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Good science makes good neighbours in Asia

Good science policy will help bridge gaps in our relationship with Asia. Kalexanderson

AUSTRALIA IN THE ASIAN CENTURY – A series examining Australia’s role in the rapidly transforming Asian region. Delivered in partnership with the Australian government.

Today, Dr Sally Gras considers the importance of Australian science and engineering in developing closer links with our Asian neighbours.

It’s clear, in broad terms, that Australia must engage with Asia to for our future prosperity. But the importance of science and engineering in strengthening our regional ties is often overlooked in public debate.

To state the obvious, science and engineering cross national boundaries. After all, these problem-solving activities affect the quality of our everyday lives.

Think of global issues such as sustainability and energy, the need for clean water and food security, or health issues such as infectious disease and the development of new medicines. These are all identified as priorities by our national science and engineering academies.

The Asian Century has already seen a shifting focus on science and technology. Investment in research and development has increased by more than 20% in China, with growth of more than 10% in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan.

The rate at which Asia develops and adopts technology will continue to accelerate in coming decades, shaping the future prosperity of our region.

Australia’s Asian neighbours see strong investment in research and development as central to their global competitiveness. They’re also ready to engage with Australia on key regional problems underpinned by science and engineering. It’s critical we don’t come to the table empty-handed.

Regional engagement through science and engineering offers Australia economic benefits, increasing our competitiveness and providing returns of about six- to 21-fold long-term.

Such engagement also presents strategic opportunities for soft diplomacy and improved governance.

Commentators in The Conversation have recently highlighted the importance of using soft power to our national advantage.

Cooperation through science and engineering promotes a positive national image and helps to establish long-term international working relationships with benefits for government, academia and industry.

Government reviews have found schemes such as the International Science Linkage program, a competitive funding scheme that connected Australia’s academic workforce internationally, present Australia in a positive and contemporary light.

Schemes supported by the Australia-Korea Foundation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, have also successfully linked younger scientists and engineers, setting in place long-term relationships between the next generation of technical experts.

We need only look at the Colombo Plan for examples of how younger Asians in the region will go on to have future influence.

This plan trained more than 18,000 foreign students in Australia from the 1950s. Doctor Khaw Boon Wan, Singapore’s Minister for National Development, is a former Colombo Plan scholar who completed degrees in engineering and commerce. Other Colombo Plan alumni including Malaysia’s former Chief Minister for Sarawak and Thailand’s former Deputy Education Minister have also occupied high-level regional positions in science or government.

Closer to home, there’s an opportunity to collaborate with Australia’s largest neighbour, Indonesia, which faces problems in hazard assessment, resource management, environmental issues and human health.

Professor James Fox of The Australian National University, for instance, has worked with Indonesian entomologists to advise the Indonesian government on strategies to manage rice infestation by brown planthoppers.

Work of this sort builds much-needed ties with Indonesia and similar approaches can be used to support Australia’s foreign and economic policy objectives.

Bilateral exchange could be greatly assisted by dedicated diplomatic staff in the Asian region. The Australian Academy of Science has called for at least one of the 100 staff based in Australia’s largest embassy in Jakarta to have a role dedicated to Australian-Indonesian science and innovation, with a further three strategic posts across Asia.

There are many steps we could be taking. Within Australia, a national advisory board headed by the Chief Scientist of Australia, Ian Chubb, could set strategic direction and guide investment.

An annual science and innovation watch could advise Australian policy makers, while a science advisor for the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio could provide scientific advice for international forums such as the United Nations and the delivery of treaty obligations.

Is Australia well-prepared for the role of science and engineering in the Asian century?

While programs such as the Australia-China Science and Research Fund provide a welcome focus, we lack a coordinated strategic approach to the Asian region as a whole.

Successful past programs, such as The International Science Linkages Program, which involved China, Indonesia, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have ceased. Without ongoing funding we risk ignoring countries of key economic and scientific importance for Australia, such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea.

The steps above outline how we might better engage with our region. Clearly there is a need for discussion and debate about the role of Australian science and engineering if we are to ensure our prosperity in the Asian Century.

This article is based on a position paper released by the Australian Academy of Science.

This is part seventeen of Australia in the Asian Century. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part One: Want to get ahead this century? Learn an Asian language

Part Two: Australia’s great, untapped resource … Chinese investment

Part Three: Beyond China: Australia and Asia’s northern democracies

Part Four: More than a farm on top of a mine: Australia’s soft power potential in Asia

Part Five: Australia can lead the fight against Asia’s lifestyle disease epidemic

Part Six: Why Australia needs an Asian Century Institute

Part Seven: Taming the tigers: tourism in Asia to become a two-way street

Part Eight: Australia will need a strong constitution for the Asian Century

Part Nine: A focus on skills will allow Australia to reap fruits of its labour

Part Ten: Engaging with Asia? We’ve been here before

Part Eleven: China, India and Australian gas – who controls energy in the Asian Century?

Part Twelve: Dealing with the threat of deadly viruses from Asia

Part Thirteen: Defence agreements with US harm Australia’s reputation in Asia

Part Fourteen: As Asia faces climate change upheaval, how will Australia respond?

Part Fifteen: How Australia can become Asia’s food bowl

Part Sixteen: Terms of trade: live cattle exports in the Asian Century

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