Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Vision for a Science Nation Opens the Door to Our Future

By Margaret Hartley

We need to develop an overarching vision for innovation in Australia.

There are a number of initiatives and policies that the government should pursue as it seeks to meet the recommendations from the Chief Scientist’s paper Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Competitiveness, education and training, research and international engagement are four theme areas where the government could focus when responding to the challenges raised by Prof Ian Chubb.

In seeking informed responses to its Vision for a Science Nation consultation paper – the government’s initial response to Chubb’s work – the government demonstrated its intention to canvas the full spectrum of industry and professional opinion on this key topic.

The government’s intention to develop a whole-of-government integrated policy was the key recommendation from the Science and Technology Policy Statement developed in 2013 by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), which strongly recommended that this policy include an overarching vision to connect the various programs, initiatives and agencies that work across science, research and innovation.

There are aspects of the Vision for a Science Nation paper that deserve support, including a review of the role of the Innovation Australia Board (IAB), initiatives to improve collaboration between researchers and businesses, and reiterating the importance of improving STEM education and teaching and workforce training.

The IAB, as an independent statutory authority, would provide a whole-of-government overview of the translation of science and research towards technology and innovation-led industry applications and new products and processes. The principal roles of the IAB should be to identify impediments companies face when they attempt to innovate, and to administer programs developed to provide support for innovation.

Together with the Commonwealth Science Council (CSC) and the National Science, Technology and Research Committee, an enlivened IAB could help ensure that the government’s strategy and priorities for research–industry engagement and innovation are coherent and mutually reinforcing and also link to the work of the new Industry Growth Centres.

Taking a broader view, Australia can no longer rely on an overseas appetite for its resources. Urgent attention must be given to fostering other sources of growth, including major improvements in productivity in existing industries and innovation to develop new products and services.

Vision for a Science Nation correctly identifies the need for improved competitiveness underpinned by improved STEM education, research and international engagement.

There must be stronger recognition of the integral part STEM plays in growth and more robust measures for improvement. Budget constraints will persist until there is improved economic growth, but resources applied to STEM initiatives must to be regarded as an investment in future growth, not as recurrent expenditure.

Just as enhanced engagement and collaboration between researchers and industry will boost innovation, better collaboration across Australia’s science, research and innovation systems and players – at all levels of government, institutions and enterprise – will boost capability and capacity for sustained science and technology-driven productivity.

Enhanced innovation-driven productivity linked to clear industry sector roadmaps for diversification and growth will directly lead to profitable companies, global competitiveness and economic well-being, accompanied by enhanced social and environmental benefits for Australia.

The government’s intention to develop its final response to Chubb’s paper as a whole-of-government integrated policy in consultation with the CSC is welcome. But the plans and strategies must be backed by a commitment to increase investment in STEM, both by the public and private sectors, to achieve maximum impact – including a practical approach to achieving overarching linkage across the main aspects of our science, research, innovation and industry system.

It is vital that Australia better connects its science and research system with its innovation systems (including incentive programs) and industry development and trade policies. Without this connectivity and overarching vision, silos of policy initiatives will not be able to realise the full potential of efforts or investment.

It is vital that government policy developed from the Vision for a Science Nation consultation paper provides the much-needed linkages.

Dr Margaret Hartley FTSE is Chief Executive of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE). A group of ATSE Fellows is currently reviewing the Academy’s 2013 Science & Technology Policy Statement with a view to producing an overarching vision or master plan for innovation in Australia.