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At last: Some real traction on innovation policy

For three years, Prime Minister John Key has talked a good game on the importance of innovation policy, but it took an election – and perhaps just a touch of Prime Ministerial frustration – to force the pace on the long-stalled plans for Industrial Research Ltd.

 Pattrick SmellieThe significance of the announcements reconstituting IRL as a new entity, to be called Advanced Technology New Zealand, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Under-sized and too often in the past under-performing, IRL now gets a shot at becoming the mythical lost piece of the puzzle in New Zealand’s innovation eco-system, with potential to be a driving force for turning smart ideas into successful – hopefully global – commercial enterprises.

For a start, there's real money involved. From somewhere in the current fiscal straitjacket, the government has found $150 million over the next five years to back the plan.

In that sense, the policy is National’s first in this election campaign to identifiably commit new funds to anything – and the first unofficial announcement of a Budget 2012 decision, assuming a National-led government emerges after the election on November 26.

It’s also something of a personal victory for Shaun Coffey, the deceptively low-key chief executive at IRL, who has fought off the ambitions of both Auckland and Canterbury universities to gut IRL’s Gracefield campus at Lower Hutt and the antipathy of Ministry of Science chief executive Murray Bain to his plans to rejuvenate the Wellington headquarters.

While ATNZ will expand onto new campuses at both Auckland and Canterbury, that expansion will occur far more on Coffey’s terms than seemed likely six months ago, while rightly seeking to create a more cohesive national cluster from its disparate advanced materials research and commercialisation capacity.

But perhaps most importantly, the Powering Innovation report looks, more than any recent predecessor, to deliver the goods.

The product of a deep dive on everything we thought we already knew about innovation eco-systems, the three-person team including Business New Zealand’s energetic director Phil O’Reilly, highly respected Israeli academic in the innovation field Professor Mina Teicher, and chaired by AUT’s Professor John Raine, is coherent, authoritative and, above all, actionable.

It recommends, in particular, the creation of a new Science and Innovation Council that will provide “the highest levels of political support.”

It also identifies a key feature of successful innovation policies in other small, successful countries as “top level political leadership.”

The evidence so far is that this should be forthcoming.  Key may not choose to make himself Minister of Science in second term of government, but he might realistically be expected to chair such a council, and to continue to attract the services of Professor Peter Gluckman and others of his quality to service the council.

As to ministers for such a council, there’s already a list as long as your arm of pretenders for the science and innovation portfolio. They include Steven Joyce, who’s said to be hankering for an economic development role after knocking off various roads and bridges in this parliamentary term; David Carter, whose double act as Agriculture and Acting Economic Development Minister has given him a taste for the marriage of brains and biology; and outside contenders such as Acting Energy Minister Hekia Parata.

Perhaps one of the most important signals in the ATNZ decision is its endorsement of a new, substantive leg to the economic agenda of a government that has battled not to look old school with its pursuit of free trade deals, mineral exploitation, and flinty-faced welfare and fiscal reform.

It hasn’t explicitly embraced “green tech”, but the ATNZ partnerships should foster such innovation, along with all manner of other “smart tech” of the kind that the latest TIN100 report so amply demonstrates is emerging in New Zealand.

Suffice to say, it’s exciting stuff which looks, this time, as if it will happen.  Of course, execution is everything, but one of the other shrewd elements of the report is its inclusiveness.

One senior science leader suggested this week’s decisions come with the biggest single boost to science funding since the Muldoon era.

That’s quite a claim. But even if it’s half right, there’s nothing like a decent dollop of dough following a strong piece of strategic thinking to encourage alignment between the all too disparate, all too often warring, elements of New Zealand’s potentially powerful, but fragmented innovation eco-system.

Let’s hope so.