Shorten offers big lift in science

Avatar photo

James Riley

Opposition leader Bill Shorten would return science to the centre of government decision-making and drive central efforts to lift the nation’s spending on research and development by billions of dollars annually to 3 per cent of the GDP by 2030.

In a landmark speech to the Australian Academy of Sciences in Canberra on Wednesday night, Mr Shorten also outlined a plan to resurrect the Hawke-Keating era model for a Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Innovation that would develop the big national research goals, with a National Scientific Expert Panel to provide advice on the day-to-day policy issues across the economy.

A future Shorten government would undertake “once in a generation, root and branch” review of research in Australia, with six of the nation’s top scientists – including former Australian Government Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb – already named to the review panel, six months out from the election.

Mr Shorten railed against the “anti-science attitude in the current political discourse.” The sector was “under siege from funding cuts and ideological crusades.

But it was Australia’s declining investment in research and development from both the public sector and business that should be ringing alarm bells, and which most threatened Australia’s long term well-being.

Australia’s gross expenditure on R&D was 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2015, according to OECD numbers, compared to 4.3 per cent in Israel and 4.2 per cent in Korea, the innovation-intensive economies that Australia has sought to emulate.

“If I am elected Prime Minister, I want to set an ambitious national target for Australia,” Mr Shorten said. “From both our public and private sectors collectively, I want to see us have 3 per cent of GDP devoted to research and development by 2030.”

“And to achieve the goal and to maximise the potential of our people and our nation we will need strong links between private industry and the publicly-funded research agencies,” he said.

“I am deeply disturbed that private sector research and development has fallen 12 ½ per cent in the past five years.

“Labor will go to the next election presenting to the Australian people for their judgement a clear plan to boost collaboration in private and public sector research and development and to improve commercialisation.”

Lifting Australia’s investment in R&D as a proportion of GDP from 1.9 per cent to 3 per cent will cost many billions of dollars annually, and tens of billions between now and 2030.

Hitting that target of 3 per cent would put Australia just behind Japan (3.3 per cent) and just ahead of Germany and the United States (2.9 per cent and 2.8 per cent respectively). This would assume that other nations’ do not also dramatically increase research spending, which is a lot to assume, given the competitive global environment right now.

Shadow industry minister Kim Carr, who took questions with Mr Shorten at the Academy of Science event last night, said the R&D tax incentive remained the biggest lever for government to drive increased research investment, with a bolstered Cooperative Research Centre program and revamped Researchers in Business program likely.

A mechanism for a “collaboration premium” to be offered through the RDTI, and increased direct research grants were on the table. The government had walked away from its own expert review of the R&D tax system, Senator Carr said, sending a terrible message to both public researchers and the private sector.

“We’re very disturbed by what’s happened with the government review there, where they’ve sent across the Chief Scientist [Alan Finkel] and the head of Treasury [John Fraser] and the head of the Innovation board [Bill Ferris] to come forward with some recommendations, only to have those recommendations ignored – except to take $2.4 billion from the [R&D tax] program,” he said.

Mr Shorten said his proposed Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Innovation was the model that had bequeathed the R&DTI scheme, the CRC program, as well as the National Science and Technology Centre, Questacon.

The Council would be made up of the Prime Minister (Chair), a Cabinet level Minister with responsibility for Science (deputy Chair), the Minister for Education, the Minister for Health, Australia’s Chief Scientist (Executive Officer), five eminent and practicing scientists, social scientists or science educators (including at least one from thea humanities or social sciences), and four eminent business representatives.

The Council would be supported by a National Scientific Expert Panel which would provide policy advice on topics that affect the lives of Australians in the present and in the decade ahead.

Labor would work with the the Australian Academy of Science to shape the form and function of this council – but it would be expected to drive more directly into policy development – particularly on vexing big picture social and economic issues like climate change and energy.

“Too often, in current government practice, standard operating procedure is to hand over buckets of taxpayer cash to a handful of private consulting firms, to outsource the thinking,” Mr Shorten said.

“We’ve outsourced the brain of government to expensive consultants,” he said.

The proposed Review of Research to be conducted by Ian Chubb would look at the coherence of the Australian research framework, and would borrow for its terms of reference from similar efforts conducted in recent years in the UK and Canada.

The review would focus on international best practice in organising our research system and the need to maintain our capacity for basic and translational research.

Mr Shorten named an advisory board for the review that includes Professor Christobel Saunders from the University of Western Australia, Professor Emma Johnston from UNSW, Professor Karen Hussey from the University of Queensland, Phil Clark of the JP Morgan Advisory Council, and Professor Glyn Davis from the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU.

Meanwhile, just hours before the Opposition leader outlined plans for a Council on Science and Innovation, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans to restructure the Commonwealth Science Council.

Mr Morrison said the National Science and Technology Council would become the peak advisory body to the Prime Minister and other Ministers on science and technology.

The Council would identify Research Challenge projects and oversee horizon-scanning reports into long-term science and technology priorities, providing expert advice on issues such as health, emerging technologies and education.

The Prime Minister would chair the Council, while Industry Minister Karen Andrews would act as deputy and up to six scientific experts would be appointed. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel would continue as Executive Officer, while the chief executive of the CSIRO Larry Marshall would join as an ex officio member.

The Commonwealth Science Council that the new council will replace has not met since September 2017.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment