[Semper Floreat] Innovation vs. Jobs and Growth

Innovation, it seems, has become the buzzword of the past six months. We are told that we are striving to be a more innovative country, and that investment in innovation will lead to the generation of jobs and growth. At a surface level, this all seems fantastic. We live in a world that never ceases to surprise us, and surely we should be doing some of the surprising as well. It is well and good to have the slogan and the targets, but it is heartless to announce them with a beaming smile from behind a podium, while quietly withdrawing financial support. And yet this is exactly what the Australian government is doing to its artists and scientists.

On the 13th of May of this year, the recipients of four-year funding from the Australian Council of the Arts were announced. Only half (18 out of 36) Queensland businesses were successful in receiving four-year funding. All in all, 124 out of 262 applicants were successful. At first glance, this doesn’t seem too bad. The process is peer-reviewed, with members of the arts community reading applications and making the requisite decisions. Writing these applications is a long and arduous process – and it should be. There should be appropriate oversight when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money.

However, the crux of the issue lies in the amount of money the government is willing to spend on the arts (hang onto your hats, we’ll get to science in due course). The Abbott government took $105 million from the Australia Council in Joe Hockey’s somewhat infamous 2014 budget. This money was put into a government controlled program called Catalyst, which continued to pump money into arts organisations that already receive a considerable amount of government funding, such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Australian Ballet, and Opera Australia. This is not to detract from the work produced by these organisations, but more consideration has to be given to small to medium arts organisations, many of which operate on the generosity of donations and volunteers.

I heard of Meanjin’s failure to secure funding on Twitter the day before it was officially announced. The following day, I read that Express Media had been served with the same fate. Even though I was aware of Meanjin’s prestige, it was the news about Express Media that had me scrambling for news articles and downloading government news releases. I remember picking up my first copy of Voiceworks in Borders, back when bookshops thrived and when it seemed feasible to have a three storey building in the middle of the CBD dedicated to all things literary. It was the first time I read a literary magazine – at the time, I didn’t know they existed. And the fact that it was full of young voices made it all the better. I read it cover to cover for a month, before misplacing it in the frenetic time before starting university.

I came across it again about two years later, again astounded that there was a community of young writers who were respected by their peers, creating absolutely mindblowing work. I was never fortunate enough to have been published in Voiceworks, but I still received feedback from my peers on my work. It pushed me to create, and to keep writing. It forced me to look at the world in different ways, and it made me realise there were people out there who were willing to listen to someone of my age. This magazine was the nudge I needed to try my hand at non-fiction, and Express Media’s short story competition meant I finished a piece for the first time in a very, very long time.

This is not an issue that has popped up overnight, nor is it just a problem in Australia. The future of ANAM, the Australian National Academy of Music, seems to forever hang in the balance, endangering the careers of many talented classical musicians, some of whom I am fortunate enough to call my friends. There has long been debate in the United States over the distribution of funds from the National Endowment of the Arts, and indeed, just recently, the European Union Youth Orchestra has announced that 2016 will be its last year, after a withdrawal of funds from the EU. It seems that it is easiest to cut funds from the arts in a push for austerity, alongside a focus on innovation in STEM fields.

However, it seems as though this is not an area the Australian government is willing to invest in either. There was a visible sigh of relief throughout the scientific community when the budget was released without any significant cuts to funding in STEM industries – and yet, at the same time, it seems as though the CSIRO is shrinking bit by bit. The CSIRO brought us wireless internet, plastic banknotes, Aerogard, and much more, and was recently involved in the detection of gravitational waves. It also plays an integral role in science education for children – I know my childhood would have been poorer if not for hours spent reading Scientriffic and Double Helix.

The main issues of the future will most likely include climate change, adaptation to new sources of energy, and the ethics of artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation. These are big, important, terrifying areas that need to be addressed, and this is only possible if governments throw their weight behind scientific organisations, both financially and ideologically. It seems absurd that such governments, including our own, need to be convinced of this – all the while, spouting rhetoric about the wonders of innovation.

We are raised into a false dichotomy, to think the arts and the sciences are opposites, that you can only truly love, or be good at one or the other. This starts as early as primary school, and is reinforced in high school and university. Indeed, the disdain foisted onto those who partake in arts degrees is almost palpable once the question is asked and answered. Such a divide is not beneficial for either ‘side’. The arts and the sciences both foster a keener understanding of what it is to be human, albeit through different methods – but it is incorrect to state one is more important than the other. As it stands, it seems as though the Australian government doesn’t think either is important at all.

The basis of innovation lies in creativity. If we cannot dream of the future, if we cannot come up with new ways to overcome obstacles, there will be no innovation at all. I shudder to think of a country – of a world without the arts. Or even worse, a world where artists and scientists are forced to pursue other careers because they cannot afford to feed their families or to put a roof over their heads. Innovation is a buzzword. And at the moment, that’s all it is. A word full of empty promises and broken dreams.

This piece was first published in the print edition of Semper Floreat, issue 3, 2016.

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