Opinion: Greater R&D investment essential to unlocking our potential as a nation

September 05, 2023

In 2020, Anthony Albanese told the nation science would be essential to future economic growth and could unlock our potential as a country. He was right. But we are yet to unlock that potential because we are not investing enough as a nation in research and development (R&D).

Figures recently published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show national investment in R&D across the economy—business, government, and universities—fell from 1.80% in 2019/20 to 1.68% in 2021/22.

The latest figures continue a 14-year downward trend in national R&D investment, leaving us 21st in the OECD. Already in the bottom half of OECD countries, if we keep going the way we are, in five years’ time Australia will be among the lowest of them all.

This decline is especially concerning because Australia has one of the world’s least differentiated economies—93rd in the world, which places us between Uganda at 92 and Pakistan at 94. This is no place for comfort, nor for complacency.

Australia can and must differentiate the economy. We are overly dependent on exporting unprocessed materials such as agricultural products and natural resources.

Where will we be if climate change-induced weather patterns affect what we can grow, how much and where? Or a decarbonising world lowers its demand for coal and gas.

We must harness the opportunities delivered by science and technology—the fuel for job creation and industry growth. New jobs, new industries, new products, new opportunities. The possibilities are many—we just need the capacity, the will and the leadership.

The Prime Minister acknowledged earlier this month that real, enduring reforms that change a country for the better take time. Investing more in R&D needs us to play the long game. But we need to be in a rush to get to the start line.

Can the Federal Budget afford it? It can’t afford not to. The cost of letting our science base continue to decline is simple: it puts our future at risk.

The recent inter-generational report highlights the challenges down the track. Imagine how much worse they will be if we do not invest in the fabric of change and instead put the future on the credit card and leave it to the future generations to pick up our tab.

Reversing the downward trend of government investment in R&D is not the work of any single budget. Nor can the nation look only to the Federal Government to solve this. It needs to be a national mission: business, all levels of government, philanthropy and universities all need to play their part.

It will take a decade or more of commitment and effort to boost total investment in R&D. Work must start now.

This opinion piece by Professor Chennupati Jagadish, President of the Australian Academy of Science, was first published in The Canberra Times.

© 2024 Australian Academy of Science