Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

From Prickly Pears to Quantum Computing: Enjoying the Fruits of Australian Science

By The Hon Karen Andrews MP

The government’s blueprint for scientific research will create a more innovative and entrepreneurial Australia.

This year marks 100 years since the Federal government established the Advisory Council of Science and Industry. Its first research investment was just £250 to explore ways to control the spread of the prickly pear pest invading agricultural land in eastern Australia.

In the ensuing century, the Advisory Council has evolved into what we now know as the CSIRO and a world-class science community has come to flourish in Australia. Today, our universities and public science agencies conduct cutting-edge research that benefits millions of people around the world.

Australia is also consistently ranked in the top ten producers of scientific publications in the world by volume, and our citation impact is above average in almost every discipline. What’s more, an estimated $330 billion of our annual economic output is underpinned by the scientific advances of the past 20–30 years.

With science and technology evolving faster than ever before and the fourth industrial revolution offering unprecedented economic opportunities, cultivating our already strong science community will be vital to assuring Australia’s future prosperity. That’s why the government launched the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), a blueprint for harnessing science, research and ideas to create a more innovative and entrepreneurial Australia. We are investing $1.1 billion over 4 years in NISA, more than half of which is being directed specifically to science initiatives.

Australia is home to some of the best scientists and business minds in the world, but we have the lowest level of collaboration between industry and research sectors in the OECD, so several initiatives in the Agenda are geared towards fostering deeper linkages including:

  • boosting university block grant funding by $50 million per year and reforming incentives to increase rewards for research done in partnership with industry;
  • enabling scientists and industry to engage in long-term planning by investing $2.3 billion over 10 years in critical national research infrastructure;
  • investing $26 million in a ground-breaking silicon-based quantum computing research centre headquartered at the University of NSW; and
  • improving Australia’s international science collaboration through a $36 million Global Innovation Strategy, which includes $22 million seed funding to assist Australian collaborations with international research–industry clusters.

As we transition from the mining boom to the ideas boom, it is vital that there is a strong pipeline of scientists entering the Australian workforce. However, there has been a serious decline in the number of young people studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at senior secondary and tertiary levels, so NISA seeks to:

  • equip young Australians to create and use digital technologies with $51 million to encourage students through online computing challenges and targeted programs, and upskill teachers to implement the digital technologies curriculum;
  • inspire STEM literacy with $48 million to introduce youth prizes in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, and engage Australian children with STEM-based training programs like Little Scientists and events like National Science Week; and
  • increase opportunities for women in STEM with $13 million to expand the Science in Australia Gender Equity pilot, develop a new project based on the Male Champions of Change model, and fund initiatives to promote STEM studies and careers for women, including in entrepreneurship, startups and innovative industries.

These are just a sample of the measures being offered through NISA to strengthen our capabilities in science and research so we can seize the next wave of economic prosperity.

I should emphasise that NISA complements several other initiatives the government is pursuing to strengthen our science community. For example, we have tasked an expert group chaired by the Chief Scientist to develop a 10-year roadmap identifying Australia’s critical national research infrastructure needs.

We are also working with the states and territories to implement a national approach to STEM education via the National STEM School Education Strategy, and we are supporting the $248 million Industry Growth Centres initiative, which is translating our world-class science into commercial success.

As we mark the centenary of Federal government involvement in Australian science, it is worth noting that what began as £250 of research into the prickly pear in 1916 has become a $9.7 billion investment in science, research and innovation in 2015–16. Spanning fields as diverse as quantum computing, manufacturing and biosecurity, this contribution is above the OECD average as a percentage of GDP, and reflects the government’s ongoing commitment to a strong and vibrant science community in Australia.

I thank Australasian Science for its contribution to science in Australia over many decades, and encourage you all to play your part in ensuring that we enjoy a long and fruitful ideas boom.

The Hon. Karen Andrews MP is the Assistant Minister for Science.