Defence build a huge opportunity

Margaret Lim

Being big is not always a prerequisite for being successful. Just ask the South Australian Chief Scientist Dr Leanna Read: If you place your bets in the right areas where you have a competitive advantage, you will find the best opportunities for growth and job creation.

“Our government, like those in the other smaller states, is fully aware that no-one can do everything or be everything to everyone,” Dr Read said. “So we have to focus, and in that respect [we] came up with 10 Economic Priorities to delve into areas where we really have a good shot at growth.”

Dr Read was referring to the state government’s top 10 Economic Priorities blueprint, unveiled by Premier Jay Weatherill two years ago. She was appointed as Chief Scientist that same year to provide independent advice to the Premier, and the Cabinet on matters of science and research, technology and innovation.

Like her peers in each state, she provides a leadership role in crafting strategies to enhance the contribution of science, technology, research and innovation to the state’s development.

The Defence industry has long been critical to South Australia. It currently employs 27,000 workers (direct and indirect) and contributes around $2 billion to the economy annually. And it is lauded as the cornerstone of the state’s advanced manufacturing future, creating long-term employment, and attracting significant investment and drives innovation.

Case in point: French company DCNS’s successful bid to build 12 submarines in Adelaide is expected to create an estimated 2,800 jobs, where 1,700 will be at government naval shipbuilding enterprise ASC. The Department of State Development is currently mapping the supply chain and research needs related to this Defence build.

“My role will be to facilitate research linkages with industry and encourage the research community to address the needs [of the project]. I will also help to address the gaps in capability that the mapping exercise identifies,” said Dr Read.

“It’s key to encourage the SA research community to develop Defence build-related bids for our research consortium program. This is where we bring together consortia of transdisciplinary researchers and industry to address important research challenges, and develop strategies to translate the findings to industry.”

Mining and energy has typically been important, and she singled out the PACE (Plan for Accelerating Exploration) program as one of the state’s key achievements in leveraging its existing success in mining.

The program was Initially launched as a $22.5 million five-year initiative in 2004 to reset and encourage private sector exploration of new, sustainable mining resources. In 2007, PACE was extended by two years with an additional funding of $8.4 million.

“Not only did the program gave a tremendous boost to the sector, it is now widely used as a benchmark as an exploration initiative,” Dr Read said. The investment was internationally recognised the model has been emulated by other jurisdictions in Australia and overseas.

Moving ahead, the energy sector in particular will be a keen area of focus—or debate—for both the government and community with the release of a report indicating that South Australia can safely participate in the nuclear industry, primarily in a used-nuclear fuel and intermediate-level waste storage facility.

Dr Read’s says South Australia will likely import international waste from nuclear energy plants overseas and store it here, and will be done in “an effective manner that will underpin economic development for the state”.

“[Royal Commissioner] Kevin Scarce has been very involved and consultative throughout the process considering that it’s a contentious and complex opportunity. It’s not the kind of thing you can do with a referendum,” she said.

“The pay-off, if this comes through, is huge,” she added. “The potential is $5 billion to 6 billion dollars a year for the state, which could be transformational. It’s important to think, if it comes about, how we can use that money for broader economic benefit.”

For a small state like South Australia, it is tracking well to capitalise on its existing strengths and opportunities to achieve strategic and quality outcomes.

In the innovation space however, South Australia faces a familiar challenge: how to develop an entrepreneurial, ‘think out of the box’ attitude when it comes to problem-solving. Growth through innovation is thus one of the top 10 Economic Priorities.

In order to produce a solid pipeline of talent and develop robust research capabilities, the government has hatched a science action plan to guide its investment in science, research and innovation to the tune of $170 million per year.

In addition, it will link business and research institutions and create new companies that position South Australia as one of the global STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) leaders.

“For a long time, we have been digging things out of the ground, growing them, and then shipping them outside. The innovative mindset is not in our make-up; we need to go back to our education system.”

Her comments are spot-on. Even for a smaller state that is very strategic and focused on only a few key bets, the ability to adopt new ways of doing things and an entrepreneurial ‘can-do’ attitude remains pivotal if South Australia is going to prosper and maintain leadership in the Australian and global economies.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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