For Australia to prosper in the future, government funding and support for science and innovation is crucial, and policy frameworks must ensure that they are nurtured, Lachlan Blackhall writes.
For all the political talk about an ideas boom, the reality is that in the future it will not be enough for Australia to just be the ‘lucky country’. We also need to be an innovative nation. The next eight weeks will see if our politicians have the vision to back up the rhetoric.
Science and innovation are crucial in overcoming the tremendous challenges facing the world today, and offering the opportunity to change our lives for the better. Ongoing political and governmental support of these two areas is vital to securing our future health and wellbeing, underpinning sustainable growth and supporting a knowledge-driven economy that is ready for the century ahead. With the federal election campaign in full swing in Australia, priorities and policies will come into sharp focus.
Understanding the relationship between science and innovation is essential to understanding how the government can properly support these areas. Fundamental science - be it physics, chemistry, biology, or mathematics – is about understanding how the world around us behaves. Armed with this knowledge, science provides the building blocks for finding solutions to our biggest challenges. We cannot solve climate change, for example, without first understanding atmospheric chemistry, nor are we able to design efficient electricity systems for the future without understanding the material properties that allow us to efficiently store energy.
Building upon the fundamental sciences are the applied sciences and engineering. Broadly, these disciplines use the building blocks of science and apply them to real world problems. Almost all the technology that impacts our day-to-day lives emerges from the applied sciences and engineering in this way. As an example, mobile phones would not be possible without an understanding of the basic science around electromagnetic theory, but such devices also require design and manufacturing techniques to be developed.
Innovation then, is the widespread, and typically commercial, deployment of the technology and capabilities emerging from the applied sciences and engineering. In the public and political lexicon, innovation is usually related to the commercialisation of these new technologies and the development of new businesses, and business models. From a political perspective, innovation is also inextricably linked to economic growth and new employment opportunities that arise from these new and exciting technologies and businesses.
In this context it is easy to understand that innovation is built on the foundations of strong fundamental science, engineering, research and development. To support innovation politicians of all stripes need to support science, and to capture the economic value of investment in the basic sciences, governments should ensure that there is support for innovation.
So how can our political leaders turn ideas into reality over the course of the election?
Firstly, they must fund research across all areas of the basic sciences including those that may not be politically expedient from time to time (i.e. climate change).
They also need to find new ways to encourage the community to learn about and study the basic sciences. There is no such thing as an over-educated populace, so government should make it easy for everyone, particularly young people, to obtain the highest level of learning and education, both formally and informally, in these areas. It’s also vital that we recognise that the communication of science to the broader world is key, so funding teaching and outreach in these areas is also imperative.
A forward-thinking government should also provide greater opportunities for university research to be commercialised. Key to this is recognising that many researchers are not always focused on commercialisation, whilst many entrepreneurs do not appreciate the process or importance of research and the basic sciences. Programs and initiatives that help bridge this divide are vital.
Innovation should be encouraged through sensible initiatives supporting the creation, funding and operation of new businesses. Authorities should make it easy to start and run early stage businesses and remove unnecessary red tape that restricts new ventures from being nimble around fundraising, hiring, and operations. The key to early stage business success is time spent in building the business, not navigating excessive regulation or reporting.
There should be a focus on creating policy and regulatory stability. Entrepreneurs are good at optimising new technology and business models to deliver the best outcomes, but they cannot hit a moving target created by political, policy, or regulatory instability.
Success should be shared, by ensuring that economic prosperity and the benefits created by new industries reach the broader community. This requires governments to provide sensible taxation and regulations to ensure that companies contribute back to society as they grow. This is vital to completing the funding cycle and ensuring that ongoing government funding for the basic sciences and innovation is available. It is totally unacceptable for large, profitable businesses not to pay their fair share of taxation.
It’s going to be an interesting election, and one that certainly promises to have a focus on innovation. As a country we need to ensure that this drives our leaders towards policy frameworks that nurture science, technology and innovation, and create the necessary environment for them to drive economic and societal growth and prosperity.
Lachlan Blackhall will be one of the speakers at the second of the weekly ANU & Policy Forum election events on Tuesday 17 May at Crawford School, ‘Science and innovation’.