In this interview with editor John Arbouw, the Minister for Innovation and Information Economy, Paul Lucas explains how the Sunshine State will actually achieve its goal of becoming the Smart State.
Company Director: Australia has a history of numerous attempts on both a state and federal level to provide a boost to the so-called innovation sector. Any successful outcomes have been mixed to say the least. Why do you believe that the Smart State concept and the funding you are providing on several levels will result in a different outcome to any of the other attempts?
Paul Lucas: Because it is the first time a government has taken the concept seriously enough to actually create a portfolio, which will work closely not only with all other portfolios in the State Government but also the ICT industry and emerging technologies industries, to drive the idea and make it an integral part of Queensland and our way of life. Premier Beattie has put science expenditure firmly on the political agenda in Australia. I am pleased to note that the federal and Victorian governments have followed this lead. The Smart State concept is about understanding our existing key competencies as well as how we can develop in other areas in the future. We are building on our primary industries, tourism and ICT - for example, biotechnology breakthroughs are benefiting our primary sector. While all short-term achievements have been rewarding, this government understands it is a long-term strategic approach, which requires focus on all sections of the community, education, business, industry and government.
CD: The Australian manufacturing sector has been languishing over the years. The services sector is booming. What do you hope to achieve from the innovation policy - smart people or smart products? If the answer is products what do you believe they will be?
PL: We need smart people producing smart ideas and smart products - this is a key point in the concept driving the Smart State. We are building on our current strengths - so regardless of the industry (whether manufacturing or services), our focus is doing things in an innovative way which will improve outcomes. The Smart State Research Facility Fund is based on leveraging government infrastructure support with university and private sector contributions. (Recently announced Fibre Composites Centre of Excellence (see release attached) is a good example). It is not just about Smart Science, but about actual business outcomes - producing real products and providing real employment.
CD: How is the Queensland smart state policy integrating with the Federal Government's R&D policy announced last year?
PL: The Queensland Government is already a major supporter and provider of R&D in Queensland, with approximately $160 million spent annually in major R&D areas such as primary industries, natural resources management, environmental management and healthcare. The Government is also funding initiatives to position Queensland as a world centre for critical enabling technologies and new R&D areas such as ICT (software), biotechnology, nanotechnology, light metals, new-era foods and advanced mining technologies. The providers of this research are predominantly Queensland universities, medical research institutes, CRCs and State Government Departments. Biostart - a three-year $6 million program designed to encourage and support young start-up companies by providing them with early stage funds to progress their research to a proof of concept level - is a program that is designed to complement the Federal Biotechnology Innovation Fund grants, to help companies commercialise their biotech innovations. We are taking steps to further explore ways in which state and Commonwealth planning and funding schemes for R&D could more effectively link and support each other.
Collaboration might not only improve the meshing of federal and state initiatives, it might also allow earlier identification and agreement on state-based projects that would benefit by shared approaches to funding support.
CD: A few years ago, the Queensland Government identified that red tape was a major impediment for business in its dealings with government. A committee comprising business and government leaders was set up and it too became mired in red tape. How do you propose to break the nexus between the initial innovation, the commercialisation and the availability of speedy government support from the idea right through to exports?
PL: Among the host of programs offered by this department are: the Innovation Start Up Scheme (ISUS), incubators such as I-LAB with its business mentors, Information Industries Bureau (set up to assist IT innovators through such programs as FIG, Export Pathways, Trade Show Savvy, new Business Development Officer in London and International Trade Show Assistance Program). The Department of State Development has put in place the Red Tape Reduction Taskforce. More information on any of these services is available at www.iie.qld.gov.au, or www.sd.qld.gov.au. The Smart Service Queensland vision of "anywhere, anytime" service delivery is a key component in the Smart State strategy, delivering wider choices for customers who wish to access government services. The public will be able to do this via a number of channels including phone, fax, Internet, mail and over-the-counter, with the Internet offering 24-hours, 7 days a week access to these services. The soon-to-be established Innovation Pathway is an initiative of this department. It will provide a single point of contact site on the Internet, designed to draw together all available resources for intending innovators - from people with an idea to businesses, researchers, academics ready to commercialise intellectual property.
It will also allow broad cross-section of innovators to find information to advance their position on commercialisation pathway. It will contain intellectual content (such as "What is IP?" and "Why is it important to protect?"), as well as who they can go to see for advice or assistance (professional advisory bodies as well as referral to local, state and commonwealth Government bodies).
CD: Is the Smart State simply a Brisbane CBD concept or can it exist beyond the major towns and universities? If so, how and where?
