The Good and the Bad of the Government Innovation Statement

The government made their much awaited innovation statement today. The content has been well-covered so I won’t rehash of what was said. However, there are a few things I think are important to come out of this statement that are worthy of mention.

 The Good:

 Someone had to start this conversation. The country needed permission, it seems, to actually start the discussion. At least we now have a sense of aspiration and it was badly needed. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy’s bold vision to “go to the moon in this decade” motivated a nation to unprecedented levels of innovation. A far-reaching vision can be a compelling catalyst, provided it’s realistic enough to stimulate action today.

 Today’s statement wasn’t a vision statement, but at least the government appears to have recognized that innovation is not one thing but a combination of incentives, along with collaboration between business government and universities. It appears the structures have been put in place to at least foster these networks.   The outcome of this will take a little time and the results are not guaranteed. But these are important first steps.

 The future will require our children to be more familiar with science and technology and the focus on this is a welcome development. However, there is also a need for cultural change in this area. I hear lots of pressure on kids to do well at school so they can become a doctor, lawyer or accountant. I suspect not as many parents would be as thrilled if their child said “I want to be a scientist”.

 The Bad:

 Why wasn’t the NBN part of the discussion? The National Broadband Network was meant to be the cornerstone of a new innovation nation. But it wasn’t even mentioned. Ignoring the vital part connectivity plays in allowing innovation to flourish is a big mistake. Dr Dan Swan, who leads a Byron Bay innovation hub commented today that until the connectivity issue is sorted, it is difficult to develop the great ideas coming out of the area.

 Why do we have to wait for politicians to kick off something this important? Relying on the government has got us nowhere. Go back to the ‘90s: less than two years after it was announced, with great fanfare, Keating’s Creative Nation was being dismantled by the Howard Government. More recently, Abbott tried to kill off NICTA and CSIRO, and announced coal as the future, while doing his best to kill off the entire renewable energy industry.

 In March this year, Christopher Pyne threatened to cut 1700 research jobs in our universities. At it’s most basic level, not knowing if you’ll have a job next year is not conducive to producing high-level research. Uncertainty is a known innovation killer. Finally, the Gonski report that was to properly fund our schools has never eventuated.

 It appears there is now a bi-partisan approach to innovation but who really trusts these people to stick to any program beyond one election?

 The embrace of risk comes from a culture that is unafraid of failure and learns from it. The U.S. has one of the most liberal environments for failing entrepreneurs: he or she can declare bankruptcy and start again. The government has already announced some changes here. But I have a sense that what will happen is instead of real entrepreneurs being encouraged to take a risk, a large number of opportunists will take advantage of the new rules and simply move from one liquidation to another, making what money they can along the way.

 Finally, the nation needs more than an innovation statement to address this issue. So much of the rhetoric that comes out of the government is anti-science and has been for years and it’s going to take a while to fix that mindset.

 To sum up, we now have a bipartisan approach to innovation, we have a conversation that has started and we have a pretty broad approach to addressing the issues. Time will tell if the changes we need will happen, but it’s a good start.

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