Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Engineering Australia’s New Wealth

By Marlene Kanga

It’s time to connect the dots between invention, innovation and the role of engineering.

The decline of traditional manufacturing and the waning resources boom require Australia to develop new sources of wealth generation. As a developed nation with high wage costs and high standards of living, Australia needs to develop new industries that use advanced technologies, require high levels of education and have high barriers to entry. There is no alternative.

Australia spends more than $9 billion on research and development, much of that publicly funded primary research. Powering Ideas, the government’s 2009 blueprint for innovation, set out an agenda for innovation, but subsequent annual reports on our innovation performance have shown little progress. Australia continues to lag our neighbours in Asia, ranking fifth in innovation and in the lower half of OECD nations.

One of the reasons is the failure to fully recognise the importance of industry and the role of engineering in bringing innovations from the laboratory to the market. The latest government plan, which includes establishing innovation precincts in specialised sectors, is tacit acknowledgement of this gap. While research in basic science is the root of innovation, engineering leads to practical realisation of discoveries – it is the tree that bears the fruit for years to come.

It is extraordinary that public perception and policy has failed to connect the dots between invention, innovation and the role of engineering Every aspect of our modern lives is made possible as a result of engineering innovation. Engineering innovations have eliminated diseases and have increased life expectancy, to a greater extent than medical breakthroughs, through the sourcing and supply of clean water and sanitation. Engineering innovation has resulted in technologies that enable the exploitation of mineral resources and the ubiquitous liquid gold that fuels our vehicles.

Engineering innovation has transformed transportation by road and air and enabled the exploration of space by people and machines. Biomedical engineering has pushed the boundaries of medicine so that robots can now outperform experienced surgeons. Smartphones have greater computing power than was used to send men to the Moon. Initial basic research into transistors and semiconductors was all physics, but it is the ingenuity of engineers over the years that have put it together, developing computers that have become incredibly shrinked and are bringing about a revolution not just in information and communication but in our social interactions.

The impact and influence of engineering is recognised all over the world as the profession that delivers the ability to change the world. Developed and developing countries are investing in innovation in engineering to establish and maintain economic leadership in a rapidly changing world. Young people continue to aspire to become engineers: the numbers of engineers graduating in China has more than doubled in the past 10 years with about 700,000 now graduating each year compared with just 6000 in Australia.

Countries like India have recognised the importance of innovation in engineering, and are fast developing a whole generation of entrepreneurs who are developing new technologies appropriate to the needs to the country and their neighbours in Asia and Africa. In the US and the UK, the political leadership has recognised the importance of engineering and technology innovation as the key driver of new economic growth.

Australia cannot afford to be left behind. We have enormous talent in our engineering workforce and have developed many innovations that have been embraced around the world, such as WiFi technology developed by CSIRO.

However, the rights to commercialise the results of too many scientific breakthroughs are sold overseas. Australia is doing the hard work and failing to capitalise on the long-term benefits of its talent and ingenuity.

We need our leaders in business and politics to understand the important role of engineering innovation, and to provide appropriate encouragement to develop and protect our precious intellectual property. There is no doubt that this will need to be the new wealth of Australia.

Professor Marlene Kanga is National President of Engineers Australia.