PL: One of my key themes is that the Smart State doesn't just exist in Brisbane, or in our research laboratories. While the research we do in the south-east corner is world class, we also realise that we have top class institutions outside Brisbane, and the people of rural and remote Queensland have every right to expect that the Smart State applies to them as well. My department's programs are specifically designed to foster and assist innovation throughout Queensland, wherever it is found. Some quick examples:
- The Smart State Research Facility Fund - $100 million revolving fund over five years for the development of research facilities across the state that will realise benefit to Queensland.
- An example of the SSRFF in action is the recent announcement of $10 million in funding for the Fibre Composites Centre of Excellence for Toowoomba-based UCQ and their partner Wagners.
- Many recipients of IIE community skilling programs (CSDP, i-STAR) and the Innovation Start Up Scheme (ISUS) have been in regional areas. (Most recently visited Cunnamulla and Charleville to present CSDP cheques).
- $10 million over three years to the Parallel Supercomputer Foundation to help six universities across Queensland access high performance computing and visualisation technologies.
- Seeking to aggregate the Government's telecommunication needs in Far North Queensland to leverage better, more affordable telecommunications for consumers and businesses in FNQ.
- Following on from the success of i-LAB, we have been assisting with the development of technology incubators on the Sunshine and Gold Coasts.
- We have helped sponsor international science conventions in the regions and the Siemens Science Experience for school children soon to take place in Townsville and Cairns.
- The IT Careers Stuff kit (provided to every high school and TAFE in the state) which encourages greater awareness of ICT career options.
We also know that 3.8 percent of the world's biodiversity is unique to Queensland - in all corners of the State. Our endeavours to explore our potential in this field will take us to all of these regions.
CD: Funding for biotechnology is part of the Queensland initiative. Does this mean Queensland supports cloning and stem cell research?
PL: In a first for Australia, Queensland has a Code of Ethical Practice for Biotechnology, which is binding on any institution that receives any funding from the State Government. This code bans research into human cloning (clause 63). We have already said we will legislate to ban human cloning, and I anticipate this will occur later this year (carriage of this legislation is the responsibility of the Health Minister). The Premier has made his views on stem cell research clear recently. This Government supports the use of excess IVF embryos for cell extraction, but does not support the creation of stem cells specifically for this purpose. This approach is consistent with those expressed in public statements by the NSW and Victorian governments. Queensland has based its approach to this issue on several key principles, including the need to consult with scientists, ethicists and other interested groups, and the need to outlaw certain activities which are clearly unacceptable (eg. the mixing of human and animal gametes to produce hybrid embryos).
We believe that there should be a nationally uniform approach if possible, and that to do nothing to regulate in this important area would be wrong. We expect the national approach to be finalised by Health Ministers, through discussions at COAG in the near future. Regardless of the outcome of the current debate, the State Government will continue to support safe, ethical biotechnology research because of the enormous potential benefits it offers to this state, not only to our traditional rural industries but also in collaboration with emerging industries such as bioinformatics and nanotechnology. We have enormous natural advantages, including one of the very few megadiverse regions in the world. We have top class scientists, a stable political environment, a great lifestyle. We are building on these with our 10-year, $270 million Biotechnology Strategy and our $100 m Smart State Research Facilities Fund offers assistance to institutions.
CD: As the Minister of Innovation and Information Economy how will you know that you have succeeded and what is the evidence you will use?
PL: This is akin to asking 'What is the Smart State and how will you know when you get there?' There are certain benchmarks that we can use to chart our progress. For example, all agencies report annually to us of their progress on the Communication and Information Strategic Plan. Ernst & Young has now conducted two reports into the state of biotechnology in Queensland, with very encouraging results (employment and investment up strongly.) Other benchmarks include: the take up rate of e-commerce in business; the number of women undertaking ICT courses; the number and level of investment in our biotechnology companies. We envisage that more and more innovative Queensland individuals and companies will be taking their products to the world and the Queensland Government will be here to help them do just that. We will continue to work closely with industry and the community - already their feedback (through various studies) has allowed us to focus on their needs, and we will continue to seek input to achieve Smart State goals.
Other evidence will necessarily be more anecdotal in nature and is best gained by those at the cutting edge: what institutes are saying about the research "climate" in Queensland and their success in attracting more world-class scientists here; what ICT firms say about the quality of the advice provided by the Information Industries Bureau; what venture capitalists say about the growth potential of our biotechnology companies, what regional Queenslanders say about improvements to their access to the Internet.
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