At a time when the position of science in Australia appears low – with public spending cuts, the political hostility to science-based issues, no actual ‘science’ minister for the first time in many years, and with Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane telling scientists to “make yourself relevant” – where lies the future for our science?
Of course, good science continues here, as exemplified by the release of the 25th anniversary of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, with the 2014 winners receiving 15 prizes for outstanding contributions to Australian science. And the journal Nature has just published Assessing Science, showing the strengths of Australian scientific endeavours. The question remains, however, as to where this good science fits in the national development and policy vision. This is not a question unique to Australia; in New Zealand and Canada, public support for science is also facing tough times, but in Britain and China governments are more active in supporting science futures (e.g. through the British innovation system, Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) and the Catapult Centres).
STEM: Australia’s future
In assessing our science and technology outlook, a recent report by the Chief Scientist proposes a plan to improve Australia’s competitiveness through scientific application. The 2 September 2014 report: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future outlines the establishment of an Australian Innovation Board and a fund to support international collaboration, with a more strategic approach to science to build a stronger, more competitive Australia. The Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb AC, notes that Australia is the only OECD country without a science or technology strategy. A new Australian Innovation Board would combine existing Australian programs and target research and innovation efforts, including ensuring "adequate support for public sector research that supports innovation priorities". The report proposes a fund to support "strong Government-to-Government linkages", with a focus on establishing an Asian Area Research Zone and further developing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) relationships with the European Union and United States.
The report focuses on the key areas of building Australia’s competitiveness: supporting education and training; maximising research potential; and strengthening international engagement. Among its other recommendations, the report urges the accelerated integration of STEM experts into industry, business and public sectors. This might be achieved via business assistance programs that facilitate awareness of and use of STEM capability; including commercialisation skills in research training programs; mobility programs across business, research and public sectors that are recognised by research funding bodies, and better incentives for researchers to be actively involved with industry. Professor Chubb says the Australian Government could also support the national interest by "maintaining the pipeline of STEM graduates", and "increasing the recognition of STEM education and careers as a public good”. The Chief Scientist spoke about “Should we trust science?” on 1 October 2014 in a Parliamentary Library Lecture, with a recording available on our website.
Innovate or perish
On 14 October 2014, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Industry released an action plan for Australia’s future, called the Industry, Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda, which included some $12 million to improve STEM in schools, along with a new Commonwealth Science Council.
Meanwhile, in addressing an Enterprise Ireland event, the Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, hinted at the release of the new innovation strategy. He suggested that the Federal Government “innovation statement” is an attempt to make Australia a “global location of choice for advanced ICT (information and communications technology) research and development and commercialisation.” He said that the statement will foster policy to create “an environment where innovation can thrive”. The Minister praised the Australian ICT sector for its contribution to key innovative technologies such as wireless LAN and Wi-Fi, the mapping technology behind Google Maps, and the bionic ear.
On 16 September 2014, the Federal Government announced a Review of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Programme, which has been in operation for about 25 years and has 36 current CRCs covering a wide gamut of technologies and industries. The terms of reference include the following issues:
A. Is the CRC programme the right vehicle for achieving the Government’s priorities for applied science and research? If not, what sort of programme would be more effective?
B. How can the government’s investment in the CRC programme better deliver outcomes for industry?
C. How can the government’s investment in the CRC programme further drive more frequent and more effective collaboration between industry and the research sector?
D. How could contractual and administrative requirements of the CRC programme be streamlined?
E. Is there sufficient demand within the research sector and industry for a programme that builds collaborative structures that facilitate end-user driven research?
With implications for society and the economy, innovative scientific research and development are important themes for the review to pursue.