Australian R&D Review
Australian R&D Review
Linking Australian Science, Technology & Business
The ARDR provides you with an overview of what is happening in the Australian innovation system across policy, science, technology and industry.

From lagger to leader

Innovation and Science Australia has released its Australia 2030: Prosperity through innovation strategic plan.

Two years after the release of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, Australia's innovation system still lags leading countries on many performance indicators. Innovation and Science Australia calls for a fresh effort to stimulate innovation in Australia. Its recommendations include a more targeted use of the Government's largest single investment in R&D, the R&D Tax Incentive, and National Missions - bold Government initiatives that are to facilitate cultural change.

January 2017 - Innovation and Science Australia's innovation strategy aims for Australia to become a top tier innovation nation by 2030.

Based on the innovation system's recent performance it is an ambitious goal. In the latest 2017 Global Innovation Index, which assessed 127 nations, Australia was ranked 23rd, down from 19th in 2016.

And even more worrying is the recent negative trend of Australia's gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) as a percentage of GDP - dragged down by a declining contribution from full story.

Make a difference, please

With the recently completed pilot of the ARC's Engagement and Impact Assessment (EIA) continues the push for cultural change within our universities.

Inducing a more entrepreneurial culture in our universities has been a major ambition of the current Australian Government.

Two years ago, the National Innovation and Science Agenda laid out a path for that change, within a broader framework of initiatives designed to boost innovation in Australia.

Last year the Government introduced new block grant allocations to overcome the limited cross-fertilisation between Australian businesses and universities.

To a large part they will now be based on income universities generate from competitive grants, and on income they receive from partners outside academic research, such as full story.

Shooting stars

Australian high-growth firms: worth the hype?

For the first time a Government report has focussed on Australia's high-growth firms, a subset of our businesses that drive employment and economic growth

December 2017 - With its focus on so called High-Growth Firms (HGFs), the 2017 installment of the Australian Innovation Systems Report series provides a timely warning for policy makers not to get ahead of themselves by focussing Government policies and support only on a small number of presumed drivers of employment and economic performance.

In 2015, a landmark report in the UK brought to popular attention that just 6% of the fastest growing firms in the UK accounted for more than half of national jobs growth. Across other developed economies between 2% and 4% of firms generate a disproportionately large share of net employment growth.

However, the broader social and economic benefits resulting from HGFs are actually not yet understood.

For example, in a feature article included in the report Paul D. Reynolds, a Visiting Research Scholar at the Queensland University of Technology, points out that there is the assumption that the creation of jobs within a cohort of HGFs reflects overall job creation in the economic full story.

Mixed picture with ugly streaks

ARDR analysis of the 2017-18 Australian Budget

The budget has surprised many commentators in being far less austere than its recent predecessors while the fundamentals of Australia's economy have actually not significantly changed.

There is optimism that global economic conditions are picking up, and in its wake this may boost Australia's performance.

According to IMF forecasts, global growth will increase to around 3.5% in 2018 and 3.75% by 2019, reversing a trend decline over recent years.

This outcome relies on China and the US performing as expected, which is far from certain.

In Australia, for all the talk of the Australian economy transitioning towards non-mining sectors, mining and agriculture continue to be the base of our prosperity - and both are notoriously volatile the analysis, including a comprehensive summary of budget items relevant to R&D.

If driving innovation is the aim, cutting foreign aid is a poor strategy

ARDR analysis of the 2016-17 Australian budget

The Australian Government has centred its election strategy around Australia transitioning to a knowledge-driven economy.

The most innovative countries have a long-term strategy towards exploring new markets for their products, including through developmental assistance.

Yet, against global trend, the budget will further reduce Australia's already low level of foreign aid.

May 2016 - Remember the Super Science Initiative? Now those were the days. Announced in 2009, endowed with $1.1 billion, and a myriad of initiatives across the innovation system it was to heave us well and truly into the ranks of the world's innovation leaders.

Fast forward a few years (and a few governments) and we have another $1.1 billion talking point that is to kick us into the league of knowledge-driven economies, the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Spread over four years, its initiatives are to trigger a boom of ideas which, in contrast to the apparent huff and puff of the past, are supposed to make it all the way to world the analysis, which includes a comprehensive summary of budget summary relevant to R&D.

