What Will Resurrect Australian Innovation?

Why does it feel like I am about to commit treason against my country? To say anything negative about Australia’s capability to be smart, innovative or punch above its weight is tantamount to punching Phar Lap in the face. But there are things that must be said.

We truly do suck when it comes to innovation.

If you have any doubt, I invite you to try and sell something innovative to an engineer in this country; civil, electrical, structural, mechanical, whoever, take your pick. The experience will leave you more frustrated than trying by yourself, to bang in the last nail on the cross.

Unless the “innovation” has more than 20 years of history, and looks like a Soviet era gadget, you got buckleys. The early adapter channel is thin to the point of being pointless. With such a small economy, getting scale here is a tremendous challenge.

So for the innovator, you have to sell overseas in order to get traction and survive those very nasty early years. With a poor home market and horrifically poor decision making from governments for close to a decade, culminating in ripping the guts out of the CSIRO, we are putting ourselves into a nasty position. Bipartisan stupidity anyone?

Former prime minister Bob Hawke declared Australia as the “clever country” because we worked out how to dry clothes using outdoor air (Hills Hoist), and heat water with the sun (solar hot water).

Okay, I’m being a bit laconic in my praise, we did sort out the bionic ear and cook up the cervical cancer vaccine, along with WiFi (thanks to CSIRO).

But let’s look at some context. I spent 10 years in Sweden, a country full of smarty pants, who gave us dynamite, ball bearings, GSM, propellers, refrigeration, digital telephony, turbo power and the mouse. And that was before lunch.

So the next time I hear someone say that we are “punching above our weight” in science, innovation and technology, I think I might give them a punch in the face, because Australia is way behind the pack that really matters to our economy, other developed nations.

Time to snap out of it.

Earlier this year, Professor Ian Chubb remarked that if Australian science was a cricket team, “you might say we’ve got a few great players but the team is average”.

I have long suspected that we were in trouble. Professor Chubb puts the trouble on a map, marks it with a “X” and lets loose with an air horn. Trouble? See for yourself and read his recommendations for a national science strategy, titled Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future.

1. INVENTIVENESS: In 2011, just 1.5 per cent of Australian firms developed innovations that were new to the world, compared with 10 to 40 per cent in other OECD countries.

2. RISK AVERSE: Fewer than half of Australian businesses identify themselves as innovators.

3. COLLABORATION: Only 3.3 per cent of large Australian businesses collaborate with research organisations, which ranks us 27th among the 34 countries in the OECD for links between research and business.

4. IVORY TOWERS: Fewer than one in three Australian researchers work in industry. In the US, two in three researchers work in business.

5. PLAN: Australia is now the only country in the OECD not to have a national strategy for science and/or technology and/or innovation.

6. EDUCATION: About 40 per cent of our year 7 to year 10 mathematics classes are taught without a qualified mathematics teacher.

To gain a resurrection, the chief scientist’s report makes several recommendations:

1. INNOVATION: Establish an Australian Innovation Board to draw together existing Australian programs and set targets for research and innovation effort.

2. EDUCATION: Offer incentives for students to study unpopular science, maths and IT courses; lift the quality of maths and science teachers in schools; build pathways for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates to work in industry, not just academia. Every primary school should have at least one specialist science teacher.

3. RESEARCH: Adopt a long-term plan for science and research; develop priorities for the nation and support them appropriately.

4. SCIENCE IS GLOBAL: Establish a fund for strong government-to-government linkages for international science collaborations.

Clever county? More like the complacent one. We can’t just keep digging stuff up. It actually feels a tad macabre, like we are digging graves for our innovation. Just in time perhaps to bury it, when it is finally taken off the cross we nailed it to.

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