Oz science and technology needs its own Team Australia

Oz science and technology needs its own Team Australia

Summary: "The world will leave us behind," warns Australia's Chief Scientist. We need a game plan, and fast.

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"Science is a long haul. It is not something that can be turned on or off when we feel like it. And it isn't like a tooth brush: something you can buy when you get there because you forgot to pack one," said Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, delivering the 2014 Jack Beale lecture at the University of New South Wales on Wednesday night.

Chubb is right. But Australia has arrived at the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century without a toothbrush. Actually, to stretch the metaphor beyond breaking point, when it comes to science and technology policy, Australia has forgotten what teeth even are. Decay has set in, and the nation must now bite the future with a wet, gummy mouth.

In OECD countries, between 10 to 40 percent of companies have developed new-to-the-world innovations — except Australia, where it's just 1.5 percent, said Chubb. In OECD countries, on average 60 percent of researchers work in industry — except in Australia, where it's fewer than one in three. And our primary and secondary students sit no higher than the middle of the pack when it comes to science and mathematics literacy.

"Bluntly, we are middle-of-the-road. Not better — not punching above our weight as we so often declare in a fit of misguided and unhelpful enthusiasm," Chubb said. Australian politics must always be explained in sporting terms, it seems.

And why is that?

"Australia is now the only OECD country that does not have a contemporary national science and technology, or innovation strategy."

This is far from being a partisan political problem. Australian governments just don't do science.

Chubb's predecessor as Chief Scientist, Professor Penny Sackett, resigned halfway through her five-year term due to a combination of "personal and professional reasons". She told Senate Estimates that she'd met with prime minister Kevin Rudd for a direct personal briefing only once, and never at all with Julia Gillard.

However things have certainly gotten worse under the Coalition government — starting from day one, when they didn't even bother appointing a Minister for Science. Chubb now reports to the Minister for Industry, Ian Macfarlane.

In May 2014, the federal budget axed eight technology development programs, including Commercialisation Australia (CA), the Innovation Investment Fund (IIF), and the Australian Interactive Games Fund (AIGF).

NICTA's budget was slashed, despite its success in developing gigabit wi-fi and the seL4 proven-correct microkernel — both bound to be huge money-spinners. The R&D Tax Incentive Scheme was cut too, even though it's heavily used by startups. These tax incentives were the one thing keeping startup poster child Shoes of Prey in Australia, for example, rather than moving to the US, according to SmartCompany.

Cuts to CSIRO are killing off research into bowel cancer, Alzheimer's and dementia — even though such things might seem important for the planet's ageing population.

The government has also shut down the Cooperative Research Centre process — which according to Gary Blair, adjunct professor with Edith Cowan University's Security Research Institute, was looking likely to have set up a Cyber Security CRC that would have trained 40 "cyber PhDs".

"If we're going to establish an Australian presence and authority in cyber, then we need a surfeit of capacity, so people have time to build international links and project power into the region. If we only ever have enough for our basic needs, it won't be enough," Blair told Cisco's "Cyber Day" for media and analysts in Sydney last month.

And while cyber isn't everything — and indeed the internet or even information technology isn't everything — The Mandarin publisher Tom Burton has made it very clear what he thinks about the government's level of internet clue.

"In every measurable way, the Australian government is hopeless at understanding the major thrust of the 21st century."

Oh dear.

In his speech, Chubb quoted recent comments by Google Australia's managing director Maile Carnegie, including the observation that 52 percent of graduates of Singapore universities studied science, technology, engineering and maths — that ugly acronym "STEM" — and computer science, compared to a mere 16 percent in Australian.

"The long-term challenge for Australia is how do we, as a minimum, keep pace with the global revolution that is happening? But the more immediate challenge is how to make sure we don't slip further behind," Carnegie told The Australian.

Maybe the government needs this explained in sporting terms.

Australia is losing the race to the future. Australian science and technology needs its own Team Australia — with players, a captain and a game plan, and ideally political managers who understand the basic rules of the game. And if we're going to win, we need to do it smarter, harder and faster than everyone else. The stopwatch is running.

Topics: Security, Government AU, Australia

About

Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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7 comments
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  • Australia has some amazing science

    but the system is degrading at an increasing pace. the country is well set up if the goverrnment supports the 3 main pillars of the Australian science system: Uni research, CSIRO, and industry.
    now, science industry has always been weak in Australia, especially in pharmaceuticals and biotech. especially now with the mining boom fading, fostering this industry needs to be one of the government's #1 focuses. Uni research and CSIRO have traditionally been strong and are responsible for most of Australia's good research reputation, but the latest changes to funding of both are killing them too. CSIRO needs better funding, Unis need better support for housing research, and education needs to stop being cut so we can actually have people to do the research in these places. the grant process needs to be more transparent too.