Stemming the decline

ARDR analysis of the Australian Academy of Science's Decadal Plan for Chemistry

The Australian Academy of Sciences has released a ten-year plan for the future of Australia's chemistry. It describes a sector that has been neglected by Australia's political class and is now struggling. However, with the right measures in place it could provide what we so urgently need - a boost to our manufacturing sector and value-add to our primary products, such as natural ores and mineral deposits.

February 2016 - Few will have taken notice of the ten-year plan for Australia's chemistry sector, which the Australian Academy of Sciences launched on 18 February.

This is a pity, not only because of the importance of chemistry to our society.

The plan, which was prepared by the National Committee for Chemistry (NCC), makes salient points about the state of innovation in Australia, and its economy, such as that Australia should be reducing its exports of raw mineral products, as it has led to a decline in full editorial

Digging it down under

ARDR editorial on the Tentative Findings of South Australia's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has released a 'Tentative Findings' report. It projects great commercial benefits that could be reaped from storing high-level nuclear waste other countries generate in nuclear power reactors. The carrot is dangling, but will the state take the bite?

February 2016 - Following the release of the Tentative Findings by the SA Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) asked academic experts to comment. Unsurprisingly, their responses were right along well established battlelines and professional interests.

The worry is this: if experts with a supposedly deep understanding of this vexed issue cannot agree on accepting even the basic findings let alone the commission's conclusions, how can this be expected from the broader community - and in proxy its political leaders? But precisely this will be required if this Royal Commission can avoid being just a waste of full editorial.

You can access a comprehensive summary of the RC report here

Agile mistake

ARDR editorial on CSIRO's cutting back on climate science

The decision by CSIRO's leadership to scrap its world-class climate science not only will hurt its staff and its reputation. Most likely it will also result in more pain than gain for the nation, writes ARDR editor Dr Gerd Winter

January 2016 - December 2015 was the month of science and innovation in Australia, with a flurry of reports that culminated in the release of the government's innovation statement.

The rhetoric was all about change and getting it now right. So, what have we learned? Well, not a great deal, it seems, if the foreshadowed cuts of staff at CSIRO are anything to go by.

It's not the fact that the organisation's head, who has just settled in the job, decided to give the CSIRO ship a new direction - that is why he was chosen: young, dynamic, with entrepreneurial credentials under his belt, and possibly a touch radical.

But if some had wished for an Alexander the Great of Australian research who could shake up things a bit and get rid of the cobwebs, they may now wish there was proper oversight from an independent board with teeth. As it stands, he is about to rip out major planks from the ships haul in the illusion of providing perspective for the organisation's full editorial

The Innovation game

ARDR editorial on Australia's new innovation strategy

The release of the Australian Government's National Innovation & Science Agenda succeeded in bringing Australia's innovation performance to the attention of the broader public.

ARDR editor Gerd Winter provides a broader context.

December 2015 - The release of the Australian Government's National Innovation & Science Agenda (NISA) is not the first major attempt to make the Australian innovation system more competitive, and it is unlikely to be the last.

Just a year ago, the Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda (IICA), and before that the Powering Ideas innovation agenda from the previous Labor Government, had a very similar overall message:

Australia's innovation system needs to become more efficient for the economy to remain full editorial

NHMRC Hunger Games

As permanent staff to temporary research staff ratios decline in our universities, researchers also have less prospect to receive a grant from the NHMRC.

November 2015 - The writing of an NHMRC grant application is no small feat and the agency's assessment process is a major operation. However, in most instances this work is wasted, and this inefficiency in the system has become worse over recent years.

To demonstrate this: In its 2015 funding round, which includes a major announcement in early November, the agency funded only 516 of the 3758 applications received under its major funding scheme, the NHMRC Project Grants. The resulting success rate of 13.7% in essence means that 86.3% of grant applications, often involving weeks if not months of work, were a futile full story

Lots of fruit, little juice

For Australia the eighth edition of the Global Innovation Index has a new message that remains the old: lots of effort, little to show for it.

