Oz science and technology needs its own Team Australia

"The world will leave us behind," warns Australia's Chief Scientist. We need a game plan, and fast.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

"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.

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