The federal government is anxious to continue to project its commitment to innovation, but the spending contained in this year’s budget is nothing if not modest.
It is particularly dismal in light of the decision to cut back on the R&D tax concession, which is the single biggest innovation incentive.
One of the initiatives for innovation trumpeted in the budget is effectively unfunded. As part of the government’s grandiose-sounding “Australian Technology and Science Growth Plan”, the government will spend a measly $1 million to “support a review of existing domestic and international measures of innovation”.
In other words, an audit of data measures. The cost of the review, designed to ensure “that innovation is accurately measured in Australia”, will be met from the internal resources of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.
Another measure contained in the Australian Technology and Science Growth Plan is $160 million to improve satellite (GPS) navigation in the bush.
It has effectively been shoehorned into innovation and was previously referred to as the National Positioning Infrastructure Program announced two years ago. This is not to suggest this spending will not foster some innovation, but it is hardly an innovation measure.
A further $64 million has been allocated to improve the accuracy of GPS on smartphones and other mobile devices to deliver an accuracy of 3—5 centimetres in near real time in regional and metropolitan areas. The budget also allocated $37 million over three years for the Digital Earth Australia program to improve the quality of satellite data.
A more direct innovation spend is the $29.9 million over four years allocated to improving capability in artificial intelligence and machine learning. The allocation will be spent on increasing funds to the Cooperative Research Centres Program, and for AI and machine learning focused PhD scholarships.
The government has also committed to a Technology Roadmap, Standards Framework and an AI ethics framework. However, it is hardly likely to be a sufficient investment to prove a game changer.
In an even more token effort, the budget has allocated $4.5 million over four years to encourage more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. The funding will apparently progress the Women in Science strategy and the work of a Women in STEM Ambassador.
Other measures include the long overdue expenditure of $70 million to replace and upgrade the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre. The budget included an allocation of $41 million over four years for the establishment of a National Space Agency and there was $600,000 for a business case to modernise Australia’s patents management system.