At first glance, Australia's innovation system is improving:

While the Global Innovation Index 2015, released in September, ranked Australia's overall 17th against 141 analysed nations, the same as in 2014, there was a significant jump in the ranking of its innovation system efficiency, from 81st place in 2014 to 72nd place in 2015.

The problem is, though, that such direct comparisons of innovative capacity make only sense when the economic context is similar.

And when this is considered the gloss loses some of its shine rather quickly... read full story

Losing sight of average...

...and never mind the leaders.

As Australia's mining fortunes wane, the gap between the R&D intensity of Australia and competitor countries is again widening.

4 September - According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia's gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) increased by 6% in the two years to 2013-14. But its R&D intensity, measured as GERD relative to gross domestic product (GDP), decreased to 2.12%.

Meanwhile, leading OECD countries intensify their spending on R&D, with the average GERD to GDP ratio across the OECD climbing to 3.36% in 2013.

Behind Australia's downward trend is a steady decline in the R&D performance of its businesses, which since 2008-09 have wound back investments in R&D as a proportion of the full story

Blue dreaming

A blue economy is the vision of a new decadal national marine strategy

12 August - Two years ago the Australian Government's Oceans Policy Science Advisory Group led by Professor John Gunn published a position paper Marine Nation 2025: Marine Science to Support Australia's Blue Economy.

Its major recommendation was to develop a ten year plan for improving our marine science capabilities and to develop the 'blue economy' potential of our marine estate.

A National Marine Science Advisory Committee, chaired by Professor Gunn, was formed and with input from 500 scientists and stakeholders the group of experts developed the now released marine science strategy for the period the full story

Food on the white board

The Government has released its Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper

4 July 2015 - A number of factors can be attributed to Australia's ongoing success in agriculture, including past policy reforms that made decision-making in the sector more reponsive to market forces.

But, as pointed out in a 2014 ABARES research paper, these have largely run their course.

"Instead, future opportunities for government to promote agricultural productivity growth may come from reducing regulatory burdens, improving the efficiency of the rural research, development and extension system, and building human capital through improving labour availability and skills."

Many of these issues find attention in the now released Agricultural Competitiveness White the full story

Northern delightenment

The White Paper on developing northern Australia has been released

18 June 2015 - In June last year, the Australian Government's Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia laid out a case to renew the effort towards developing northern Australia (covered in our previous story Northern Dreaming).

The release of the White Paper, which has the aspiring title Our North, Our Future, is the next step towards making good on a core election promise.

The diverse package of initiatives outlined in the policy paper are to trigger the accelerated economic expansion of a region that spans three million square kilometres north of the Tropic of Capricorn across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and full story

Great hit or big miss?

In June, Environment Minister Greg Hunt gave an example of how to make a pig look like a fashion model. "Certainty and growth for renewable energy" it said in the heading of a media statement in which he announced that the Australian Government's changes to the renewable energy target (RET) had passed the Senate.

Given that for more than a year the Australian renewables industry had to operate in an environment where nothing was certain and growth all but stalled, the outcome can indeed be interpreted as a period of calm after a war. The pig is not dead, but it surely is not looking Miss World full story

Innovative states

In June, the New South Wales' and South Australian budgets were brought down under very different economic full story

Earlier in the year, the need to save money restricted spending on innovation relevant initiatives in the Victorian, Tasmanian and Western Australian budgets full story

Cooperative review

May 2015 - The review of the Cooperative Research Centre Program by David Miles, which was commissioned by the Australian Government in 2014, has found the program is valuable and effective, although there is room for improvement.

The government has accepted all of its 18 recommendations, which means the program will continue despite the renewed funding cuts detailed in the 2015-16 budget (another $26 million over the next four years).

The government has already put in place a new CRC Advisory Group, as was recommended by Mr Miles, and it will strengthen the commercial focus of the full story


Innovation highways

14 May 2015 - The Australian Government won praise from the research community for its decision to keep the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) going for another two years, with $300 million allocated in the May budget. However, the funding is only meant to bridge the time until the government's review of research infrastructure is finalised, and a long term funding strategy is developed.

