*** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***
Let me start by acknowledging the traditional owners of land across the country where people are currently participating in this forum and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
And I feel like in speaking to this audience, there is a degree to which I’m preaching to the choir. But what I really want to say is that the topic of this conversation, about how we better build the relationship between universities and research, and the way in which that then integrates with our economy, and develops companies that can employ people.
This isn’t just an interesting topic.
This is really, in my mind, the discussion which is most important, which goes to the heart of the kind of country that we will be in the middle of the century.
And in many respects, I don’t think there is a more important conversation that can be had at any point or anywhere within our economy.
COVID-19, I think for all of us, has been an experience where we’ve kind of felt the weight of history. This is going to be a reference point. We’ll all have felt that decades from now people will look back at this moment and see it as a phenomenon and time that was defining.
And there’ll be lots of lessons that have come from it about who we are as a country, both good and bad.
I think we’ve learnt about the wonder of the Australian community, about helping out neighbours. I think we have learnt that we have functioning government at every level, which has allowed us to get on top of the crisis.
And we’ve got a kind of a broader sense of who’s a hero in our community when we think about retail workers or transport workers, or nurses or aged care workers.
And yet, at the same time, what COVID-19 has exposed is that, as a country, we don’t make things anything like the way that we did eight years ago, we have lost national sovereign industrial capability.
And indeed, the economy as it was going into COVID-19 really wasn’t that flash. We had anaemic growth, we had productivity that was going through the floor, we had record low wage growth.
And we had two million Australians either unemployed or underemployed, two million Australians looking for work.
But perhaps in a more profound sense, we get a lesson from Harvard University’s index of economic complexity. People might be familiar with it – but at one end of the spectrum would be the most simple, agrarian, subsistence-based economy, at the other would be the most high-tech, complex manufacturing, sophisticated services economy.
The first in that index is Japan, Korea is three, Singapore is five, China’s in the top 20, Malaysia is in the top 30. It is, in some ways, an index of modernity.
But what comes from this as well is that, going into the future, countries which are the most high tech, which are the biggest users of human capital, and human innovation, human intellect, they are also the countries which are going to be the wealthiest. So that, in many respects, what this index is, is the most important long-term index of prosperity.
And what we can take from this is that; where lies modernity, lies prosperity. The most modern countries in the world will be the most prosperous.
And so, what’s concerning is when you think about where Australia is on that index. And we’ve really been in freefall. Right now, we rank at eighty-seventh. We’re sandwiched between Uganda and Burkina Faso.
Our economy is much simpler, less complex than it was eight years ago.
And really, taking a step back, that describes a kind of a radically poorer future for our kids and our grandkids in the middle of this century, relative to the prosperity that we have enjoyed now.
And so what comes from this is an urgent call for action in terms of the need for Australia to climb the technological ladder.
Now, there are a number of means by which we do this.
There are a number of indices out there or stats which we obviously have to turn around right now.
Research and Development in Australia continues to trend down, it’s now below 1.8 per cent of our GDP.
Countries like South Korea or Israel continue to increase their R&D spending. Both are now around five per cent of their GDP.
The Global Innovation Index ranks Australia 13th for innovation inputs, that’s a punching at about our weight. But we’re 31st for innovation outputs.
We discover in the way we should, but turning that into dollars is something we struggle to do.
And indeed, when you look at the collaboration between the private sector, and universities and public research – which is really the subject of this conversation – we rank just about at the bottom of the OECD.
Turning science into jobs has been something that we have not been good at.
And we simply need to turn that around.
But what is clear is that when you do commercialise science, it does create jobs and it does create prosperity.
And indeed, when I look at the universities participating in the Australian Technology Network, your work and what you do speaks to this, it is the perfect expression of it.
So, when you look at PainChek which has been developed at Curtin University, an innovative facial recognition platform using artificial intelligence, it’s now in 722 aged care facilities.
When you look at UTS’s Deep Green Biotech Hub, which is about trying to engage in the innovation of algae-based products. In 2019-20, we see 93 businesses supported by this hub, 19 new start-ups occur as a result of the hub.
When you look at Deakin’s HeiQ, which is an innovation, or an enterprise which looks at high tech textiles, that’s now being used in 200 global textile brands.
All of this demonstrates how important commercialising jobs can be.
But we need to be much better at turning that science, that fundamental science, into jobs.
Now, the National Reconstruction Fund, which Labor announced at our National Conference a few weeks ago is the first step in the agenda to try and do better at this.
It’s looking at providing the capital, the funds, which will enable Australia to move down a path of better commercialising our science. It aims at playing to our nation’s strengths.
But it is just the start in an agenda of seeing how we can better commercialise science in this country.
But the point I really want to make today is that the topic that you’re discussing now, trying to understand how we can do this better, is in my mind, the single most important piece of micro economic reform, which faces the nation today.
Underpinning this though, I think, is perhaps an even deeper issue, and that is the place of science and technology within our community.
Right now, in Murchison, Western Australia, an array of 130,000 low frequency antennas is being laid out as part of Australia’s contribution to the Square Kilometre Array telescope, which will be based in Murchison WA as I said, and in Karoo in South Africa. This is perhaps the largest science project which is happening in the world today. It will generate two of the largest computers on earth, twenty-five per cent bigger than any computer which exists in the world today.
One of those will be based at the Pawsey High-Computing Centre – Supercomputing Centre – in Perth.
Think about that.
In the computer age, one of the two biggest computers in the world will be based right here, in Australia.
What the SKA will do is illuminate the heavens in a way that no other radio telescope has done.
It will give us the best answers we have had to the origins of the universe. It will take a leap forward in terms of searching for other parts of the universe where there are planets in Goldilocks Zones, which have biomarkers in their atmospheres.
Identifying that, which many scientists believe will happen in this decade, will be a profound moment in the human story.
All of this is happening in Australia, and yet who knows about it.
Like when was that reported in the Australian?
When do we see that on our TV?
The fact of the matter is that we’ve got the biggest science project in the world today happening in our backyard, and literally no one knows about it.
And so is it any wonder that when you look at the proportion of kids studying maths in year 12, that has declined over the last decade, rather than increased. We’ve only got about half the students who are currently in their final year of schooling studying a science subject. We are sliding down the OECD ladder when it comes to the take up of science in our schools.
Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise, given that we’ve got the biggest science project in the world today in our backyard, and we don’t celebrate it.
And so for me, you know, if our aim is to try and climb the technological ladder, is to be at the cutting edge of modernity, is to try and have that as the basis of our economy going into the middle of the century, it’s unlikely to happen whilst we’re still struggling to turn science into jobs, on the one hand, whilst we’ve got less kids pursuing science on the other, and whilst we still don’t value the place of science within our community in such a profound way, that we don’t even notice when we’re doing the biggest science project in the world today.
And so where that leads me to thinking, is that we need a very different conversation about science and technology in Australia, such that we change the cultural relationship that we have to science.
But I started by saying that we’re preaching to the choir.
And I want to finish by saying that in changing that cultural relationship, you all are really leading the way.
As I said, this is really the most important discussion, I think, which is happening within our economy today.
And it really is time that government starts to celebrate your discovery, your commercialisation, and your success.
So that your example becomes a beacon for national reform which will see Australia climb that technological ladder and future Australians enjoy the same prosperity in the middle of this century that we do now.