Assistant ministers they may be, but they are actively promoting the new innovation agenda for Australia, expounded by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Hearing them speak, it is very obvious that science, technology and innovation policy is in a very different place than it was in Australia under Mr Turnbull’s predecessor.
Mr Roy spoke by video link from Tel Aviv, where he is on a study tour looking at how Israel coordinates technology innovation.
“We’re looking at what we can learn from the Israelis. They are the global gold standard in innovation. They have more startups per capita and more venture capital per capita than anywhere on earth.
“Australia can learn a lot from Israel, but I think we have a lot in common. Both countries have an aspirational mentality, and we tend to support the underdog. The Israelis have what they call chutzpah – they have a go, they are not afraid of failure.
“But Israel invests $400 in venture capital per head of population each year, while Australia invests only $4. They have the synergy between government policy, science and research and industry worked out. Most of all, they know that if you don’t have the entrepreneurship, you don’t have anything.”
Mr Roy said both countries, founded by immigrants, are “magnets for the best and brightest,” but pointed to ways Australia could do more to attract and retain such people.
“I know there are some concerns about 457 visas, about the treatment of digital technology skills, and frustrations with the waiting period.
“We need to recognise that young entrepreneurs operate in a global environment. We could make some changes – our entrepreneur’s visa could be improved so Australia becomes more globally competitive.”
Mr Roy said that his trip to Israel made him realise even more, the importance of the innovation ecosystem.
“Startups are important, but it’s far broader than that. We need a blending of all parts of the spectrum of the innovative ecosystem – high end science, research, business.
“I was struck by how in Israel all the science PhDs have a broad knowledge of entrepreneurship. Their professors know the process because they have been there.”
His comments were in many ways echoed by Karen Andrews, who became Assistant Minister for Science in the Turnbull ministerial reshuffle.
“One thing we do know is that science needs business, business needs science, and Australia needs both,” she said.
“We need to focus on science and research collaboration. The Prime Minister has made it clear he wants a nimble and agile economy, and that in the innovation and science agenda, science should not be a poor cousin.”
Mrs Andrews is not as well-known as the 25 year old Mr Roy, but she is in many ways better credentialed for a technology portfolio. A fellow Queenslander, she was an engineer before becoming an industrial relations lawyer, working at a number of power stations and petrochemical facilities in plant design and maintenance.
She agreed with Mr Roy that while startups are important, Australia also need to recognise the innovation efforts of SMEs.
“They innovate with systems, with processes, with materials – the breadth of Innovation in Australia is astounding.
“But we need to concentrate on our strengths, on what are we good at. I’ve just returned from a visit to Korea and Singapore. There’s a lot happening in Asia in science and innovation.
“There’s a lot happening in Australia too – look at CSIRO, Data61, our CRCs ANSTO, our marine science institutes, but it needs to be a two way street, with industry engaging with researchers.”
She also said the problem needs to be defined differently. “Australia has a bad habit of airing its dirty linen in public and discussing what we don’t do well. We need to change the language to what we do well, and where we have the potential to be world leaders.
“Asia sees Australia as offering leadership in environmental issues like clean waterways and soils technologies, and in health and aging, and pharma. There are many opportunities for these big ticket items if we remain focussed.
“Government industry research collaboration is high on the government’s agenda. We need to form strategic partnerships around the world and commercialise the technologies. That is Australia’s best chance to lift our game – to lift our economy. But there needs to be a longer term view.”
With people of the calibre and passion of Karen Andrews and Wyatt Roy in important innovation portfolios in Australia’s government, that longer term view would seem to be more viable than it has previously been.
InnovationAus.com thanks both Ministers for their involvement in the Open Opportunity Forum.