Reflections on the Budget – 2014

In every battle, there comes a point when the grinding of teeth, stomping of feet and name calling – the fun bit – has to end.  Reaching that point doesn’t mean They’re right, but rather that one is getting down to the business of the battle, channelling one’s efforts into something that will make a difference.  That first phase is just as important as the second – it’s where you build up the outrage, the energy-in-motion of emotion, to burn as fuel for those efforts. Linger there too long, however, and you’re likely to find yourself still holding the grenade when it goes off. 

Whether one believes the budget’s proposals regarding science and innovation funding are right or wrong (and this blog tries to be apolitical so far as that is possible), the reality is that they are likely here to stay.  Face it: if the Government are still advocating Medicare co-payments and defending the fairness of cuts to family tax benefits to family tax benefits, the likelihood there will be a reversal of publicly announced cuts to research funding is about as likely as Tony Abbott applying to join Greenpeace. Or Greenpeace accepting that application.

Let me be very clear: I am not suggesting for a moment that everyone in our Innovation industries resign themselves to accepting the Government’s policies as appropriate.  I am, however, suggesting that we need to move beyond the name calling, finger-pointing and even the admittedly occasionally almost Wildean-level witticisms, to fight the war and not just this battle.

Because if we get stuck here, being clever, we may lose sight of why being clever is important. I’ve seen and been part of enough budget cycles now to know that, irrespective of political persuasion, science/innovation/education/technology (you choose, depending on the portfolio issuing the press release) is integral to productivity and future economic growth. So yelling that back and forth at each other for the two months of Budget and Estimates processes generates nothing but hot air. Certainly not productivity, insight or anything else constructive.  But anyone who has ever invested in shares or poker machines can tell you, throwing money at a sure thing is no guarantee anything good will come of it.

“Critical areas of poor performance identified in this and previous reports, such as collaboration on innovation, business culture or business management skills, need new approaches.”

There is no question that as a nation we could spend more on R&D – the 2013 Australian Innovation System Report noted a historical high of $30.8B in 2010-11 which still only place Australia 11th among OECD countries – but spending on R&D doesn’t automatically equal an increase in productivity. That same report goes on to echo the sad refrain of at least a decade of reports, successive Chief Scientists and a variety of think tanks and consultants: Australia’s innovation output is not as high as it could be.  According to the report, “Critical areas of poor performance identified in this and previous reports, such as collaboration on innovation, business culture or business management skills, need new approaches.” (p11).

And that’s our grenade. We claim the standard of “the Age of Enlightenment” and the countless puns and quips on the politicians’ attempted soundbite “the Age of Entitlement”, but are we really worthy of it?? If one applies the scientific method, if we test the evidence, can we honestly say the $30.8 billion gross expenditure in R&D in Australia in 2010-11 achieved the best return to our economy in productivity improvements and enhancements? Cuts of themselves may not realize improvements either, but where are the alternative proposals? Where are the industry – our industry, not just the people who aren’t in government who pay for our work – proposals to improve collaboration, to work with employers to see more PhD graduates in Australian business, to broaden the funding pool to include sources of significance outside the public sector. Is it really enough to simply criticize the current Government for not having a science policy or is there something more constructive, more productive we could be doing than pointing fingers and scoring points? Isn’t innovation policy – science, technology, creativity in all it forms – too important to be left up to people who have to apply for their jobs every three years, and spend at least 18 months of that time either figuring out their job and trying to retain it?

What are we doing outside the budget cycle to live the reality that innovation should be funded as the cornerstone to our future that it is? To ensure that our ideas, our research, our insights make a measurable and identifiable difference to our community? To make sure we – each of us, individually – are the kind of investment that people want to throw support at, be that funding or otherwise?

By all means be angry at these cuts if that’s what you feel. If you still want to yell, by all means do. Just don’t let that be all that you do, unless you want to not only lose the battle, but also the war.

One thought on “Reflections on the Budget – 2014

  1. Pingback: 2014 Posts | Fiona McNee

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