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Home C Level Where to now for NICTA?

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Where to now for NICTA?

The resignation of its CEO and looming cuts to its government funding have cast a pall over the future of Australia’s premiere ICT research organisation.

NICTA – National ICT Australia – seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was. In 2002 the Howard Government, which actually had a Minister for Science, announced its establishment with great fanfare.

Since then NICTA has established a reputation for itself as one of the world’s leading ICT research institutions. It has also been one of the most commercially successful, spinning off a dozen or more startups.NICTA opened its doors in February 2003, with Neville Roach as chairman and Professor Brian Anderson as its first CEO, and runs out of an impressive purpose building in Sydney’s Technology Park (pictured).

Now, barely a decade later, after two terms of Labor, another Coalition Government is in power. This one doesn’t have a Minister for Science, and it is claiming the existence of a budget crisis to cut back on spending on technology and communications, even as it spends billions on a war that doesn’t concern us.

The NBN has been downgraded, public broadcasting hobbled, action on climate change and clean energy emasculated, and belief in an imaginary friend in the sky reinstated as the criterion for selection of school counsellors. CSIRO has been cut to pieces and university funding turned on its head. Australia’s science and research community is appalled at this Government’s Philistinism.

NICTA was founded on four ‘pillars’ – research, education, commercialisation and linkages, which the Howard Government said at the time would be the means by which NICTA “will achieve the Government’s objectives for a world class ICT research and research training institute.” They were incorporated in the initial funding arrangement between NICTA and the Government, and were formalised as NICTA’s key areas of activity in its mission statement.

By any standards, NICTA has done a good job. It is by far the largest employer of ICT PhDs in Australia, with over 200 on its roster. It has spun off dozens of commercially successful start-ups, including:

  • Ambiate (machine learning)
  • Audinate (audio system – NICTA’s first spin-off in 2006)
  • AutoMap (personal navigation)
  • CeeQ (facial recognition)
  • Goanna (software debugging)
  • Incoming! (TV content prediction)
  • InterfereX (interference cancelling modems)
  • Nitero (low power Wi-Fi)
  • Open Kernel Labs (embedded virtualisation)
  • Opturion (resource allocation and scheduling)
  • UserMetrix (application analytics)
  • Yuruware (cloud based migration and management).

It’s an impressive list. I’m not aware of any cost-benefit analysis on the return to Australia’s information economy (it does still exist) of these and other spinoffs, or the value to dozens of ICT companies of the knowledge NICTA alumni have contributed to the wider industry.

However much that amount might be, it does not figure on the perverted ledger the Abbott Government uses to do its financial calculations. In May of this year, in full anti-research and anti-science mode, the Government confirmed its previous statements that it would continue to fund NICTA only until mid 2016. The organisation then issued a statement that it recognised it would ”need to look at more sustainable longer-term funding models.”

In that statement it pointed out that it had been growing its commercial revenue and spinning out new technology companies at a rate of one every three months. “These companies, and the work being done with existing large and small companies, are creating new jobs and economic opportunities for Australia. We are also establishing multi-year research partnerships with industry and individual government agencies.”

How that would be done, and who would pay, would seem to be the point of difference that led to Durrant-Whyte’s departure.

One can of course argue that NICTA could hardly expect to be on the public funding teat forever, and that a decade and a half should be long enough for it to stand on its own feet. One can also argue that the public funding of pure science and technical research and development is, properly managed, a good thing in itself. NICTA (and CSIRO, for that matter) are ample evidence of this.

But right now the barbarians have breached the gates. Professor Durrant-Whyte’s unfortunate departure is a symptom of a much wider malaise.

Poor fella, my country.

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire and editor of sister publication CommsWire. He is also founder and Research Director of Connection Research, a market research and analysis firm specialising in the convergence of sustainable, digital and environmental technologies. He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.