    unfortunately things are not looking good these days in Australian science. I for one was thinking of coming back to work in Australia but with all the latest cuts and moves in the wrong direction I've pretty much decided to stay in the US. if things don't change more and more Australian scientists will be leaving for the US, Singapore, China and Europe.
    theoilman
  • Australia has some amazing science

    but the system is degrading at an increasing pace. the country is well set up if the goverrnment supports the 3 main pillars of the Australian science system: Uni research, CSIRO, and industry.
    now, science industry has always been weak in Australia, especially in pharmaceuticals and biotech. especially now with the mining boom fading, fostering this industry needs to be one of the government's #1 focuses. Uni research and CSIRO have traditionally been strong and are responsible for most of Australia's good research reputation, but the latest changes to funding of both are killing them too. CSIRO needs better funding, Unis need better support for housing research, and education needs to stop being cut so we can actually have people to do the research in these places. the grant process needs to be more transparent too.

    unfortunately things are not looking good these days in Australian science. I for one was thinking of coming back to work in Australia but with all the latest cuts and moves in the wrong direction I've pretty much decided to stay in the US. if things don't change more and more Australian scientists will be leaving for the US, Singapore, China and Europe.
    theoilman
  • Time travelers.

    This government is taking us back in time. They are so out of touch at so many levels. To sacrifice science and research are just a couple of the very negative actions it has taken that will damage us in the future.
    When the politicians don't understand science and how important it is, what chance do we have in producing scientists that will contribute to solving Australia's and the world's problems?
    Lastofthegoodguys
  • could it be political?

    I may have the wrong impression here but it seems to me that many of the current crop of Australian scientists have hitched themselves to the lefty side of the fence. This especially seems to apply to the government employed ones. It's not a good thing to become overtly political at work. If your flavour matches the government of the day then they can safely ignore you unless they want something. If your flavour is the opposite of the government of the day then you can still be ignored. Even worse, if you speak out then you can lose your funding or have it trimmed to keep you quiet. Same goes for scientists who rely on government grants. You know the ones, all those lefties that lurk in the unis and promote lefty causes. Then they get up at forums and wonder why they are not getting funding. Keep your politics at home girls and life may be easier. Just get on and do the job.

    I pick on the lefties here because they seem to be more in evidence. They had a few years under Labor to come out of the woodwork but the same applies if your politics are on the right.
    bd1235
    • So wrong BD1235

      The Libs are looking back at the 1950's and still think Menzies is the PM. Menzies did the unthinkable and axed millions of $$ for research into CSIRO and other areas. Back then Australia was the place to be for rocket science, computer and other areas. However when Menzies axed the money he was going to invest and instead gave it to primary industries like mining and farming it killed any high tech research. So today we just remain a primary producer while other countries have all the high tech value added industries.
      An example is we export iron ore at say $100 a tonne. Then it goes to country X where it is eventually turned into a TV, computer or mobile phone and then sold back to us at 5 times the price.
      Our education system is a joke when students leave year 12 and have no idea about maths only to find they go to uni to study they do stats 101 which is maths they should have done at school. basically remedial learning the basics as the state education system is failing by both Lib and ALP over the years. When you have students that only do English in the work place as a HSC subject what a joke, they can not even spell or know basic grammar. I worked at a uni and have seen this first hand and wonder where our country is headed as the education level at school has dropped to a pathetic level.
      We need students that do the hard yards and not be taught junk subjects that have no real world use.
      Mudrat70
  • Well done to Prof Chubb for speaking out

    Whilst I cannot claim to be as well researched in the issue in a holistic sense as Professor Chubb, from my persective it feels that way. As an import to Australia from UK (by marriage) and a scientist by training now working in the telecoms sector, I am often dissapointed by the degree of priority the scientific aspects of our raison d'etre are overshadowed by other, to my mind less important aspects of it. It's arguably impossible' to say whether our (Australia's) policy is 'right or wrong' but I know where I stand on the matter and its firmly with Professor Chubb here. It's not something that annoys me necessarily but it definitely disappoints me. To my mind the best hope of a 'solution' would be a more diverse landscape of credible political parties. Beyond that it really is 'up to us'.
    RichSmart
  • Well done to Prof Chubb for speaking out

    Whilst I cannot claim to be as well researched in the issue in a holistic sense as Professor Chubb, from my persective it feels that way. As an import to Australia from UK (by marriage) and a scientist by training now working in the telecoms sector, I am often dissapointed by the degree of priority the scientific aspects of our raison d'etre are overshadowed by other, to my mind less important aspects of it. It's arguably impossible' to say whether our (Australia's) policy is 'right or wrong' but I know where I stand on the matter and its firmly with Professor Chubb here. It's not something that annoys me necessarily but it definitely disappoints me. To my mind the best hope of a 'solution' would be a more diverse landscape of credible political parties. Beyond that it really is 'up to us'.
    RichSmart