Australia must make a strategic decision to back its science and technology capabilities by nearly doubling total R&D investment, developing national strategies for emerging areas, and addressing an “alarming slide” in students’ STEM skills, the peak scientist group has said.
It warns Australia is falling behind its international rivals, which are putting STEM sectors at the heart of the COVID recovery and economic growth.
Science & Technology Australia (STA), a peak body representing more than 88,000 scientists and technologists, on Wednesday released a policy vision developed over the last 14 months from discussions with its 85 member organisations.
It will be distributed to the federal and state and territory governments, and outlines long-term, coordinated national policies to make Australia a “STEM superpower” by moving beyond “short-term political and budget cycles”.
“We’re calling upon all decision makers, regardless of what political party they might be, to commit us to a longer term strategy — where is it that we want to be five to 10 years’ time?” STA president, Associate Professor Jeremey Brownlie told InnovationAus.
Prof Brownlie acknowledged such a complex challenge requires decade long, bipartisan planning but said he was “reasonably confident” there is a “deep desire” in the coalition government to address Australia’s research and translation struggles.
The scientist group wants the long-term planning other sector like defence enjoy to be applied to STEM sectors, with coordinated policies and funding ranging from early education through to research commercialisation and tax incentives for continued investment.
The STA plan includes developing a national strategy for science and technology capabilities, a $2.4 billion research translation and commercialisation fund, and nearly doubling annual investment in R&D to 3 per cent of GDP.
Australia’s investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP has declined steadily since 2008 to 1.79 per cent in 2017, according to the latest available ABS data. The level is much lower than the OECD average of 2.36 per cent and far behind leading nations like Israel and South Korea, which invest more than four per cent.
Without more direct investment and incentives for the private sector, Australia will fall further behind international rivals, many of which are ramping up their own R&D investment, according to STA, which describes the 3 per cent goal as “bold but achievable”.
“I think it would have to be through a combination of direct investment by the government as well as through the private sector,” Prof Brownlie told InnovationAus.
“But it is up to government to try and help incentivize investment from the private sector.”
The federal government is currently exploring options to accelerate the translation and commercialisation of university research and the Opposition has expressed principle support for a new initiative.
STA’s new policy vision includes the $2.4 billion translation fund it had hoped would be announced in the May Federal Budget.
Prof Brownlie said the translation fund would quickly sustain itself and start seeding projects.
“I think there’s already a lot of IP that’s generated. I actually think there’s a range of ‘shovel ready’ projects that could be tapped on [and] some investments put forward,” he said.
“[We should] use the fast to fail model and [say] ‘well not all of these investments are going to pay off but let’s try and get more of those back out into the marketplace and then try and innovate.’”
The policy vision also calls for the development of a strategy to extend crucial science and technology capabilities like Quantum computing, AI and machine learning.
STA has also offered to partner with the federal government to develop a program to reverse the “alarming slide” in maths and science skills among Australian school students and promote more diversity in STEM sectors and education.
The group is also calling on the government to bring forward its review of the controversial changes to higher education funding formulas last year which saw student fees for some STEM degrees fall but overall resourcing for STEM degrees also go down.
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