In 2015-16, NCRIS will provide $136.9 million for 27 facilities supporting a wide range of nationally significant research outcomes. These include new cancer testing methods, advances in quantum computing, a better understanding of the oceans, weather and climate, as well as improved crop productivity and more detailed environmental full story

Party on a budget

The $5.5 billion Growing Jobs and Small Business initiative may indeed be the most exciting bit in this year's 'dull' 2015-16 federal budget.

The pharmaceutical industries will also be happy about $1.3 billion towards the listing of new medicines and vaccines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Large savings affecting the scheme - up to $5 billion over four years were predicted by some in the media - did not eventuate.

There was a small boost for the environment, with an additional $174 million provided for the Government's 'Green Army' initiative. Previously announced were an additional $100 million for the Reef Trust, which was established last year to oversee investments into projects that benefit the Great Barrier Reef (see 'Our beef with the reef').

And the Government gave medical researchers also something to look forward to with the first distributions from the Medical Research Future Fund - $10 million in 2015-16. However, this would require the legislation to be passed, which at present seems highly unlikely. Still, the MRF could potentially deliver around $400 million over four years in addition to NHMRC research full story

Energetically productive

April 2015 - The release of the Australian Government's Energy White Paper drew mixed responses. Thus various political and academic quarters criticised a failure to properly address climate change, with some commentators pointing out that climate change was scarcely mentioned in the document.

Compared to the previous 2012 Energy White Paper, which had a stronger emphasis on renewable energy development, the focus has indeed shifted towards consumer needs. Thus, the overarching vision for the Australian energy sector is now to provide competitively priced and reliable energy to households, businesses and international full story

X-factor continued

In March, the Australian Government announced the third major installment of the 2014 NHMRC health and medical research grants. It included $98.3 million for 11 program grants, the agency's largest grants supporting long term broad, multi-disciplinary and collaborative research in some of the most complex areas of health and medical research.

The chance of winning NHMRC support has traditionally been low, but it is now getting even tougher for Australian health and medical researchers. The overall success rate for application based grants dropped from 22% in 2013 to 18% in 2014. Accordingly, the success rate for NHMRC Project Grants, which account for the bulk of the agency's funding, also significantly dropped, from 16.9% in 2013 down to 15.0% in full story


Our beef with the reef

In March, the Australian and Queensland Governments jointly released a 35 year plan for the long-term sustainability of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) World Heritage Area (see also our previous story "Reefing up").

As part of the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan (Reef Plan), the governments announced new funding commitments targeting the reef's health, including an additional $100 million from the Australian Government for the Reef Trust initiative.

Established in 2014 with $40 million, the Reef Trust will consolidate investments in projects that aim to improve the reef's health. Its funding priorities will be directed by an independent scientific panel chaired by Australia's chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb. full story

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    Blue dreaming

    12 August - Two years ago the Australian Government's Oceans Policy Science Advisory Group led by Professor John Gunn published a position paper Marine Nation 2025: Marine Science to Support Australia's Blue Economy (
    covered in our previous story Marine Prospects

    Its major recommendation was to develop a ten year plan for improving our marine science capabilities and to develop the 'blue economy' potential of our marine estate.

    A National Marine Science Advisory Committee, chaired by Professor Gunn, was formed and with input from 500 scientists and stakeholders the group of experts developed the now released marine science strategy for the period 2015-2025.

    Blue economy:
    In the marine context the concept describes a framework of sustainable development based on a balanced management of ocean assets for economic, environmental, social and cultural benefits.
    According to a United Nations concept paper, it breaks with the mould of the 'business as usual' brown development model of free resource extraction and waste dumping, through which costs are externalised from economic calculations.

    A call for increased investments in national research infrastructure and currently under-resourced high-priority science programs underpin the plan.

    But the report also highlights that there is a need for more collaboration between scientists, industry , government and the public, which entails an effort to better communicate the importance of marine science to the broader community.

    With 13.6 million square kilometres spanning across three oceans we do have the third largest marine estate in the world, but while this brings great opportunities, the committee highlights that the sector is also facing major challenges.

    Thus, the plan envisions that Australia's marine science will drive the development of new technologies and product innovations, while it will also provide the evidence base necessary to:

    • maintain marine sovereignty and security;
    • achieve energy security;
    • ensure food security;
    • conserve our biodiversity and ecosystem health;
    • create sustainable urban coastal development;
    • understand and adapt to climate variability and change; and
    • develop equitable and balanced resource allocation.

