Too late to innovate?

They found that it was likely to lead to a reduction of 13-14 per cent in R&D spending. It was a dismal prediction, coming as it did at a time when the United States and Europe were ramping their R&D spending to seize the momentum being unleashed by the dawning of the Internet era.

What the raw figures did not reveal, however, was the general malaise which then set in around business R&D. Companies simply treated it as discretionary spending, cut it to the bone, and let many of their best research people go.

And go they did, often lured overseas by the promise of a salary paid in US dollars, an opportunity to participate in a generous employee share ownership plan and a greater respect for the culture of innovation.

In Australia, too many corporations believed they were innovating by bolting a Web site onto their business - and a Web site dreamed up by the marketing department, at that. Genuine innovation become rarer; it did not die out, as public organisations such as CSIRO prove and private companies such as Bullant and Radiata attest, but it did become rarer.

For the last few years, Australia's politicians have paid scant attention to technology and innovation. Technology has been predominantly viewed as a way to cut costs or as a mechanism for liberating financial value through the sale of assets such as Telstra or telecommunications spectra, and through new economy company floats. It has not been promoted to business as a cornerstone of the nation's future, nor widely embraced as a tool for improving government services. Companies which have continued to grow their R&D spending have had few incentives and had to clamber over barriers such as a low Australian dollar making imported computer equipment and talent more expensive, and comparatively high telecommunications charges.

Blame cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Coalition. The Opposition parties have been limp in their response to this gradual erosion.

Now, with a Federal election looming, the major political parties have suddenly awoken to technology and the need for the rhetoric about a clever country to solidify into action.

The year was in its infancy when both the Government and the Opposition nominated innovation and technology as key issues for the upcoming election battle. The Opposition came out first with its concept of a Knowledge Nation (updated alliteration for the old Clever Country concept), which was again high on rhetoric and scant on detail.

One of the few details available at that time was that the Labor Party would establish the University of Australia Online, creating 100,000 new online university places by 2010. Certainly there is a role for online education, but it is doubtful that sending information gushing down telecommunications lines in the hope of filling up 100,000 more heads with data will deliver a "knowledge nation".

Days later, Prime Minister John Howard unveiled his innovation plan in the shape of the Backing Australia's Ability (BAA, presumably to take the electorate's mind off the BAS) programme.

BAA has the Government pledging to spend $2.9 billion over five years on education, research and tax concessions for business R&D with a focus on innovation.

This is because "Success in the 21st Century will depend predominantly on the innovative capacity of nations, their industries and their research and educational structures."

It will also depend on us. We must encourage children to participate in this new economy. Teach the youth that to be smart is to be cool, and that a good teacher is a more noble being than is the actor playing second-rate roles in third-rate soap operas. Innovation and competition should not be purely the province of track, field and pool rewards - but rewarded and respected in universities and laboratories and boardrooms. We should vote for those politicians who have a vision for how technology can shape our nation, and can enunciate it without the help of spinmeisters. We must span the digital divide.

Only then can we hope for real success in the 21st Century.

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