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Five ways to kickstart the STEM economy in Australia

The word “innovation” has taken on a new currency in the Australian research sector. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced major plans to revitalise the research sector, deliver a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focused economy and promote a highly skilled labour market.

New federal minister for industry, innovation and science, Christopher Pyne, has announced a number of new policies to ramp up Australian innovation. Locally, a A$60 million Victorian initiative, LaunchVic, was announced this week to accelerate startup development and create jobs.

And later today the government will be releasing its Innovation Statement, outlining its plans for the future.

In these exciting times, Australian researchers and businesses are being asked to embrace volatility, to disrupt and – most of all – to innovate.

Playing catch up

But if Australia is to become a world leader in research innovation, we need to pay closer attention to the ways in which we can promote, foster and capitalise on the work of Australian researchers, today and into the future.

Australia ranks very respectably for research output, being among the top ten despite our population size lying outside the top 50. Unfortunately, in terms of innovation capacity, we are currently falling far behind our overseas competitors.

For example:

  • According to the Chief Scientist’s report, Science, Technology, Engineering And Mathematics: Australia’s Future, Australia ranks 81st as a converter of raw innovation capability into outputs such as products, wealth and new knowledge

  • In an OECD analysis, Australia is last among 33 countries in terms of large business-to-research collaboration

  • Unlike all other OECD countries, Australia does not yet have a national strategy beyond 2015 for science, technology and/or innovation

  • Only 30% of Australian researchers are employed in business, half the OECD average, and young Australian scientists are leaving the field in droves.

So, if we are serious about realising Australia’s innovation capacity and catching up to our international competitors, a range of strategic approaches is necessary. Here are five key areas where we can build on our capacities for research innovation:

Promote STEM education and training

Participation in science subjects in Australian schools is at the lowest level in 20 years and our ranking in school-level scientific literacy has dropped from 2006 to 2012.

And at the pointy end of science training, most PhD programs do not contain any business or industry component. Federally supported Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are an important exception to this and have delivered industry-experienced graduates and strong commercial outcomes in a wide range of sectors.

Value business collaborations when funding research grants

The vast majority of Australian researchers work for universities, meaning professional promotion and funding outcomes are closely aligned to the number of scientific articles they publish and where their name sits amon the list of authors.

Such a system is not conducive to impactful research and working with business, nor is it an indicator of innovation. Publication quantity has no bearing on, for example, the number of patients successfully treated or how efficient a new solar panel may function.

Rather than enforcing the demoralising “publish or perish” culture within academia, markers of innovation and industry collaboration (such as patents and commercial investment) should also be valued.

A culture of risk

Just as mining and resource exploration are high risk pursuits, Australia must become more comfortable with risk in the STEM and innovation sector. Rather than research teams having to tick all the boxes in terms of “proposal feasibility”, the assessing, managing and taking of risk is critical for Australia to join the ranks of other high performing countries that are characterised by openness to new ideas and bold “blue-sky” research pursuits.

Motivate Australian-generated intellectual property to stay within Australia

European IP hubs that provide tax benefits for profits derived from the exploitation of IP are a threat to Australian innovation. Known as a “patent box” regime, they have quickly spread throughout Europe and are currently under review in the US.

For example, in the UK the general corporate tax rate is 20-21%. Yet the tax on profits derived from the exploitation of IP it is only 10%. Australia’s lack of concessional tax treatment for IP was cited by Melbourne based biopharmaceutical CSL, as a primary reason for its decision to locate its new A$500 million manufacturing facility offshore in Switzerland.

Foster women in STEM

As well as the gender pay gap in science there is a “leaky pipeline” of women in STEM careers. In the US 52% of biology PhD graduates are women, while they make up only 36% of assistant professors and 18% of full professors.

Similar drop-offs in women in senior positions in STEM are seen in Australia. The new Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot is aimed at tackling this gender imbalance and promoting more female academics to senior positions. UK and US initiatives lead the way in this area and Australia must ensure its measures are up to the mark.

Only a collaborative, multifaceted approach will ensure Australia leads, and is not left out of, economic transformation in the global STEM race.

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