What is driving the future of Australia’s research and innovation sector?

Australia’s Science and Research Priorities to be reviewed

The Minister for the Department of Education and Training announced on 19 February 2019 that a review will be conducted of Australia’s Science and Research Priorities as they apply to the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) National Competitive Grants Program. (NCGP)  The ARC is the peak Commonwealth entity that advises the Australian Government on research matters and administers the NCGP, a significant component of Australia’s investment in research and development.  ARC funding programs deliver on average $800 million per year to Australian researchers.

The terms of reference for the review will include considering:

  • areas in which Australia exhibits research strength, or which represent opportunities to establish Australia as a world leader in research;
  • areas of strategic priorities;
  • how ARC’s use of the priorities relates to government science, research and innovation strategies; and
  • how the ARC’s use of the priorities compares to other Commonwealth research funding programs.

Designed to increase investment in areas of immediate and critical importance to Australia, the Science and Research Priorities were established by the Australian Government in 2015 following extensive consultation across the research sector, industry and government [see here].  Central to that discussion was the recognition that not only is support for research essential to the nation’s increased productivity and economic growth, but that it is also necessary to ensure diversity of investment across the full spectrum of research disciplines, including the physical and life sciences, engineering, information and communications technology and the humanities and social sciences.

Current research priorities

The review has been widely welcomed by the country’s research and innovation sector, and will provide a timely opportunity to reflect on Australia’s research policy landscape and to re-focus the national conversation on new areas of research that are currently, or will be, of critical importance to Australia.

The review panel will also consider stakeholder consultation and feedback, and will report its findings by the end of July 2019.

Innovation drives economic growth – but what fuels innovation?

While public policy initiatives such as the establishment of the National Science and Research Priorities play an important role in shaping research and development, a driver of economic growth, another gauge of the importance a country has placed on innovation is its research and development expenditure. 

For instance, it has been reported that by industry, health care and social assistance output recorded strong growth (2.6 percent) in 2018, reflecting ongoing public investment in health care in Australia.

Since January 2018, the Australian Government has committed approximately AU$980 million in funding for research in cancers and other diseases such as epilepsy, macular disease, anxiety and depression, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as funding support for medical projects such as:

  • $10 million to support the development of eleven cutting edge medical projects, including “the BioPen”, which is a handheld 3D printer that can be used in surgery to repair damaged cartilage;
  • $22 million to help Australian businesses move from early-stage health and medical research discoveries to commercial success, giving patients access to better treatments and medicines.
  • $240 million program giving researchers significant funds for innovative and transformational medical research. 
  • A total of 682 grants will be funded, totalling more than $526 million, through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
  • $185 million medical research package focused on ageing, aged care and dementia.  The 10-year Dementia, Ageing and Aged Care Mission is funded through the Medical Research Future Fund and its focus will include:
    • Dementia (diagnosis, treatment and prevention)
    • Fall prevention and avoidable hospitalisations
    • Assistive technology to support independence
  • $10 million in research that will help use a person’s DNA and their environment to help create personalised medicine for a multitude of medical conditions including obesity, autism, and type 2 diabetes.
  • $32 million boost over four years to help researchers make their medical breakthroughs a commercial success by assisting Australian researchers gain access to entrepreneurial training and experience.

Other key funding initiatives due to be rolled out over 2018/2019 include:

Project Details
Launch of the Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre $55 million cash injection to launch the new Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) and its programs which will bring together a consortium of more than 60 health, medical technology and pharmaceutical companies, universities and research institutes operating across the health, aged care and disability sectors.  Combined with the Government’s investment, the Digital Health CRC will have more than $111 million in cash funding and $118 million in-kind contributions to invest in a range of collaborative research and development programs that are set be rolled out from July 2018. More specifically, the Centre’s research agenda will be developed to achieve three major outcomes: Improving the health, welfare, quality of life and wellbeing of citizens; Improving the efficiency and integrity of health services; and Increasing the value of every health dollar spent
Funding to increase the use of generic medicines and biosimilars Measures to increase the use of generic and biosimilar medicines. The Government estimates that the increased use of generic and biosimilar medicines will lead to a reduction in costs of $335.8 million over five years and says that the savings will be redirected by the Government to fund “health policy priorities”.
Development of a national genomics initiative Announcement of a $500m genomics initiative, the Australian Genomics Health Futures Mission, which will form the cornerstone of the $1.3 billion National Health and Medical Industry Growth Plan.  The Department of Health said the initiative would involve co-investment with businesses to support new industries.  Specifically, the initiative will involve: clinical studies / contract research into rare diseases, rare cancers and complex conditions;new clinical trials and technology applications allowing Australian patients to benefit from the latest medical research;manufacturing digital infrastructure for clinical genomics;greater community education to better understand the value of genomics; andimplementation of national standards and protocols to ensure secure data holdings, access, analysis and sharing to benefit Australians.
Reforms to the R&D tax incentive   Changes designed as a “refocusing of the R&D tax incentive” to give more support to companies that invest a higher proportion of what they spend in R&D.  Particular changes include: clinical trials exempted from a $4 million cap for the refundable component; no lifetime cap for the refunds; a coupling of the incentive to each company’s tax rate; and for larger companies, a graduating reward premium for higher intensity and an increased cap. For companies with annual turnover of less than $20 million, a $4 million cap has been imposed on the cash refund available.  In its changes to the R&D tax incentive, the Federal Government expects to save $2.4 billion over the next four years.

Thanks to Sarah-Jane Frydman for her assistance with preparing this article.

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About the Author

Veg TranVeg is a Special Counsel in the Sydney IP - Dispute Resolution team. When she is not satisfying her addiction to "true crime" television shows and following the NHL hockey season, Veg enjoys pursuing her morbid curiosity in patent law. Armed with her formative training in biotechnology, Veg dedicates many of her working hours reviewing gruesome patent specifications and advising clients in a wide range of life science sectors.View all posts by Veg Tran