Industry and jobs, science and technology
- A sustained and secure translation fund is essential if Australia is to take advantage of its investment in science and develop innovative and technological solutions to the challenges we face in an uncertain and rapidly changing world.
- Australia must introduce a coherent strategy to develop education and training programs along with a variety of career incentives to deliver the highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce required to seize and grow the opportunities offered by a strong science base.
Strong science capability delivers benefits to society; science allows us to learn more about the nature of the world we live in and is at the heart of the options or solutions to many of the major challenges facing our nation and the world.
Fundamental science is the building block for a thriving science sector. Judicious application of the knowledge gained from fundamental science underpins long-term health, security and prosperity for all Australians. The scope is wide: research in chemistry (green steel, new battery technologies, waste disposal), physics (quantum computing and applications), materials science (semiconductors, advanced materials) and geophysics (cost-effective below surface critical-mineral exploration methods) are a few examples. Improvements in our health and state-of-the-art treatment options when we need them have at their core advances in science, and its application.
A research translation fund for the physical, biological and mathematical sciences, like the one that exists for the medical sciences, can harness the full spectrum of science and scale up innovations, turning them into products, services jobs and industries that directly benefit Australians and grow the economy. But this will only be possible if Australia has the skilled workforce to support science and the new opportunities it offers for an economic base fit for a prosperous and secure nation in the 21st century.
A science translation fund
Research translation is the process of turning research into new products, policies or systems, or even opening new directions for research. While Australia has programs in place to support the translation of medical sciences, there are limited options available for physical, biological and mathematical sciences despite this being the basis of many emerging technologies. This is a critical gap in Australia’s research and development pipeline.
Universities have often been identified as the brake in the system – unwilling or unable to ‘commercialise’ their research. Translation needs to be supported by industry, universities and governments. However, policy measures that focus on one component of the pipeline, and an industry culture that is generally reluctant to take the leaps that companies in the US have been willing to take for a long time, are the crux of our dilemma.
It can take years of intense research before technologies emerge that can ‘make it’ in the marketplace. History has shown that it is federally sponsored research that provides the truly ‘patient’ capital needed to carry out basic research and create an environment for the inspired risk-taking that is essential to technological discovery. —A Moment of Truth for America
A properly constructed science translation fund could change the culture. It would not take the place or the funding of fundamental research, from which important outcomes will lead to new products and services. It would provide direct support for translation of research outcomes and draw benefit from the pervasive environment for ‘inspired risk-taking’ so essential if Australia is to do things differently, and better than we have in our history.
The translation fund would also be a step in supporting the interdependencies between and across disciplines, often a bridge too hard to build. It should operate according to best practice governance, including transparency, peer review and clear priorities, and be managed at arm’s length by the government, whilst responding to national priorities.
A national STEM skills strategy to secure future Australian jobs and industries
Secure, sustainable investment in science and its translation to goods and services is the beginning. Australia needs highly skilled generations of researchers, and the skill sets, to harness the opportunities emerging from our research and its application. This requires both education and training. Education to cope with today and the confidence to continue learning as circumstances change, as they surely will during the working lives of coming generations. Training to ensure skill sets relevant to now, including interpersonal skills, working in multi-disciplinary teams, and trade-specific skills so central to making our community work.
The strategy should therefore include the development of an understanding of science from early education through to vocational education and training (VET) and university. Not everyone needs to be a scientist, but everyone should finish school understanding the implications of science in their future.
Address critical workforce needs
Currently Australia faces skills gaps in key areas. For example, the recently published decadal plan for Australian space science identifies that our current workforce lacks the STEM capacity to support the nation’s space industry ambitions.
Our research pipeline starts in school and includes a mid-way point in our research students. In 2020, 55% of human resources devoted to R&D in the higher education sector were postgraduate students. Currently, the stipend provided to PhD students through Commonwealth scholarships is below the poverty line. Mitigating sovereign risk for this nation requires us to ensure a home-grown skilled pipeline of talented researchers. These students are the foundation of our future – a liveable pipeline and real career options beyond rhetorical commitment is key to our future prosperity. How they are prepared, where they are prepared, from school through to vocational education or university, and their relationship with skills-hungry industry is all part of a coherent policy, not band-aid solutions and short-term commitment.
Coherent policy would link all stages of the education and skill development pipeline. Our nation needs a properly developed and funded system, not bits subject to whim and rhetoric with little meaningful commitment to do better by Australia.
Questions to stimulate discussion
- What other cultural or ecosystem changes need to occur to support translation and commercialisation in Australia?
- What role should government, industries and universities play in enabling research translation?
- What opportunities does Australia risk missing out on if research translation is not adequately supported?
This topic’s links to the Sustainable Development Goals:
This document has been produced by the Australian Academy of Science to stimulate debate. Read the official position statements of the Academy.
This feature article from the Australian Academy of Science is part of the ‘Science for Australians’ series where experts are asked to shed light on how science benefits all Australians and how it can be used to inform policy.