    Reaping the economic benefits from our marine assets while addressing these seven core challenges will be a balancing act, exemplified by the proposed development of Australia's tropical north: here the exploit of major resource potential needs to be weight against the protection of major existing cultural and environmental assets.

    To achieve this, the committee put forward the concept of a 'blue economy'. However, the concept is complex (see insert) and its development will require that we narrow the still large existing knowledge gaps, with more than 75% of our marine estate yet to be explored.

    Marine science for a blue economy; click image to enlarge

    Similar difficulties arise in defining what constitutes our 'marine industry' and, consequently, in measuring its worth.

    For example, around the world multinationals are lining up to exploit the rich genetic resource they contain (see also our 2011 dossier 'Ocean Views'). Internationally, such bio-prospecting of marine species is a major area of growth, but it is just one of a number of emerging industries, which also include seabed mining and the harvesting of wave and tidal power (for example the Perth Wave Energy Project, the first Australian project feeding power into the grid).

    The 2014 AIMS Index of Marine Industry estimates that the industry's contribution to the economy was around $47 billion in 2011-12. But given the above mentioned limitations, the report makes the point that this estimate may be significantly below the industry's true value. This also as it largely ignores the value of ecosystems services, which the Centre for Policy Development has estimated to be worth in the order of around $25 billion per year.

    Australia's marine estate; click image to enlarge

    That aside, the 2013 OPSAG report projected further strong growth of Australia's marine economy - possibly three times faster than Australia's gross domestic product over the next decade - and that its value will more than double to around $100 billion per year by 2025

    The strategy paper's list of identified growth areas includes:

    • the expansion of ocean renewable energy resources (wind, wave, tide);
    • growth in the field of marine biotechnology including for the biofuels, bioremediation and bioproducts;
    • the discovery and development of new offshore geological basins for oil and gas, and for CO2 storage;
    • increases in the market value of fisheries through sustainable harvesting practices;
    • a doubling of aquaculture with the development of new sectors;
    • the sustainable development of northern Australia; and
    • a sustainbable growth of the marine tourism industry.

    The experts argue that to this end investments in marine science need to significantly increase from its current $450 million per year, which represents less than 1% of the industry's current estimated value.

    However, these increased investments in marine R&D need to come from a broad base of sources, including government, industry and the community, and should support priority initiatives including:

    • a National Blue Economy Innovation Fund;
    • national marine research infrastructure;
    • a National Integrated Marine Experimental Facility;
    • a National Ocean Modelling Program; and
    • a Marine Science Capability Development Fund.

    The committee calls for an explicit shift in focus away from 'business as usual' marine science towards a system supporting a 'blue economy' development (see insert listing the eight recommendations).

    They also propose the establishment of a National Marine Baselines and Long-term Monitoring Program, which is to develop a comprehensive assessment of Australia's marine estate.

    Further recommended is a dedicated and coordinated marine science program and the expansion of the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), which is supporting critical climate change and coastal systems research.

    Finally, the experts want the government to fund the full use of the national research vessel RV Investigator for 300 days a year instead of just 180 days at present.

    Australia's national research vessel, RV Investigator.
    The committee's eight recommendations include:
    • Create an explicit focus on a sustainable blue economy throughout the marine science system.
    • Establish and support a National Marine Baselines and Long-term Monitoring Program to develop a comprehensive assessment of our estate, and to help manage Commonwealth and State Marine Reserve networks.

    • Facilitate coordinated national studies on marine ecosystem processes and resilience to enable understanding of the impacts of development (urban, industrial and agricultural) and climate change on our marine estate.

    • Create a National Oceanographic Modelling System to supply defence, industry and government with accurate, detailed knowledge and predictions of ocean state.

    • Develop a dedicated and coordinated science program to support decision-making by policymakers and marine industry.

    • Sustain and expand the Integrated Marine Observing System to support critical climate change and coastal systems research, including coverage of key estuarine systems.

    • Develop marine science research training that is more quantitative, cross-disciplinary and congruent with industry and government needs.

    • Fund national research vessels for full use.
    More information:; a PDF of the strategy can be obtained here
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