For the first time in Australia’s history, its most significant partner for science collaboration will be a country other than America, according to a new ANU paper calling for a systematic review of Australia’s science system to adjust to the shift.
The policy options paper, by director of the Australian National University’s North American Liaison Office Paul Harris, argues the rapidly shifting share of R&D investment away from Australia’s western allies to Asia should prompt the government to “systematically re-think” the Australian science system.
Between 2000 and 2017 Asia’s share of global R&D expenditure grew from 25 per cent to 42 per cent, with corresponding drops in the US and EU, while the rest of the world remained stable. Australia’s total R&D investment has also declined over the past decade.
“The centre of gravity of the global distribution of knowledge has moved east and south,” Mr Harris writes.
He argues this rapid and unprecedented shift of science dollars away from Australia and its closest allies has significant implications for diplomacy and the domestic science system.
“To continue to be a clever country in the New World Order of the 21st century will require not just more scientists, but new ways of thinking about science.”
While Australia’s science model has traditionally included international collaboration, it has been heavily reliant on the US. Its new partners bring new risks, including national security, the paper says.
To ensure the maximum impact while mitigating the risks of new partnerships, the government must develop an overarching strategy for its support of international science, Mr Harris argues.
DFAT should lead the development of the international engagement strategy which was previously underway but stopped in 2018.
Domestic science policy needs a rethink too, according to the ANU diplomat based in Washington. He said the Australian Government has already shown it is willing to experiment with science policy, like the new space agency in 2018 which recognises the benefits of international collaboration, including beyond traditional allies.
But, Mr Harris writes, “This begs a bigger question: why isn’t Australia innovating in other areas of science policy?
“Australia’s Chief Scientist and Chief Defence Scientist should jointly lead a systematic review of current investments and institutions to ensure they are fit-for-purpose to support Australian competitiveness, security and wellbeing.
“A more systematic approach would allow Australia to maintain as many of the benefits as possible of open science, collaboration and international engagement while securing the people and projects that require greater protection.”
Other policy recommendations from the paper include Australia’s intelligence and science communities partnering on a new open-source science and technology analysis capability to inform policy and strategy.
“[Better analysis] would enable the government to more readily tap into high quality and up-to-date technical knowledge. By leveraging data that already exists, the improved analysis would support better decisions about the benefits and risks of science engagement.”