Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

International Engagement Is an Essential Strategy

By AATSE

Australia must improve its efforts in international collaboration to optimise its research investment.

Australia’s economic competitiveness and social and environmental well-being depend on translating its science and technology research into industry innovation and application. This process is vitally strengthened through effective international engagement.

Australia has the twelfth largest economy in the world, with a per capita GDP ranked at about seventh. But the ready availability of natural resources leads Australian industries to be configured differently from those in other OECD countries.

Our main industries investing in research and development are the agriculture, mining and finance-business services sectors. Industry in other OECD countries is investing its R&D in chemicals, minerals and information and communications hardware and services.

On the other hand, our strategic R&D is aligned with global trends. Australian research ranks well, based on scientific publications that are highly cited.

Yet Australia does not rate well in global trade competitiveness in science, technology and industry, with large trade deficits in machinery and equipment and in computers, electronics and optical products. Moreover, recent growth in employment has come mainly from the public and private services sectors, rather than from mining, agriculture and manufacturing. Australian investors tend to be more risk-averse than those in other countries.

Internationally, Australia ranks poorly on innovation-related collaboration, with only about 5% of companies involved in international collaboration and 10% in national collaboration. Australia was one of the few countries to have a lower growth rate in royalties and licence fees than in GDP over the past decade. Thus, international engagement is an essential strategy for Australia – an island country with a small population.

Historically, the Australian government has had a long-term commitment to global engagement through bilateral and multilateral agreements, targeted dialogue with other countries and active funding of effective science and technology activities aimed at emerging research leaders and their institutions. For example, we have bilateral science and technology agreements with 33 countries covering all regions of the globe, some of which reflect a continuous government-to-government relationship in science, technology and innovation over many decades.

Despite these relationships we have only two current special country engagement funds – China and India – and no funds for the remaining 31 countries. This risks the excellent science diplomacy of the past. While welcoming the renewal of the special fund with China and its focus on linkages between research, business and industry and alignment with government priorities, Australia needs to further nurture world-class international engagement in education, science and technology, industry and cultural exchange with other strategic regional partners.

The New Colombo Plan is investing $100 million over 5 years to strengthen linkages, leading to generational change in relationships and demonstrating our citizenship of the Asian region.

The recent Free Trade Agreements between Australia and Japan, South Korea and China provide opportunities to enhance Australia’s research, innovation and productivity by enhancing research translation and commercialisation of technology into the marketplace. Business access to these specific markets, especially SMEs, is a vital step in realising this opportunity.

Australia’s economic competitiveness and social and environmental well-being depend on translating scientific and technological research into industry innovation and application. As 97% of global research is undertaken outside Australia, two-way international engagement critically strengthens that translation.

International collaboration provides opportunities to optimise our investments in research and innovation, so it is essential for Australia to value and enhance multinational connections through involvement in relevant high-level activities.

Australia needs a long-term global strategy for science, technology and industry engagement. That plan needs to identify the country partnerships that will assure Australia’s global position and the new partnerships that will afford Australian research and business new opportunities in the future.

Bilateral collaborations are a key mechanism for driving economic prosperity. Research–industry partnerships will deliver better research, better technology and better business opportunities for Australia.

The Australian government should use its prior deep experience in international science and technology collaboration to build on the existing China and India special funds and expand into new partnership funds focused on Australia’s key technology challenges.

This will enhance our collaborative benefits and attract investment into Australia.

Professor Kaye Basford FTSE is a Director of ATSE and chairs its International Strategy Group. She is President of The University of Queensland’s Academic Board and Professor of Biometry. She serves on the Boards of the International Rice Research Institute, Grains Research Foundation, Union College and the Crawford Fund.