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Pathways towards continued healthy scientific innovation in Australia

By Robin Batterham - posted Friday, 15 June 2001

For me it is self-evident that science is simply pivotal in shaping our future. My 'science' is shorthand for science, engineering and technology. Think of DNA fingerprinting and what it can do in crime prevention; think of counterfeit-free banknotes, a great Aussie invention and a development out of CSIRO; and think of electronic funds transfer.

There is no doubt science has become more of a mainstream issue than it was in the past. It continues to change the way we work and relax. The Y generation, so I am told, take PCs as an absolutely integral part of their life and would regard being able to surf the net, listen to MP3s or DVDs and use Word to knock out an assignment simultaneously as par for the course.

Today's environment is challenging to say the least. It is the exact antithesis of a world of order - that is, it is turbulent, highly competitive, global and absolutely unrelenting. We used to know of the three certainties of life: birth, death and taxes. Now, of course, we know of the four: birth, death, taxes and change. The requirements for success in this sort of era are for things like agility, speed, ability to seize opportunities, and, of course, productive people who can make decisions on the spot.


Globalisation is delivering increases in living standards for poorer people as well as allowing the rich to gain more. But that increase I would argue is not at the expense of the poor; it is due to an increase in national global net wealth. We really have no choice but to be in that race. I am not going to make any simplistic predictions about the value of the Australian dollar if we don't compete well in that race - I will leave that to the economists. But think about this: knowledge now doubles by some measures of order every seven years. Think of the ramifications of that for children in school as to what we are teaching them, and what relevant and up-to-date material we will use.

It is pretty obvious the 21st century, at least the first half of it, is going to be somewhat dominated by information and communications technology. It is not just faxes, mobile phones, cochlear implants, home banking, improved tax compliance; it is a whole load more than that. Knowledge-based products and an increasing knowledge intensity are the way we are heading. In fact, I would suggest not only are they ubiquitous now, they are going to become even more so. That tells us what our science, engineering and technology base has to provide for and why we need more rather than less.

As Australians our choices in life now ultimately depend on how rapidly and effectively we pursue a more knowledge-intense society. Look at Finland and what it did over a 10-year period or others such as Ireland, Taiwan, Singapore. Each of them made a significant change and are now reaping the benefits of it. I see us doing the same.

Science and its commercial applications through innovation is a key enabler that allows us to develop new products for which the world will pay: finance, transport, agriculture, education, legal services, smart card, the flu vaccine, wireless technology and the like. The track record is there. We just have to see a lot more. But we have to agree that that is the vision that we want for Australia.

Much of our science is indisputably world-class. The challenge for scientists, whether they are working in universities, in government-funded research agencies or in industry for that matter, is to see that their work is ultimately converted into high wage, high value business. In the extreme, if you take that vision as the reality, we have a choice: we can be dynamic and growth-oriented investing in knowledge and setting the framework for our young people; or we can remain a fascinating tourist destination both for us and for overseas visitors. The choice for me is obvious and the next question is: how do we create a much stronger groundswell? Can we concentrate the debate on the best way of getting there?

The federal government has set an excellent major step in setting a new direction with their Innovation Statement: Backing Australia's Ability. My recent review of Australia's science, engineering and technology base and its extensive round of consultations was a fascinating exercise. Together with the results of the National Innovation Summit and its follow-up group, we now see science, engineering and technology much more as a part of popular and business culture. Innovation has even entered the lexicon of scientists and that is a good thing.


Let me turn to four themes which build on the Innovation Statement and which I see as the next steps. First, collaboration. Success in almost all areas of endeavour one way or another comes from teamwork. We already have some excellent building blocks. I would remind you of Bio 21 and the Parkville Strip, the Waite campus in Adelaide, and the Pinjarra Hills Strip. Each individual unit is world-class but, by pulling together as clusters, the ideas have the best chance of moving from the academic world to that of collaboration. The Australian Technology Park in Sydney is another example.

How do we achieve more collaboration and connectivity working across disciplines, engaging with other sectors, in centres that are world leaders in their fields? We can use the opportunities opening up through the Innovation Statement with the Major National Research Facilities, the Centres of Excellence and the expanded Cooperative Research Centres program wherever possible to collaborate so that they are not seen as individual investments. We could also identify competitive advantage in emerging fields that aim to enhance the triple bottom line and identify a driver to gain support. The take-home message here is that, for a small economy such as Australia, collaboration and groupings of excellence should be our preferred path.

The second focus is excellence. We have a limited research dollar. That is very clear. Why would we not want to spend it on research that targets excellence? Economic efficiency alone would suggest that. Lest I be interpreted as an economic rationalist with no passion, let me assure you that there are a host of public interest areas where excellent basic research is still needed. The extraordinary rise in the incidence of childhood asthma in Australia is but one. It is surprising, though, that among the major competitive grant schemes and in our major government funded research agencies, we don't have a research assessment scheme which measures and make publicly available the level of excellence of the research.

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This is an edited extract from Robin Batterham’s National Press Club Address on 9 May 2001. Click here for the full text of the speech.

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About the Author

Professor Robin Batterham AO FREng FAA FTSE is President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and former Australian Chief Scientist.

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