted areas that needed urgent attention, and opened up the political conversation toward a greater acceptance of soft infrastructure investment in areas like R&D.
Part of this is about solving supply chain issues, and part of it is about pushing longer term economic growth goals – and up to a point about a research-enabled economic recovery.
The Action Plan makes clear a recommendation that the state produce a Research Strategy for the state that has a 20-year horizon.
“We do need to develop a clearer view of where our strengths are in industry and where our strengths are in research,” Ms Upton said. “We need to be clearer about what we are going to pursue in terms of industry investment and also in terms of research, and research translation.”
Up to a point, this is about picking winners in terms of the areas of research translation that the state will make a priority. Of course, NSW has not been passive in this regard. The state has made large bets in terms of investments in quantum computing research.
The Action Plan calls out a number of areas of strategic importance where there is both some capability and the ability to improve research translation outcomes. These include general technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced manufacturing, as well as in defence and health.
But the specific audit of research strengths and capability – and where targeted investment would have the best return for research translation – a would be a part of the 20-year research strategy.
A key recommendation is that the Premier take the lead, and the new agency Research and Development NSW be set up within the Premier’s department. Gladys Berejiklian has publicly expressed a personal interest in improving the state’s R&D translation efforts.
“My argument to colleagues has always been that we’ve had a big focus on hard infrastructure over the term of our government – more than $100 billion invested over the forward estimates, and this [focus on R&D] is a compliment to that,” Ms Upton said.
“In fact, it is a long-term strategy for jobs growth – which state governments always want to increase – and is best delivered through investment in software infrastructure like research and development translation,” she said.
In advance of designing a 20-year R&D roadmap, the chief scientist and engineer together with the chief economist from Treasury are expected to host a conference or colloquium to bring together the various stakeholders across the state.
Ms Upton said the government’s precincts strategy would play a key role in building out the accelerated R&D and research translation strategy.
While there are about 35 nominated precincts across NSW of varying size and maturity, its three priority precincts are TechCentral around Central train station and targeting tech-enabled scale-ups; the greenfield Aerotropolis at Badgerys Creek that will target Advanced Manufacturing, AgTech, and defence, and the Westmead precinct focused on MedTech and BioTech.
Ms Upton says the aim is to attract significant research investment into the precincts, and to embed world-class university research capability into each.
“When we’re talking about these precincts, research translation must be a feature of investment attraction to those precincts,” Ms Upton said.
“We might like to have the big companies with the big names, but we must be asking them to invest in research activities at those locations and to spend equal or comparable dollar on research translation and their innovation creation,” she said.