Australia takes the lead in government funding for social innovation

The Cooperative Research Centre Program is an Australian funding stream for innovation. Social innovation was only added in 2009, leading to the launch of the world's first cooperative research centre for autism. Chrisanthi Giotis explains Australia's social innovation journey.



Last month Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced $[AUD]31m for a consortium of private, public and not-for profit partners to change the way people with autism live.

The money to create the world’s first cooperative research centre for autism is the result of a competitive bid to one of Australia’s oldest and most respected government-run research and development funding programs. 

The fact that it got through is a sign of how far respect and understanding of social innovation has come.

So says, Professor Tony Peacock CEO of the Cooperative Research Centres Association – an independent member organisation that supports all the bids made to the Cooperative Research Centre Program (CRC Program). 

The competitive funding program has been going since 1990, has outlasted five prime ministers and a host of ministers on both sides of the political divide, and in certain circles gained iconic status.

However, social innovation was only added to the mix in 2009 and, according to Peacock, the first reaction was “confusion”.

“I remember at one information session someone asked – what is social innovation – does that mean gay marriage? 

“Obviously that person was being facetious but you have to remember that you’re dealing with an audience which is 70-90% technical based people and this was completely new to them.”

The CRC Program sits under the Ministry of Innovation, Industry, Science Research and Tertiary Education but is the particular responsibility of the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research.

The determination to sit social innovation in what was essentially an area of R&D funding is the result of what might, or might-not be considered a luckily-timed independent review of the program. The review took place in 2008 as part of an ambitious new Labor government’s overall review of industry innovation. It was a time when the profile of social enterprise and social innovation was rising but the idea of government funding separate streams to support social innovation had not yet taken off. US president Obama’s Social Innovation Fund wouldn’t be launched until a year later in 2009. The UK government’s investment in Social Finance through unclaimed assets sitting in banks was still being talked about.


The competitive funding program has been going since 1990, has outlasted five prime ministers and a host of ministers on both sides of the political divide, and in certain circles gained iconic status.



The independent reviewer was Professor Mary O’Kane and despite, or perhaps because of, her background as a director of technology companies she recognised the importance of social innovation in the development of what she termed “public good” and claimed it for the R&D sphere.

The result is a secure place for social innovation in a long-running three billion dollar program which the Australian government has further committed to fund to the tune of $[AUD]619m till 2016. That’s a lot of money up for grabs – especially when you consider the Australian government’s Social Enterprise Development and Investment Fund is only worth $[AUD]20m – a difference of 30 times the amount of funding.

But access to a bigger funding pie comes with more competitors. The majority of the initial bids with a social focus bombed and organisations have had to learn to think big and get their business plans up to scratch to compete against the more traditional technology based bids.

Indeed the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Autism CRC), which not only won funding in this particularly competitive round, but won the biggest slice of funding, was rejected for funding in 2011.

It’s successful bid this time includes 56 participants committed to the eight-year venture with additional cash and in-kind contributions from those participants exceeding $[AUD]63m – add that to the government’s $[AUD]31m injection and you get a $[AUD]104m program. The not-for-profits involved have each had to commit $[AUD]50,000.

Autism Queensland President and Chair of the Autism CRC bid, Professor Robert van Barneveld, said the size and ambition of the venture was crucial.

 “The most significant aspect of this research program will be the critical mass generated through the cooperation of 56 participants from not-for-profit Autism service providers, universities, federal and state government and commercial partners,” said van Barneveld.

“This is the type of momentum we need to make some real progress in relation to diagnosis, education and life skills for individuals living with Autism,” he said.

As another indicator of the strength of its bid Autism CRC has committed itself to ambitious, and specific, social impact outcomes including increasing the number of young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders in tertiary and vocational education sectors by 20% and a reduction in the rate of unemployment of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders by 20%. 


The right place

It could be argued that the high bar being set for social innovation funding is no bad thing – and in fact is a step to making social business a part of business as usual. 

According to Cheryl Kernot, the Director of Social Business at the Centre for Social Impact, the inclusion of social innovation in the CRC Program has helped give the idea “legitimacy” in the science field and demonstrates a growing interest in a social focus for more traditional research and business areas.

This is supported by Peacock who says that all bids to the CRC Program have been effected since the inclusion of social innovation, with more focus on the human beings that will actually be making the changes and using the products.

“In many places they have the attitude ‘If I invent it they will come’ but that only works in the movies.

“Since its [social innovation’s] introduction people are more comfortable to include consumer or user based research – so it’s helping right through the design process,” says Peacock.

While it seems the CRC Program is benefiting from the inclusion of social innovation ideas, organisations looking to socially innovate could also benefit from the inclusion of the CRC Program’s ideas.

A unique aspect of the CRC Program is its requirement that a consortium of organisations is formed and that all consortia must include at least one university and one SME. International partners are also encouraged.

The potential for social enterprises to get direct access and support for their endeavours, for example in back-to-work solutions for the long-term unemployed, from the top researchers in the field is surely exciting.

And apart from a CRC partnership there aren’t really that many ways to get that access.

The 2008 review by O’Kane quoted figures that found innovative firms show a strong tendency to collaborate – but with other firms. Of those firms which collaborate, only about 3% do so with government organisations and about 2% with higher education research organisations. Australia’s CRC Program is supposed to bridge the gap between public-sector research capacity and its potential use by innovative Australian firms – particularly SME's looking to punch above their weight.

Social innovation has been confirmed as a priority area again for the next round of CRC Program funding which opened last month.

Australia’s CRC Program has been copied internationally – the question now is whether the inclusion of social innovation will also be copied.